At the end of his hour-plus set Sunday night at the Gibson Amphitheatre, Lil Wayne, the most popular rapper in the world, performed a curtain call to the familiar strains of Whitney Houston's rendition of "I Will Always Love You." Wrapped in a navy blue terry-cloth bath robe, Wayne hammed it up for the adoring crowd: arms outstretched, blowing kisses, imperiously bowing. Thanking his audience, the impish New Orleans rapper declared, "I ain't [nothing] without you."
In response, the teeming, teenage mob erupted into roaring refrain, chanting "Weezy" over and over until the house lights flickered to life. The scene was closer to Beatlemania or hormonal boy band bliss than the average rap show.
Of course, Lil Wayne is many things, but average isn't one of them. A syrup-swilling, swaggering streak of energy, Wayne has his trademark combination of id and idiosyncrasy to thank for his popularity. Few contemporary phenomena are as celebrated or as strange as the cult of Wayne -- over the course of the last three years, he has transformed himself from lightweight Southern gangsta rapper into one of pop music's driving forces.
Headlining the sold-out Gibson in the first of two successive L.A. performances, Wayne's revamped stage show reflected the expectations created when an artist sells 2.5 million copies of his latest album ("Tha Carter III") and in the process emerges as prima facie evidence that the music industry isn't a ghost just yet.
Trading the slurring anarchy that often prevailed earlier in his career for a five-piece backing band and predetermined set list, Wayne's evolution jibes with his ascent to the title of 2008's rock star of the year (according to Spin magazine).
This is arena rap and a toned-down Wayne, who even apologized for cursing because he knew that children were in the audience.
The phantom pelvic pantomimes and casual misogyny were muted in favor of quasi-conservative paeans to the Lord's power and a pressing desire to exhibit his abyssal catalog.
Alternately supported by his superfluous Young Money Crew, the set occasionally assumed a too-relaxed victory lap air, with Wayne so assured of the crowd's rapture that he repeatedly slipped away to allow his underlings time to shine -- or took a self-indulgent moment to flex his less than dazzling guitar chops.
But more often, the performance veered triumphal, with cuts from "Tha Carter III" -- "Shoot Me Down," "Misunderstood" and "Mr. Carter" -- galvanized by wailing guitar solos and bruising drum kicks. Whipping his dreadlocks and leaping across the stage, Wayne prodded the crowd: "How many of y'all have my mix-tapes?" (All of them, it seemed).
Making sure not to ignore his roots, he faithfully rendered "Tha Block Is Hot," the titular track of his first solo record, and "Go DJ," from "Tha Carter." Perhaps predictably, the ubiquitous "Carter III" singles, "Lollipop" and "A Milli," elicited the most cacophonous cries.
In fact, the only person capable of usurping even a fraction of attention from Wayne was co-headliner T-Pain, who joined his diminutive partner for a jubilant rendition of "Got Money."
Deeming himself "the ringleader" for his ability to steer the industry, the Tallahassee native's baroque, Auto-Tune-laden production has become a pop meme -- so it was little surprise that much of his 45-minute opening set had the feel of a Cliffs Notes of contemporary Top 40, with non-T-Pain-affiliated songs like "Pop Champagne" and "Arab Money" interspersed with his hit singles, "Buy U a Drank" and his track with Flo Rida, "Low."
Employing a circus motif -- complete with dancing girls on stilts, stripping and break-dancing midgets (including one who resembled Britney Spears) and a fire-breathing woman -- few acts come more shamelessly entertaining or as singularly bizarre than the top-hat-clad Dr. Seuss of R&B.