Last summer, rapper Lil Wayne was ruling the charts with "Tha Carter III," the critically acclaimed full-length effort that sold more than a million copies in its first week of release. The sprawling opus delivered two singles that showcased the New Orleans native's eccentric brilliancy: "Lollipop" coiled with slithery robot charisma while "A Milli" highlighted his cunning wordplay.
This summer finds Wayne in a different situation. Though he considers himself the "greatest rapper alive," the performer sometimes known as Weezy F. Baby has crafted a rock album that's been delayed for months. Delays are nothing new in the Wayneverse, but some are whispering that "Rebirth" would be better kept in the womb.
Despite his current struggles, Lil Wayne rescued an evening of perfunctory hip-hop at Young Money Entertainment's showcase Thursday at the Gibson Amphitheatre. Billed as America's Most Wanted Music Festival, the event, which featured a number of chart-topping artists, was less festival and more grind, as act after act took to the stage, starting with 10-minute performances from Jeremih and Pleasure P.
By the time Soulja Boy Tell 'Em jumped onstage, the crowd, made up of college-age couples, groups of friends and little kids in sideways baseball caps, was clamoring to direct its energy in support of a more dynamic entertainer. (As it happens, the crowd would have to wait for the headliner.)
With his dimples and jewel-encrusted toy car slung around his neck, Atlanta's Soulja Boy is like a Tiger Beat cover boy for the baby gangsta set -- who else could tell the audience "let's get silly," only to follow it up with overdubbed gunshots? Soulja Boy's disjointed set reached its peak when he flirted with his crowd, sans hype men, for his latest hit, "Kiss Me Thru the Phone."
Young Jeezy, eyes flashing with mischief, tried to add depth to his set with between-song banter. At one point he said something about cleaning up Congress, but he seemed almost embarrassed to be breaking the spell of unfettered hit-touting. It's obvious from Jeezy's Obama-celebrating "My President" that politics matters to him; hopefully he'll become more confident expressing his opinions.
Mr. Carter, on the other hand, is a stranger to such abashment. It makes his show a wondrous spectacle of ego transcendent and an eye-roll-inducing exercise in redundancy.
So many times and in so many ways does Lil Wayne celebrate his perceived excellence that one hardly feels motivated to comment further on his artistic abilities, considerable though they might be.
Still, the audience roared, if only to cheer on the first act of the night to fully embrace the grandeur of performance. Granted, Lil Wayne got to use the best tricks and toys, including flashing screens, pyrotechnic eruptions of smoke and fire and a band that included live drums, guitars and a small horn section.
Skipping around the stage in head-to-toe L.A. Kings gear, his version of "A Milli" was obsessive but not cold.
At one point, images of Lil Wayne's favorite rappers beamed overhead -- T.I., Jay-Z, Kanye West and, not surprisingly, himself. "I feel big," he said, looking up at the quartet. "I can sense the weight."
Later, the phrase "best rapper alive" was repeated eight times on giant screens, punctuated by no fewer than six stars per line. Clearly three stars would've been inadequate.
At least Wayne's generosity extends beyond himself: He introduced several proteges and affiliates of the Young Money record label, including the mohawked Lil Twist and L.A.'s Tyga, allowing each to offer a sample of his stock and trade onstage.
Afterward, Wayne squeezed in a few more songs, including an abridged "Tie My Hands," but the magic was mostly gone.