Lil Wayne’s remarkable evolution from oddball Southern rapper to global pop superstar may be one of the music business’ most bizarre recent phenomena, and judging from Thursday’s raucous performance to a frenzied crowd at the Gibson Amphitheater, the man at its center has only begun to let his freak flag fly. Whether strapping on a Les Paul and strumming it unamplified, teasing bits from his four allegedly upcoming albums, or reenacting a police search at the hands of a callipygian quartet of dancers, the rapper put on a show every bit as entertaining and schizoid as his recorded output.
For nearly two hours the diminutive New Orleans rapper (nee Dwayne Carter, a.k.a. Weezy F. Baby) rummaged through a deceptively deep back catalogue, relying as much on his shadow discography of mixtapes and one-off collaborations as his last official LP, triple-platinum selling “Tha Carter III.” Arriving onstage to a chorus of flashpots, Wayne ran headfirst into 2008’s inescapable “A Milli,” with the original’s minimalist structure beefed up handily by a five-piece band, as well as R&B belter Shanell.
Onstage, Weezy was a surprisingly cuddly presence, with his dark glasses and zonked-out perma-grin giving him an odd resemblance to Sly Stone. Forgoing most of the traditional hip-hop call-and-response audience interplay, the MC stuck to the script through his front-loaded procession of hits, allowing all the hallmarks of his recorded performances to come through clearly – the blunted, gravelly voice, the inspired non-sequiturs, the bizarre threats of violence punctuated by girlish giggles.
While hip-hop traditionalists may scoff at his freewheeling “Mad-Libs”-style rhymes, Wayne’s fluid flow during renditions of “Let the Beat Build” and “I’m Me” impressed, and he curried favor with West Coast nativists by reciting a few couplets from Tupac’s “Ambitionz az a Ridah” early on. Though his subject matter could use some expanding, he remains one of the few MCs capable of sensibly rhyming “Viagra” with “Adam Sandler,” and “yeast infection” with “geese erection.”
Audience enthusiasm remained at a fever pitch throughout Thursday’s show, although there were indications that the rapper’s restless genre-hopping may become a cause for concern as his career progresses. Intricate mixtape tracks “Sky Is the Limit” and “Kush” seemed to have been directed toward an entirely different audience than crass club bangers “Lollipop” and “Got Money,” and it remains to be seen who, exactly, is the target for the rapper’s long-delayed rock crossover album. Having attained such a wild degree of mainstream success, Weezy seems more interested in following his craziest artistic impulses as far as they’ll go than he is in uniting them into a focused statement, and those waiting for him to hunker down and produce his “Blueprint” or “Supreme Clientele” are likely to be frustrated.
Though he remained the focal point throughout, Wayne was joined by longtime mentor/mediocre rapper Birdman for a couple of tunes, and later allowed all six of his Young Money protégés an extremely brief turn in the spotlight, however none managed to impress in the 90 seconds allotted. Summer sensation Drake was missing in action due to a knee injury, though R&B star Omarion showed up to do a respectable moonwalk during the show-closing Michael Jackson tribute.
Opener Young Jeezy put up a staid 30-minute set, and showed little indication of the qualities that make him such a blogosphere favorite. Offering beats that ran the gamut from A to C, unvarying flows and numbingly repetitive lyrical concerns (how to sell coke, how much money one can make selling coke, things to buy with the money one makes selling coke, etc.), the Atlanta native wore out his welcome quickly.