Monday, December 29, 2008

I Paid 80 Bucks To See a ZOMBIE

Unlike the Morlocks, Lil Wayne's threats of cannibalism are only figurative - I think.

So tonight I saw Lil Wayne in concert. I don't really have much insightful to say about his performance that Mr. Weiss didn't say about what sounds like a pretty much identical one out in LA, but I suppose I owe my several readers some pontification on these things. As I've implied before, I do believe that Wayne is the best rapper out right now (I like to avoid the best rapper alive terminology as there are any number of rappers who were once better than Wayne who are still alive, or are still pretty good, like Face or Ghostface, and have a way better body of work), though that isn't to say I'm a huge fan of the guy or even listen to his mixtapes, just that we live in an era where a somewhat more talented version of early Busta Rhymes is the best thing going.

Before Wayne came out we were subjected to Keri Hilson, the Gym Class Heroes, and Keyshia Cole, and the contrast was instructive. Keri's an interesting artist in theory, has a pretty great single out, has way more talent, I suppose, than a lot of the other poppier female r&b singers, but live she was just abysmal. Horrible dancing, no charisma whatsoever, lots of stale "how are you today, Philly?" talk - a real bore. Gym Class Heroes' front-man was a huge douchebag. Keyshia was a more mixed case. She sings with a great deal of passion, but on stage she's hampered by her, shall we say, unconventional looks, her very unsexy attempts at sexily slinking around her stage set in some outfit out of Chicago, and, of course, the fact that none of her songs are actually any good. Though I know people disagree on this, but to me she's like a less gifted (though in some ways much more likeable) MJB if MJB couldn't write.

Then Wayne came out. The first thing you notice about the guy is how tiny he is. Wayne performs with a band now, so one guy after another descended from the ceiling with a guitar or a cello or what have you, so everyone's looking around trying to figure out where Wayne is hiding and when he's going to drop from the roof when all of a sudden you see this quasi-midget standing on a corner of the stage. The second thing I noticed is that he was wearing a backpack. (Later he wore this 'Hipsters' t-shirt; I'm not sure what it means.) Interesting. It occurred to me that, while today's backpackers certainly wouldn't, and don't, claim Wayne as one of their own, isn't Wayne very much in keeping with the origins of the backpack rap movement? If most historians of this shit date backpack rap back to Black Moon and Buckshot Shorty, isn't there a ton of similarity between Wayne and him? The same affability, childlike persona, amazing flow, lyrics that didn't mean much if anything, were often kinda bizarre ("bring the ammo, so I can play Rambo, when I shoot the crossbow inside the hoe") and sometimes weren't any good? How did we reach the point when that stuff was officially designated as Real Hip-Hop, while some still struggle to deem Wayne as such? From the rapping end of things - just the rapping end, not the production - is there that big a difference between "Who Got Da Props" ("suckers, I kick em like tae kwon do") and "Got Money," "A Milli," "Fireman," or "Go DJ," other than that the slang has changed a little? To me, Wayne's bringing back the playfulness in rap that we haven't really seen in a big way since the Native Tongues and Hit Squad. And though there are very important differences - Wayne's working within the constraints of a lot of boring rap cliches that weren't around to such an oppressive extent in the early 90s, has markedly inferior production than those guys did (isn't it a shame that Mannie left/fell off before Wayne became a great rapper?), and doesn't talk about nearly as much as they did (that is, Wayne has no "Millie Pulled a Pistol On Santa," or even a "Bitties in the BK Lounge," a song that doesn't have a Message, like the former, but is a deft portrayal of a certain setting and the sorts of class/sexual tensions that go on there - Wayne just talks about, as he puts it, Wayne's World, a world that's very much solely composed of whatever's in Wayne's little headspace) - he is diffusing, on the one hand, the mean muggery of gangsta rap and the pointy-headed "we're thinking deep thoughts/practicing the Lost Art of Real Hip-Hop" bullshit of backpack rap on the other, and that is very backpackerish in the original Buckshot/Das EFX sense, and something for which the guy deserves to be praised.

Another thing you notice about Wayne in person is how ugly he is. I suppose I didn't need to see him in person to realize that, but it is a little more noticeable when he's right in front of you. The weird thing about Wayne's bad looks and slight frame is that he plays them for assets - he's always making strange gremlin faces, ripping off his shirt, writhing around on the floor, lifting his shades to make a point, etc. Of course, we've had many rappers who've used their bad looks to lend a certain air of nobility or heft to their persona, like a Jay-Z or a Biggie, but what Wayne does isn't like that at all - it's much more in the Bushwick Bill/Flava Flav tradition, the tradition of the endearingly tiny hideous dude who bounces around the stage and throws his weird looks in your face. Which carries over into another thing you notice about Wayne in person. He's very modest, very humble. He brags a lot, of course, he's very confident, but not at all arrogant or egotistical in the mold of a Jay, a T.I., a Cam, a Jim Jones, a Nas, a Kanye, etc. He's never mean-spirited, not when he talks about haters (to the extent that he ever does), or the proverbial unidentified "you" that every rapper loves to remind is so much poorer/softer/less swamped in ass than he is, or women. Other rappers crack jokes about sluts, sneer at them, or angrily denigrate them; Wayne would love you even if you were a prostitute. The tone of something like Fabolous's "Breathe" is alien to him. There's simply a degree of kindness, friendliness, warmth, that's almost unique to Wayne in the contemporary rap scene and doesn't get talked about much. His praying for the audience, though it seemed a bit like a tired gimmick that he'd been doing all tour long, is a part of that. In conclusion, I'm still not sold on Wayne as a Great Rapper, and probably never will be, but I was left with a much deeper appreciation for the guy and his work.


Badmon3333 said...

I have no beef with Wayne as a modern incarnation of the backpack movement, mixed in with a splash of Kool Keith.

My beef is mainly with his choice of production. If he wants to get serious about the abstract-stream-of-conscious-rapper-alien steez, why not GO the Kool Keith route and hook up with someone like Automator or Kutmasta Kurt who have been laying down paranoid, off-kilter grooves for years?

Even with a band, it still must be nice to see a rap show without a bazillion motherfuckers on stage screaming. My boy was trying to get me to see the Wu-Tang show over Christmas in Pittsburgh, but a) they're 10 years past their prime, b) Meth wasn't there and c) Cappadonna WAS.

tray said...

Well, there were a number of folks on stage screaming - not quite a bazillion, but everyone on his crappy last mixtape.

Badmon3333 said...

It's the one thing that really bugs me about hip-hop shows. I was so amped for the original Red/Meth 'Blackout' tour back in the day, but it was terrible 'cause they were at this little-ass club with about a dozen dudes onstage. BOO.

Walkmaster Flex said...

that hipsters t-shirt is a take on the comment that every one that wears kefiyyehs these days are hipsters

tray said...

There are people who wear keffiyehs?

Jesus Shuttlesworth said...

There are people who wear keffiyehs?

those people are everywhere. well, not Durham, I guess, but they certainly exist in philly. and sparingly in boston, but there are few hipsters at BU and BC. the 'artsy' part of town is full of those things.

tray said...

I'm back in Philly but I mainly stay in the suburbs. Why, though, do the hipsters on the shirt have huge guns?