July 24, 2007

Lil Wayne Concert Review: The Best Rapper Alive?

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This past weekend, I had the chance to go to Pittsburgh’s Summerjam, an afternoon long concert featuring many of today’s hottest artists. The lineup included Wiz Khalifa (who just signed with Warner Brothers), DJ UNK, Mario, Lil Scrappy, Young Jeezy, and Lil Wayne. I was especially excited to see Lil Wayne, whose reputation has ignited over the course of the past year. But many in the hip-hop community still do not accept Lil Wayne as a genuinely talented MC. They see him as a commercial success without the lyrical skill and depth of hip-hop’s legendary figures. This opinion runs counter to those who believe that Lil Wayne truly is the best rapper alive (as he claims) and that he could be one of best rappers ever.

This debate is played out perfectly with one of my friends–we will call him The Politician. The Politician thinks that Lil Wayne is the best talent of today, and that his success is completely warranted. He stresses the importance of flow, style of delivery, use of humor, wordplay, and individual persona in evaluating the rapper. Granted, Lil Wayne does have all of these talents in spades, so much so that they have taken him to the level that rappers do not often reach. One sticking point is his fluidity in mixing up references during his punchlines. For example, on Wayne’s remix of Ballin’, he drops one of his best: “The coup is blue like the do on Marge / I’m ridin’ with a girl prettier than the Debarge” The Politician claims that all of the above criteria are essential in determining greatness, and that Lil Wayne is already one of the 5 best rappers to ever grace the mic.

To The Politician’s credit, he prophetically predicted Lil Wayne’s rise to stardom. On August 6th, 2006, he stated, “Dont let your biases blind you and don’t question the kid. I’m telling you right now before it’s over he will be top five.” Lil Wayne has since occupied the iPods of thousands across the country, and has definitely made his mark on the hip-hop game. He might not be Top 5, but the prediction was close enough: Lil Wayne is officially good enough for one to hold an argument in the debate.

I, however, have held a different opinion of Lil Wayne. I think that while he does bring a lot of style to the microphone, he does not possess the depth, intelligent commentary, or story-telling ability that characterize the best MCs. 2Pac, Biggie, Jay, Nas, all of these guys had that ability and much more. I have listened to a good deal of Lil Wayne, including the Carter 2 in its entirety, and I still do not find that he has much, if any, sophisticated nuance to his rhymes. His skill is largely determined by witty punchlines. Yes, they are witty, but no, they are not profound.

And maybe it’s the ‘Lil’ in front of his name, but I think of him as slightly immature. Oftentimes while listening to his delivery I picture an infant screaming for attention. On the track ‘My Daddy,’ Lil Wayne shrieks “ME! / ME! / IT’S ALL BOUT ME! / IF YA GIRL GOT A VOICE THEN SHE TALKING ‘BOUT ME!” This does not strike me as the kind of self-confident and in-control MC that could be one of hip-hop’s all time best heavyweights.

The debate has now been described. Did my opinion change after the concert?

Yes, but not fully.

I can unabashedly say yes because his performance was the best live performance I have ever seen. The preceding acts got the crowd hyped, especially Wiz Khalifa, Pittsburgh’s best rapper and recent Warner Brothers signee, and Young Jeezy, the platinum selling rapper from Atlanta. With only one act left, the tension began to build. J. Cruz, a DJ from a local Pittsburgh rap station, finally stepped on the mic and proclaimed, “Lil Wayne says he is not coming out until you guys are ready to go crazy.” The arena erupted into thunderous cheering and applause. Then, the siren, the beginning of Weezy’s hit “Fireman,” rang out across the Mellon Arena. The crowd rose in a crescendo of noise, and Lil Wayne burst onto the stage, energetically rapping, “Cuz I’m the Fireman / Fire for Fireman / I got that fire I’m hollering / I got that fire come and try me / You can spark it up and Ima put you out.” It’s important for me to note that Wayne was also decked out in full Pittsburgh regalia, sporting a black and gold Pirates fitted to match a gold tall tee. Part of my newfound appreciation for Weezy was seeing him decked out in my city’s colors–about this I cannot lie.

After doing a few hits and getting the crowd worked up, the beat for “Make it Rain” boomed in the speakers. Lil Wayne rapped the chorus he normally does for the track, but then launched into a freestyle session over the unoccupied beat, dropping a good number of hysterical similes and metaphors. Mellon Arena got even crazier when Lil Wayne started yelling the name of Birdman, and much to everyone’s delight, Birdman walks onto the stage and begins the chorus to ‘Stuntin’ like my Daddy.’ The place was absolutely frenetic, and just when I thought it couldn’t get any louder, the first few notes of DJ Khaled’s ‘We Takin Over’ rang out. Birdman and Wayne did their last verses of the song, and (I surmise) the Pittsburgh crowd at Summerjam officially broke the sound barrier.

The show was trump tight, and I gained a new level of respect for Lil Wayne. I am now definitely a Lil Wayne fan, and will follow his music much more closely. Seeing him in person allowed me to see how far he has come since he was Lil Lil Wayne, despite the image that was engrained in my mind. However, I still cannot deny the fact that Lil Wayne is an entertainer, an incredible one at that, but not a top MC. All credit to The Politician for predicting his rise to fame in the rap game, but Lil Wayne simply does not yet have the goods to be one of the best. Everyone knows that the rap game is at an all-time low, and Lil Wayne is on top of it (much like the heavyweight division in boxing). Being on top of a moment, however, does not mean that you are on top of history. Style does not equate with either intelligence, depth, or the ability to narrate through rhyme. So while I definitely appreciate the skill (style) that Lil Wayne has, he needs to develop some of the more advanced microphone techniques. Only then can we add his name to the list of all-time greats.