Wearing a red and black "Dollar Bills" hat, pristine red Chuck Taylors, and an ear-to-ear grin, Lil Wayne took the stage Monday night at his hometown New Orleans Arena, and bowed deeply from the waist. The smile, that stoner giggle that punctuates so many of his tracks, is a trademark for him at this point, and his obvious glee is a huge, if secondary, part of his appeal. He loves this business, and loves being onstage even more, scrambling and bounding around the stage, climbing anything there is to climb -- like Tigger on crank.
That glee stood in stark contrast to Weezy's current streak of ill fate. Early reactions to his upcoming and much-delayed rock crossover album Rebirth have been violently mixed, and the album was leaked, reportedly by a mistake at Amazon.com. Oh, and there's this: Lil Wayne is about to endure his first-ever stint in the slammer -- he'll be sentenced on a weapons charge this February.
How did he deal with these issues? Total avoidance. Weezy didn't talk about his legal issues at all, and largely refrained from performing any of the official or leaked tracks from Rebirth. Instead, he stuck to hits from his biggest record, Tha Carter III, cuts from his 2009 No Ceilings mixtape, trips in the wayback machine to The Leak and Tha Carter II, and a long group set with members of the Young Money Family. It was a good plan for New Orleans, where the audience not only keeps it pretty street -- they also knew him way back when, before all this rock star business.
Weezy tore the room up at the start with a two-fisted combo of "A Milli" and "Got Money" -- even though, with his full live band, "Got Money" suddenly had a bass solo. Props are due to the band: His drummer pounded away straight through, stone-faced and sweaty, and his two guitarists were able enough that Wayne only brought out his beloved axe for a minute. He also displayed kickass comedic timing: A slapstick dry-butt-humping routine with his backup singer after "Mrs. Officer" was worthy of the Marx Brothers.
Guest appearances were less scintillating. Cash Money founder Birdman and Wayne's patron/adoptive daddy Bryan "Baby" Williams (who rocked a Gucci scarf in his back pocket) ripped through snippets of Birdman's recent Pricele$$ album and their Like Father Like Son mixtape. It was an exercise that proved Birdman -- who would look more at home behind a giant mahogany desk, smoking a Cohiba and petting his guns -- is still a better businessman than he is a performer.
Speaking of Cash Money, Weezy's choice to revisit "bounce," the regional rap sound through which the label made its first millis, was time well spent at a hometown gig. "She Is Gone," which quotes an obscure early '90s track by DJ Duck and MC Shorty, went over hot in his hometown (about the only place where anyone knows those songs).
The rest of the Young Money Family segment wasn't as incendiary. Heavy hitters in the camp, like Drake (Weezy rapped his own verse from their collabo "Forever," and moved on) and the foxy, baby-voiced Nicki Minaj were absent, leaving a high-energy gaggle of gangly teens bouncing around the stage. It had the vibe of a really good talent show -- though Wayne, alternately perched on the drum riser or jumping around with them, seemed to be having a blast.
The closet Weezy came to a rock'n'roll moment was on a stripped-down "Let the Beat Build," off The Carter III. With any luck, the image of lighters waving and cellphones flickering will warm Weezy's heart on cold nights in the big house.
Lil Wayne's setlist:
Money On My Mind
I Can Transform Ya
Money To Blow
Pass That Dutch
She Is Gone
Every Girl In The World
Let the Beat Build