A little more than halfway through the first set of his 17-date Green Carpet Tour Friday night, Pittsburgh rapper Wiz Khalifa asked the capacity crowd of 5,500 at the Raleigh Amphitheater to hold up lighters and cell phones. This must have been the first victory for Bics in a decade: From the crowded front rows back to the appropriately green lawn, a few thousand flames flickered in the chilly early April air, outnumbering the cell phones by a ratio of ten to one. After all, you can't smoke 'em if you can't burn 'em, and Friday night, everyone came hoping to be high as the stage lights.
"How many of y'all woke up and got high tonight because you knew I was coming?" Khalifa said early into the show, a sentiment he echoed throughout the night with a dozen variations. There was, between songs, "I'm so fucking high," preceded by "How many of y'all smoke that good weed?" and chased by "Y'all really be fucking with shit around here, don't you?" Even outdoors, the smoke was abundant and cloud-like, as students and undergraduates passed more blunts, joints, and bowls than cans of Bud Light.
Thing is, Khalifa's much more than some stoned and silly dude, more than an entertainer relying on weed puns to elevate pedantic hooks. He's a naturally easygoing performer, a mainstage rapper who stands mostly still to deliver his smart lines, his dancing only the exception to his largely stoic rule. Indeed, Khalifa rhymed from behind sunglasses for the majority of Friday night's show, discarding his layers every few songs.
When he closed the night with his hometown ode and proper hit, "Black and Yellow," he ripped off his tank top to reveal a chest of tattoos and to race around the stage, joining the crowd to chant the anthem's massive hook. It was an energetic coda that underlined just how mellow and modest the gig had been -- no crazy light spectacles or thunder-stealing special guests, minimal requests for crowd participation and no synchronized dances.
Rather, Khalifa just rhymed a lot, sang a little, and expressed his appreciation for the crowd constantly. After thousands joined in for "When I'm Gone," the opener from his just-released major label debut, Rolling Papers, Khalifa beamed as he thanked everyone for paying attention to this long-delayed debut. When he started to rattle off his list of nearly a dozen mixtapes, fans near the stage shouted some of the titles before he could. He nodded approvingly, knowingly: When he last played the area almost exactly a year ago, it was in a club that holds barely more than 500. During the bubblegum "Roll Up," he seemed like a star ready for even bigger stages. Khalifa's perseverance had paid off, and he was taking his star turn with the same casual charm with which he'd hand-built his career.
But opener Mac Miller, a 19-year-old Khalifa protégé also from Pittsburgh, possessed none of the headliner's effortless energy. Instead, Miller huffed and puffed after he finished a short a cappella verse, attempting to play it cool by assuring the surprisingly interested crowd he needed to take a second to set the mood.
Pulling from his four mixtapes, including the recent Best Day Ever, Miller sounded like an amateur who'd won a talent competition more than someone who'd earned a direct support slot on one of the year's biggest hip-hop tours. Miller's beats are flimsy, his rhymes elementary, the sort of cliché windmill you'd expect from a scrawny white kid who seems to subsist only on weed, cereal, and cartoons.
About halfway through his set, Miller asked if anyone in the audience was currently in college. With a smirk bigger than his talent, he told the crowd that he'd tried school, but he just wasn't cut out for that business. Unless, two years from now, Miller wants to be everyone's favorite forgotten rapper, he might consider taking a more academic approach to music. It's always better to graduate than drop out.
The Green Carpet Tour is part of the SPIN-sponsored 2011 Campus Consciousness Tour. See complete dates.