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Lil Wayne and T.I. Bring Escapist Fireworks to Post-Trayvon-Verdict Florida

LIl Wayne / Photo by Ian Witlen

The atmosphere seemed gloomy indeed leading up to the Sunday stop of Lil Wayne’s America’s Most Wanted Tour. The outing kicked off a week ago in Birmingham, Alabama and hit the Cruzan Amphitheatre in West Palm Beach, Florida last night, less than 24 hours after a “not guilty” verdict was rendered on the George Zimmerman trial. The thought of peddling party anthems to a stadium full of potential Trayvon Martins — less than 200 miles south of where he was killed — was almost queasy-making. It didn’t help, either, that the Palm Beach County sheriffs assigned to “protect” the venue showed up in tactical gear. Chalk that last bit up to another bit of Floridian bureaucratic cluelessness.

Anyone looking for the evening’s performers to address the country’s heated political climate, though, would have had to look elsewhere. Headliners and openers alike appeared to consciously avoid any mention of Martin — nary a tossed-off “R.I.P.” — and instead, proceed with a tightly produced, happily escapist show that swiftly puttered along about 20 minutes ahead of schedule.

Part of that, though, was due to the fact that 2 Chainz, a marquee name for the rest of the tour, opted out of all of the Florida dates. Tourmate Tyga, too, was a no-show, his slot replaced by a quick DJ-style set by producer Hitboy, performing with a couple of hype men under the name HS 87. Before that came two opening sets spanning a whopping 10 minutes each — by boxing champ Adrian Broner and Oakland up-and-comer G-Eazy. This all meant that co-headliner T.I. effectively became the night’s real warm-up act. He proved more than up to the heart-rate-raising task, though, with a sweaty performance that saw him switching between the roles of bandleader and heartthrob, hamming it up throughout. The Atlanta entertainer gleefully played up his status as just-bad-enough-boy turned pinup, vamping at each end of the stage. In a particularly sweaty climax of the set, right after a rendition of his hit with Rihanna, “Live Your Life” he even ripped away his undershirt, Hulk-style.

Throughout this all, though, his songs got a funky swing courtesy of a six-member band that turned his often mechanized-sounding commercial hits into jams. “Blurred Lines,” which he performed despite the song technically belonging to Robin Thicke, is already funky enough, but here, it became almost a ska ditty. “Whatever You Like,” that synth-y ode to gold-digging, beefed up with power chords. His version of “Bugatti” — yes, another collaboration, this time with Ace Hood — sparkled extra thanks to some shrieking keytar licks.

But while T.I. took a sort of stripped-down, down-home tack with his show — down to his stage set, made to look like a wooden front porch — headliner Lil Wayne, naturally, went for more, more, more: a backdrop of a vaguely apocalyptic city, alight randomly with lasers and creepy projections of gigantic moth; a full band as well as a DJ; booty-shaking backup singers; and a corps of at least eight female dancers with butt cheeks often freely flapping in the wind. Fireworks randomly went off as a handful of pro skaters randomly landed aerials on mini half-pipes.

With the blogosphere eager to pick apart his every move and utterance, Wayne seems to have honed in on perfecting a whiz-bang show with no time for any missteps or even off-the-cuff remarks. The few times he spoke between songs, it was to thank God and his fans, or, at one point, to invite some young women onstage for a mostly PG-rated group dance. Instead, he proceeded through a neat hour and 15 minutes of mostly recent hits from Tha Carter III on — “Days and Days,” “She Will,” even his contribution to the remix of Juicy J’s “Bandz a Make Her Dance.” Throughout, he never relied, like many, on hype men or backing vocal tracks to prop up his spitting speed.

As a live performer, Wayne is simply indefatigable and unafraid to show off his naked voice, even gamely performing a full rendition of the guitar ballad “How to Love.” In fact, given the tepid state of high-budget live rock, Wayne’s show featured more actual live singing than that of many actual “bands.” Given the length and sheer volume of Lil Wayne’s creative output, though, the set list hesitated to dip backwards in history by more than a few years. At one point, Wayne, who’s been rapping on a national level since the ’90s, asked the crowd who had been fans “since way back,” before promising a few throwbacks. Those “throwbacks” were 2008’s “Lollipop” and “Mrs. Officer.”

The only full-on retro moment came towards the end with the requisite appearance by Birdman, who joined his unofficially adopted son for the old Big Tymers hit “Still Fly.” Then Young Money president Mack Maine showed up for the threesome’s verses from the Rich Gang posse cut “Tapout.” But not to be outshone by his few guest stars, Wayne ended everything after their exits with a sequence of sensory overload. For the grand finale of “No Worries,” again, the skateboarders reappeared between rainstorms of fireworks, Wayne using the track’s outro to ride the ramps a few times himself.

With the whole thing ending neatly by 10:30 p.m., this was the cap to an almost squeaky clean, curfew-friendly evening of fun, Kevlar-suited sheriffs be damned. If artists choose not to address larger societal wounds, then the least they can provide is what Wayne did — an escape from reality and a good bang for a fan’s ticket buck.