AUSTIN, Texas — Rick Ross had come to South by Southwest, as indeed he goes most places, to boast.
"I just celebrated my fifth No. 1 album," the Miami rapper said Saturday night at the Fader Fort. Last week, Ross's so-so "Mastermind" debuted atop the Billboard 200, beating out competition that included Pharrell Williams' heavily promoted "G I R L" and the Oscar-winning "Frozen" soundtrack. The record, he wrote on Twitter before the show, "contains only the highest grade of execution."
Yet as quick as Ross was to remind the audience of his success — and as quick as his DJ was to remind us that "Mastermind" is available in stores — he appeared determined to provide some context too, pointing out that many of the people who'd been with him on his first No. 1 were no longer around. That was Ross's lead-in to his song "Stay Schemin," which starts out, "Damn, life's so short."
And so was reflection time at SXSW. After "Stay Schemin," Ross was onto "I'm on One," the DJ Khaled song about making "love to the woman of your dreams in a room full of money out in London as she screams."
Prowling a stage populated by members of the 1500 or Nothin band (as well as several cardboard cutouts of his rotund figure), Ross didn't do much Saturday to deepen or develop the idea of who he is; like "Mastermind," his performance was more or less on cruise control, with unremarkable renditions of hits such as "Hustlin'," "I'm Not a Star" and the new album's "The Devil Is a Lie."
"Nobody," Ross's quasi-cover of the Notorious B.I.G.'s "You're Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)," had more swing than Ross usually musters. And 1500 or Nothin gave "B.M.F. (Blowin' Money Fast)" a lively rap-rock crunch that inspired one person in the crowd to join the celebration, as he or she tossed what appeared to be a wad of dollar bills in the air. Mostly, though, Saturday's gig felt like a paycheck — an opportunity, perhaps, for Ross to fill that room out in London with still more dough.
Earlier in the evening, the Fader Fort and its corporate sponsors hosted Julian Casablancas, who had a different (or at least an additional) reason for coming: The frontman of the Strokes was trying out new songs with a band he's calling the Voidz.
With its attendees eager to take ownership of the next big thing, SXSW is a safe space for established stars looking to experiment. And Casablancas was definitely breaking from tradition: Though he sang "Instant Crush," his gleaming collaboration with Daft Punk from last year's hit "Random Access Memories," most of his set Saturday consisted of fast, jagged-edged punk songs that left behind the electro-pop precision of the Strokes' coolly received 2013 album, "Comedown Machine."
The new material preserved the cross-hatched guitars and metronomic tempos of so many Strokes songs, but rather than deliver his lyrics in his familiar deadpan, Casablancas was summoning more intensity here. At one point near the end of his set, he almost fell over — not from the boredom he used to project but from something approaching rage.
Twitter: @mikaelwoodCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun