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'Rock the Mic' performances overload crowd with promos

It was one long "bama" thug extravaganza, loaded with testosterone-soaked raps about street life, sex and drugs that felt authentic and cartoonish all at once. And when the fellas weren't going on and on about narrowly escaping death in the 'hood, puffin' on the best weed, hangin' "in da club," or violating women, they shamelessly plugged coming albums and products. So the concert also felt like a commercial.

You were surrounded by screaming, hip-hopped teens at the 1st Mariner Arena Thursday night as the Rock the Mic tour stopped in town. It's one of the summer's hottest tickets. On Thursday's bill, you got distinct flavors of rap from parts of the country: the South (Bone Crusher), the Midwest (Chingy), Cali (Snoop Dogg) and the Big Apple (Fabolous and 50 Cent). Jay-Z, who has played other dates on the tour, didn't show up in Baltimore.

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Atlanta native Bone Crusher - the real "bama," or black bubba, if you will - flourished on the independent rap scene in his hometown before local star producer Jermaine Dupri caught wind of him. The MC with the mammoth girth and handsome face has been called one of the most arresting rappers to spring from the Dirty South. His album may be consistent and catchy, but his show just puttered along.

Bone Crusher hit the stage first, his gravelly voice barreling through the packed arena. Because he's the rookie on the bill, Crusher didn't get ample time to flex his skills. He gave snippets of songs interspersed with tired, BET's Comic View-like rants about his weight. ("I need a fat man break, y'all. I'm tired.") His hit, "Never Scared," which supposedly refers to his belief in God, sounds more like a cliched riff on squashing a rival. ("Let a choppa go ploooowww to yo' melon/Now the plasma is oozin' outta yo cerebellum ... ") He performed that, his last cut of the evening, at full length.

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The only things that distinguished St. Louis-born Chingy from, say, every other homeboy in the spot were his bling-bling platinum chain and the diamonds gleaming on his wrists. The short, pencil-thin rapper sported the usual urban b-boy attire: hanging-off-the-butt jeans and a XXX-sized jersey with a matching baseball cap turned eastward.

Chingy's rote 20-minute set was the most blatantly commercial of the night. A blank-faced dude in a cap and baggy jeans stood behind Chingy, holding a promotional poster of his boss' album. But if you were unable to see it, you didn't need to worry as the rapper exclaimed after every song as if on cue: "Hey, I'm Chingy. My new album is Jackpot, in stores now."

It was easy to figure out which acts had the platinum plaques. As the show zipped along, the sets got grander. Fabolous performed in front of huge, white, illuminated block letters that spelled out his name. He and his backup MCs and a DJ wore coordinated outfits: black vests emblazoned with a bandana design. The skinny Brooklyn-born Fabolous - who, in his raps, cleverly spotlights his allegiance to his 'hood as he makes concessions to the masses - burst onto the scene in 2001 with "I Can't Deny It." He and his crew gave a very business-like performance as they delivered the hits - nothing more, nothing less.

Busta Rhymes, the hip-hop "senior" on the bill with more than 10 years invested in the game, stormed the stage backed by blinding lights set into bleacher-like risers. And red flames burst from the rear of the stage as Busta erupted into his trademark head-spinning rhymes. His performance, riddled with gratuitous cussing and silly odes to sex and "reefer," didn't serve Busta's admirable skills. He's become this loud, aging rap cartoon who really needs to step up his game musically. Although his volcanic energy is still intact, he doesn't offer much more than mindless party jams such as "What It Is" and "Make It Clap," which are, indeed, hot as they get you on your feet on the first beat. But Busta is capable of so much more.

Snoop Dogg, another 10-year hip-hop figure who waxed his best work years ago, was the most forward-thinking musically. He augmented the DJ's spins and scratches with Snoopadelic, his funky 10-piece band replete with a horn section. His show started off well enough as the reed-thin, telephone-pole-tall rapper strolled down G-Funk memory lane with "Gin and Juice" and "Murder Was the Case." Quickly afterward, though, his performance took a nose dive. Snoop mostly gave stupid impromptu odes to three of his "favorite" things: weed, "hos" (that was his word) and alcohol.

Of course, Snoop couldn't leave the stage without plugging his coming video, Black Girls Gone Buck Wild. A train of 10 voluptuous women in painted-on jeans and itty-bitty torn T-shirts slunk onto the stage, writhing and grinding on each other and Snoop.

The mega-star of the show, glorified thug 50 Cent, gave the most fluid, energetic performance, complete with an elaborate Manhattan-skyline backdrop. Before he rose from behind the fake buildings, the house sat through a mini-film in which a Frank Sinatra impersonator sang "New York, New York" as tourist-friendly images of the Big Apple flashed across the three monitors. Then a gun blast and the clean images stopped. Frank lay on the floor near the microphone, bleeding. Then, a heavy beat pounded through the arena as sirens went off and images of crack fiends, crumbling Twin Towers and other New York decay and disaster took over the monitors.

This was supposed to jolt us into what's real and gritty - the elements that inform 50 Cent's music. He opened with his first hit, "Wanksta," and it wasn't long before his shirt was off.

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He always sounds as if he's chewing his words. You never understand him. But that was cool Thursday night. The bass shook your bones, the beats almost killed your ears. Confetti rained down as 50 Cent launched into the smash "In Da Club." It was all so overdone, so mindless. But, hey, that's how they "rock the mic" these days.


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