Lil' Wayne a big letdown on the stage

The Baltimore Sun

Where was he?

After 30 minutes stretched to an hour and then another 45 minutes, it seemed that Lil' Wayne, the acclaimed New Orleans rapper, was going to be a no-show. He was the headliner Wednesday night at 1st Mariner Arena, and it was also the same day his long-awaited album, the pop-driven Tha Carter III, hit stores.

Maybe he was out celebrating the CD release with his homeboys and forgot there was an enthusiastic crowd, some of whom had paid as much as $200 a ticket, waiting to see him perform. Or perhaps the heavily tattooed, pint-sized rapper - whose current single, the naughty "Lollipop," sits atop Billboard's pop charts - wanted to one-up Kanye West in an effort to become hip-hop's biggest diva.

Wayne's handlers had ordered the air conditioning off so that the cool air wouldn't affect the rapper's vocals - nevermind that it had been 98 degrees that day, and the arena was sweltering. But surprisingly the house (which was hardly packed; there were entire upper sections empty) waited patiently as the crew from 92Q spun Baltimore club music and '90s rap cuts onstage.

When Wayne finally arrived, flanked by what appeared to be the entire ninth ward of New Orleans, the rapper offered neither an apology nor an explanation for his tardiness. Instead, he slid into his early hits - "The Block is Hot" and "Fireman" - sounding noticeably slurred. He often bounded across the stage, pulling up his sagging jeans, and interacting more with the enormous entourage behind him than the largely receptive audience.

Wayne didn't perform entire cuts, just snippets. He'd rap as far as the chorus, then dash into another number. None of this seemed to matter to the crowd, though, as the house recited his rhymes line for line, even after he had moved on to another rap.

Although Wayne has been a star in Southern hip-hop for about a decade now, with five gold and platinum albums under his belt, his ascent into the pop stratosphere is relatively new. In the late '90s, he was part of the Hot Boys, the hit New Orleans hip-hop group that launched him. Since going solo in 1999 with the platinum-selling Tha Block is Hot, Wayne has long eclipsed the Hot Boys, and his skills on the mic have flowered, garnering mainstream acclaim.

He is one of the quirkiest rappers around with a slightly wheezing, idiosyncratic flow that glimmers with the funk and jazz inflections he absorbed from the revered music of his native city. Wayne's rhymes are often smoothly witty. But, as he shows on Tha Carter III, he can be poignant. Check out this line from "Tie My Hands," a standout on the new album, that addresses the Hurricane Katrina tragedy: "My whole city underwater, some people still floatin'/And they wonder why black people still votin' .../No governor, no help from the mayor/Just a steady-beatin' heart and a wish and a prayer."

Although the new record is uneven as it tries to balance urban-pop concessions with well-meaning hip-hop experimentation, Wayne's skills still anchor the album. He's certainly not the greatest rapper alive, as he often proclaims. But talent abounds.

None of that translated to the stage, though. Rapping lazily into the mic as the miscellaneous people onstage behind him snapped pictures with their cell phone cameras or talked among themselves, it was clear that Wayne has a lot of growing to do. He may be a monster talent in the studio, but, when he gets around to showing up, he brings nothing remotely interesting to the stage.

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