Savoring a Moment in the Sun, Despite a Court Date
By KELEFA SANNEH
Lil Wayne played Newark Symphony Hall on Sunday.
Rahav Segev for The New York Times
NEWARK — Lil Wayne had three things to explain. No. 1, a religious confession: “I believe in God and his son, Jesus. Do you?” He interpreted the roar as an affirmative response. No. 2, a professional confession: He said he was nothing without the fans, adding, “Make some noise for what you created!” Noise was made. No. 3: Same as No. 2. More noise.
It was Sunday night at Newark Symphony Hall, and a sold-out crowd had been waiting nearly three hours. With increasing impatience, people sat through the warm-up acts or wandered out into the lobby, where they could buy T-shirts that said, “Stop Shootin’,” or pose in front of a giant airbrushed Lil Wayne backdrop ($15 per picture, including a cardboard frame). By the time he arrived onstage it was almost 11, and some people in the crowd were beginning to wonder whether they were going to get their $51.87 to $138.79 worth.
Forget a good or even great show; what they got, instead, was a peculiar, riveting hourlong performance that felt positively historic. A few years ago people chuckled when Lil Wayne, from New Orleans, proclaimed himself the “best rapper alive.” Then he proved it with a series of mixtape releases unequaled in hip-hop. And now he’s pressing on, going somewhere beyond the reach of superlatives.
He spent the night moaning and croaking and rasping his lyrics, picking at a guitar, rapping a cappella and generally being weird. And fans cheered his every idiosyncrasy. Lil Wayne is at the strange, magical point in his career when popular acclaim seems like total freedom, when hyperjudgmental fans suspend judgment, willing to follow their hero wherever he goes, whatever he does. It’s a precarious state of affairs, and by definition temporary. But when it’s happening, it feels as if it could last forever.
Lil Wayne, 25, has been a hip-hop star since his early teens, but his recent emergence as a virtuoso still caught some listeners by surprise. “Dedication” and “Dedication 2,” a couple of mixtapes he made with DJ Drama, kick-started his recent run. And despite a string of guest appearances, his success is measured in (illegal) downloads, not radio spins. He can pack the 2,800-seat Newark Symphony Hall, but he still has never had a Top 10 hit of his own. (His biggest solo single, “Go D.J.,” peaked at No. 14 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart in 2004.) Over and over again on Friday night, fans rapped and sang along to things that had never been officially released.
He emerged in a black leather motorcycle jacket — his version of rock-star chic — but he was shirtless before long. There was no hypeman and no help besides a D.J. (and a brief surprise cameo from Juelz Santana), just Lil Wayne and his words.
“Even bobbleheads tell me yes, yes,” he rapped during “You Ain’t Know,” and he liked the image so much that he giggled instead of finishing the verse.
During one of the astonishing a cappella rhymes, he announced, “I get menstrual/I bleed through the pencil.” And when time came for “Gossip” — one of the few current Lil Wayne tracks that can legally be purchased at iTunes — he snarled the verses (“Don’t believe in me, don’t believe me/I graduated from hungry and made it to greedy”) and then turned girlish to lip-synch the chorus, based on a sped-up sample of the Supremes’ “Stop! In the Name of Love.”
Plenty of listeners have noticed the psychedelic spirit of Lil Wayne’s recent mixtapes, a spirit that may or may not help explain his recent arrest in Arizona on drug possession charges.
“I’ve been criticized for the things I do,” he said in Newark, though there was nary a criticizer in sight. That was a cue: it was time for “I Feel Like Dying,” perhaps the druggiest song he has recorded so far. (It’s the one in which he rhymes, “I can mingle with the stars and throw a party on Mars/I am a prisoner locked up behind Xanax bars.”) Everyone howled along with the refrain, sampled from the South African alt-folk act Henry Ate: “Only once the drugs are done/I feel like dying.”
At the end of the night, after mugging for fans’ cameras and doing sexually suggestive push-ups and hopping around the stage as if he were battling himself, Lil Wayne got serious. “I would love for you to put me in your prayers tonight; I got court in the morning,” he said. He was due in New York, for an appearance stemming from his arrest on weapons possession charges in July, after his last New York area concert, at the Beacon Theater. (The Monday morning court date might explain why he booked himself to play Newark on Sunday night.)
It has been more than two years since Lil Wayne’s last solo album, “Tha Carter II” (Cash Money/Universal). The follow-up, “Tha Carter III,” is due out in April; no doubt the label executives are anxious and optimistic, eager to convert downloaders into paying customers. But the best thing about Lil Wayne’s extraordinary run is that he really seems to be enjoying it. Near the end of the show, he made an unnecessary request. “Can I get the spotlight on me?” He paused. “It is, right? O.K.”
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company