A Night With Stars of Phone and RapUNIONDALE, N.Y. — “T-Pain! Seventeen million ring tones later!”
By KELEFA SANNEH
The boast came from the stage, from T-Pain himself or maybe from one of his protégés. And it summed up a hit-and-miss night that celebrated hip-hop in an age of small stars and big songs. In an era of downloads and diminished expectations, success is measured in increments of $2.49.
This was Winter Fest 2008, a grab-bag concert promoted by the New York hip-hop radio station Hot 97, WQHT-FM. It happened on Friday night here at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, though the arena wasn’t much more than half full. And the biggest name on the bill was Snoop Dogg, the gangsta-rap pioneer who is now the star of “Snoop Dogg’s Father Hood,” a cheerful E! reality show.
Snoop Dogg backstage at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, where he performed as part of the Winter Fest hip-hop concert.
Josh Haner/The New York Times
Snoop Dogg is an indelible star and an outsized character (and, as he demonstrated during his half-hour set, a hip-hop virtuoso). But it’s telling that the headlining slot went to two smaller figures: T-Pain, a low-key figure despite his ubiquitous computer-enhanced refrains, and DJ Khaled, the Palestinian-American D.J. who has evolved into a scrappy hip-hop mogul.
Together these two put on a show that seemed miscellaneous by design. Both are hip-hop hitmakers, though they generally outsource part of the manufacturing process — verse delivery, let’s call it — to that important but beleaguered class of skilled workers known as rappers. (Is there no presidential candidate with a plan to save America’s rhyme industry?) And so a procession of rapping guests arrived onstage: Fabolous, Rick Ross, Fat Joe, Busta Rhymes, Flo Rida. No doubt every one of them envied T-Pain’s ring-tone sales figures.
Fans at Winter Fest 2008 during Snoop Dogg’s set.
Josh Haner/The New York Times
On two albums and many more singles T-Pain has proved himself a studio superhero: the guy behind those robotic refrains is also a canny songwriter and an inventive producer, well aware that absurd lyrics sound even absurder when you croon them. (Exhibit A, from “Bartender”: “She made us drinks to drink/We drunk ’em, got drunk.”) Onstage, though, T-Pain seems downright Clark Kentish. Mild-mannered to a fault, he made small talk (“My ghetto passport is updated weekly,” he explained), conferred with protégés and took a break before nearly every song or snippet. More than once a shocking sound filled the arena: awkward silence.
Still, listeners wanting proof of T-Pain’s influence needed to look no further than the rappers onstage. Flo Rida has yet to release a major-label album, but he already has a smash hit with “Low,” a T-Pain collaboration that has been the No. 1 song in America for nine weeks running. (That’s the longest streak since Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable.”) And Snoop Dogg’s current hit is “Sensual Seduction,” which finds him using a familiar-sounding vocal effect. Perhaps T-Pain had Snoop Dogg in mind when he said, “I know y’all hear a lot of people out here doing the T-Pain thing.” For good measure he delivered a rap with a simple theme: “Stop stealing.”
Earlier the brash rapper Juelz Santana and the elegant R&B singer Trey Songz had each delivered a strong, short solo set. But by the time DJ Khaled bounded onstage, around 10 p.m., cheerful chaos reigned. He led the guest rappers through shout-along versions of “We Takin’ Over” and “I’m So Hood,” from his 2007 indie-label mixtape, “We the Best” (Koch). He recently announced that he is starting a label in partnership with Def Jam Recordings, and he clearly enjoys the role of loud-mouthed big shot.
By the night’s end all of the advertised rappers had appeared except one: Birdman. (No explanation was given.) In exchange listeners got a surprise appearance from Jim Jones, who materialized as the stage was filling up and the sound was cutting off. “I don’t want to be the bad guy,” he said, halfway ominously, before he sulked off.
DJ Khaled wasn’t happy. “We can’t leave it like that,” he said. But by then the music had been cut, semisatisfied customers were wandering out, and it fell to T-Pain to state the obvious. “Well, damn,” he said. “I guess we got to leave it like that.”
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company