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Review: Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj lead an all-star hip-hop festival at Orlando's Amway Center

7

April

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The primary reason I wanted to check out Lil Wayne's concert Wednesday in Orlando was to see how the city's sparkling new Amway Center holds up as a concert venue.

Regular readers of this blog will recall that a number of this summer's top tours, from Bon Jovi to Britney Spears to Usher, are skipping Tampa's St. Pete Times Forum and heading to the Amway Center instead.

You can't really blame them. The $480-million Amway Center is a phenomenal building, with more ritz, glitz and eye-catching excess than any arena I've ever seen. Touchscreen checkers tables? Check. Electronic recycling kiosks? Check. A pair of posh nightclubs with panoramic views of the city -- including one that's open even when the rest of the arena is dark? Double-check.

So there are reasons why an artist might skip Tampa in favor of Orlando. (Click here for my story about the arenas' war on I-4.) But the question is, when you get to the arena, and the lights go out, and the artists come onstage ... is the live concertgoing experience any different? 

The answer: Not really. At least, that was my assessment after watching Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross, Travis Barker and a slew of hip pals stars throw a four-hour, guest-star-studded hip-hop festival Wednesday night.

Weezy (and yes, I'm sure it was him this time) came out at 9 p.m. sharp, emerging from the stage floor as fireworks went off near the top of the arena. Leading off with I'm Goin' In, Bill Gates and Look At me Now, he stirred the crowd into a frenzy in a hurry -- and he appreciated every minute of the love.

"If you came to have a hell of a motherf---ing time, say hell yeah," he said, after thanking the crowd profusely. "Well, ladies and gentlemen, I am your hell of a motherf---ing time."

Then: A Milli. Boom. It was on.

Over the course of the evening, Weezy ripped through parts of at least 30 songs from his neverending catalog -- it was impossible to keep count. He clearly knew what it take to lead an arena show, bringing a multi-tiered set to run through, plus a backing band (who, to be honest, didn't contribute a whole lot throughout the night). Weezy's playfulness came out on songs like Sky's The Limit and Got Money, as he shimmied across the stage and never let the aesthetics and music overwhelm his signature rasp.

Midway through the set, we got our first look at R&B's princess of the moment: Nicki Minaj, wearing a purple Bride of Frankenstein wig and extremely tight jumpsuit.

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Like Weezy, Minaj has an outsized personality, and she can sing a bit when she wants to. But she seems at her best when she's spitting out rhymes on tracks like Roman's Revenge and Did It On Em. She called a pair of fans -- one male, one female, both from Tampa -- up onstage for a lap dance on Sean Kingston's Letting Go.

It's also clear that Minaj wants to be a pop superstar, which was as evident Wednesday as it was during her appearance on Saturday Night Live. The poppy Right Through Me and Save Me were distinct departers from her weird, sexy hip-hop numbers, both blatant appeals for crossover appeal. Granted, Right Through Me is a song that tends to get stuck in your head, but during both Minaj's set and Lil Wayne's, the poppier moments were the ones that dragged the most. When they rapped, everyone was dancing. When a song with blatant crossover appeal came on, the mood got a little slower.

Before Wayne and Minaj came Miami's own Teflon Don, Rick Ross, of whom I've never been a huge fan. The man can own a mic when he wants to, but he's got a voice that simply bludgeons the ear. His renditions of Hustlin' and Aston Martin were typical hard-edged, bass-thumping braggadocio, and that's just how he rolls. No need to reinvent the wheel if the whole crowd is singing and dancing along.

Still, unlike Wayne and Minaj, Ross doesn't seem to care much for the art of showmanship. Ross strolled around at a leisurely pace on a nearly empty stage -- his entire backdrop was just a big banner. Every song ended with the same sound effects: Shattering glass, an air horn and a voice humming "M-M-M-MAYBACH MUSIC..." The best moment of his set when DJ Khaled rolled out for a bar of his smash hit All I Do Is Win. Wish he'd done the whole song.

Arguably the best set of the evening came from Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker and Beastie Boys DJ Mix Master Mike, who performed in the "speakers" of a gigantic boombox in the center of the stage (not quite the spaceship riser we saw when Blink-182 came to Tampa, but still impressive). Barker seems dead-set on elevating the drum solo into a form of performance art, delivering thundering percussion on tracks like the Beasties' So What'cha Want and his own Can a Drummer Get Some. Mix Master is obviously one of the best scratchers alive, and he and Barker have some pretty good taste in up-and-coming rappers, too, bringing out Yelawolf and the Cool Kids to perform a couple of songs during their set.

There were lesser acts, too, most from Weezy's Young Money family. All got their moment in the sun: Singers Porcelain Black and Shanell, rappers Gunplay and Mack Maine and Meek Mill and Lil Twist.

Near the end of the night, we got duets between Weezy and Minaj, Weezy and Khaled and Weezy and Cash Money Records founder Birdman. And of course, this being Lil Wayne's world, things got a little weird when the rapper strapped on a guitar for a bit of rock 'n' roll. I honestly wouldn't have minded if the show had been maybe 20 minutes shorter.

But when Weezy closed with the irresistible hit 6'7', all was forgiven. "Life is a bitch, and death is her sister," Wayne wheezed. "Sleep is the cousin, what a f---in' family picture." Brilliant. If you love Weezy, the drive to Orlando was worth it to hear that song live.

I expect several of you will be paying a visit to the Amway Center in the near future. My advice: Go early, check out the arena and settle in for a great show. Orlando's getting plenty of 'em.

-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*. Photos: Luis Santana, tbt*. Click here for more photos from Wednesday's show.

[Last modified: Thursday, April 7, 2011 5:46pm]

    

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