Drake vs. Lil Wayne Gexa Energy Pavilion, Dallas Sunday, September 7, 2014
Cards on the table, I think Drake is shit. For the life of me I can't see the appeal, and it's not for lack of trying. I've peered inside the music, taken a few strolls, and always came out empty handed. However, I suppose credit is due his way, if only for the fact that he's brought emotional fragility (along with his childlike dopey-ness) to a genre notorious for its unsympathetic personalities. There's never been much room for sensuality in hip hop.
Still, for my money, both musically and artistically, Drake's a flaccid and ineffectual voice. With each new effort, he seems ever more a momentary flash, a success born of the present 'Black Hippy,' conscious rap vogue. That is, Drake is a poor man's backpack era MC, only devoid of the spiraling productions and florid wordplay that made those artists so very important in the first place.
Cards on the table, I think Lil Wayne is a genius (any hip hop head who dismisses Tha Carter III is not to be trusted). Apart from Eminem and possibly André 3000, he's to my mind (arguably) the most technically gifted MC in the history of the genre. Sure, there's a free-associative stream-of-consciousness to his craft that often renders his output awkward, at the very least highly inconsistent. But that's the crux of his brilliance.
It's in lieu of this vomitific, unedited manner of expression (not dissimilar to Ornette Coleman's sax or Ginsberg's pen) that Lil Wayne has become a central influence in contemporary music. Which, when you think about it, explains why the New Orleans rapper's best efforts came in the three-year aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; life changing experiences, particularly tragic ones, are the lifeblood of artists who operate sans filters. As the writer David Ramsey put it, "Wayne's artistic persona is a testament to damage."
The obvious contrasts between the two artists are what make the proposition of a joint tour so appealing. You have the mentor in Wayne and the protégé in Drake; the troubled workaholic and the sensitive soul; a street-for-life rapper and a suburban-friendly MC. The recent tour has been staged as a head-to-head clash, "Drake vs. Lil Wayne," complete with a Capcom sponsored Street Fighter theme and an iTunes app that allows the audience to vote for a winner. As corny as it sounds, the gimmick was quite satisfying when the show hit Dallas last night at Gexa Energy Pavilion, often creating a palpable sense of anticipation and narrative. In fact, in nearly every respect, the night was a triumph.
Sonically and visually, the concert was a spectacle worthy of Gexa's grand stage. Lasers danced like ethereal ribbons in the air, hyper-colored graphics (including animated versions of Lil Wayne and Drake) blanketed 50-foot screens, fire and fog billowed, and HD projections like spilling neon lava bubbled perpetually amidst the stage's backdrop. Each dramatic pause was stamped with digital thunder; each performance turn was marked by canon-like fireworks.
The MCs performed in turns. And on this night, each was on his game. Lil Wayne began the 'battle," taking the stage first. In truth, there's something unsettling at how inhuman Lil Wayne looks in person. He's wrapped in ink, of course, quite literally every inch of him, but that's actually the least unusual feature of his appearance. In a very obvious way, he really looks like a creature, some sort of harmless monster. He has a shark-tooth grin of sparkling jewels, a bushel of hair like snakes, smoky breath (I counted three blunts last night) and a physique carved from marble--unnaturally proportional, buffered at each wiry angle. When he grinned that wide and toothy Lil Wayne grin following the close of his mini-performance opener, he looked simultaneously sinister, geeky and mischievous.
Far removed from his opponent's larger-than-life theatricality, Drake made his debut in full normcore attire -- plain grey t-shirt, unremarkable jeans, thin gold necklace -- looking like everybody's older brother or second-best friend. The reception he received was noticeably fuller than that of Wayne's; Dallas is clearly a pro-Drake town.
After several rounds of back-and-forth, including a turn that saw Drake ride a roaming platform over the Gexa Pavilion crowd, Drake and Wayne engaged in a faster-paced exchange that saw them take the stage together (think a glorified house party rap contest). Wedged in these moments was the only lackluster portion of the event, a DJ Battle between Lil Wayne's charge and Drake's, which only served to stultify Gexa's frenzied buzz.
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From the audience reactions, as well as the official "Drake vs. Lil Wayne" app, Drake stole the night. From this very biased writer's perspective, Lil Wayne was the victor. I could give you a setlist, but really the two MCs made this part easy on me: they played essentially every one of their hits (both commercially and critically). In fact, this was in large part why Drake seemed so overmatched. When you set an unusually prolific veteran's singles up against a relative newcomer, the results are sure to be uneven. As you might expect, Lil Wayne was quick to highlight this: "Drake, there's a difference between hits and classics."
Following Drake's official victory, the final portion of the concert was a collaborative venture, with the friends performing recent singles alongside each other (including Drake's "HYFR" and new Carter V teaser "Believe Me"). Somewhere in these final moments, Lil Wayne, magnified by the stage-side jumbotrons, for one reason or another, removed his sunglasses. What lurked underneath was a painful reminder to all diehard Weezy fans.
There they were, his classic sleepy, sad, drug-drowned eyes--the way any normal person's eyes would look after a year's worth of sleep deprivation, followed swiftly by a year's worth of sleeping pill abuse. Needless to say, time hasn't been kind to Lil Wayne fans. It's been heartbreaking really to watch our man's talents dwindle over the years, pickled in restlessness and a willful submission to cough syrup addiction.
From a selfish perspective, that gave last night an even richer poignancy. It was a rare flourish in the face of many, many recent flounders. Without question, this Lil Wayne fan left happy. But more importantly, it's hard to imagine that any Lil Wayne or Drake fan left Gexa Pavilion last night anything but satisfied.