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Lil Wayne 

Verizon Arena, Jan. 9

click to enlarge BEJEWELED GRIN: On Lil' Wayne.
  • BEJEWELED GRIN: On Lil' Wayne.

Lil Wayne may be the best rapper alive, but that doesn't mean he can charge $51 (or $66 or $76 for premium seats) in Arkansas and expect much of a crowd. Only 3,200 people showed up on Saturday — a little more than a fifth of what promoters were hoping for. But if Lil Wayne was troubled by the empty seats — or his imminent prison stint — he hid it deep behind dark shades and a bejeweled grin that didn't leave his face for almost two hours.

What a difference three years makes. Last time Wayne came to Central Arkansas, he shared a bill, at Christmas Crunkfest at Barton Coliseum, with Young Jeezy and T.I., and spent his time on stage bobbing and weaving, barely lifting his voice past his hype men and reference track. Saturday, he stalked the stage like someone who'd spent his childhood in musicals (I counted at least two jump-and-heel-kicks) and rapped, sans backing track, with the same kind of manic energy that makes his recorded work so essential.

But like so much of that studio work, for all its inspired wackiness, Wayne's live show occasionally shifted from weird-fun to weird-dumb. Everything that involved “rocking out” ranged from just plain terrible to not good. Mercifully, he only “sang” and “played guitar” (think: a 12-year-old testing out an amp for the first time) on two songs — the train-wreck “Rebirth” singles “Prom Queen” and “She's On Fire.” But through all of his opening set, his four-piece backing unit stayed in full Body Count mode. Which meant that songs like “A Milli” and “Got Money” got the by-the-numbers hard rock remix treatment and Wayne had to compete to be heard with a guitarist doing a bad Eddie Van Halen impression.

A live band can drastically improve a rap show — watch the Roots back rappers on “Jimmy Fallon” — but without a sense of dynamics, it can just as easily derail things. Hip-hop demands space for vocals; most MCs can't scream loud enough to be heard over a busy instrumental mix, Wayne's ragged wheeze no exception.

When the band returned after a break for the DJ, it dropped the metal put-on and stuck in the background, gamely interpreting the original production from “Carter III” standouts like “Lollipop” and “Mrs. Officer.” It was like discovering that you'd been listening to a radio station a few ticks off — everything sounded new.

Verizon billed the concert cautiously as Lil Wayne and “special guest.” The opener, on no one's radar, turned out to be hit songwriter (Usher's “Yeah,” Ciara's “Goodies”) and wanna-be R&B lothario Sean Garrett, who leaned heavily on pre-recorded vocals and a sculpted chest. Otherwise, Birdman represented Cash Money with a few mumbled verses and a lot of flapping his arms like a bird. And near the end of the concert, in what proved to be a major momentum killer, Wayne took the spotlight off himself to put it on his proteges, the loose collective of young, mostly forgettable rappers in the Young Money crew (shockingly, Drake and Nicky Minaj had some place better to be).

But neither the rock misadventures nor the bevy of lesser guests kept the concert from being anything less than a success. Such is the power of Lil Wayne. He's such a grossly talented rapper, with perhaps the best — and certainly the most theatrical — delivery in the game and an unparalleled knack at free-associating, that he can do dumb stuff or rap dumb lyrics one minute and sweep everything away with some stroke of genius the next.

The highlight of the night came when the MC offered a rapid-fire rendition of his verse on DJ Khaled's honky-synth dance anthem “We Takin' Over.” It's Lil Wayne condensed — a mix of menace and playfulness that drifts, thrillingly, from something close to insanity to the kind of lucidity that makes you sit up straight and open your eyes wide. The best line in the song could be his slogan: “I am the beast — feed me rappers or feed me beats.

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