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Live: Power 106 Cali Christmas at Gibson Amphitheatre

December 17, 2009 |  2:58 pm

Tpain The self-deprecating tone from once-swaggering acts such as T-Pain and 50 Cent lightens the mood and the music at the annual rap and R & B showcase.

Halfway through T-Pain's set at Wednesday's Power 106 Cali Christmas at the Gibson Amphitheatre, he turned his barrage of singles into a kind of confessional therapy session.

"This might be hard to believe, but I'm ugly as hell," Pain said to surprised chuckles from the crowd. "That's why, when I meet a girl, she ain't got to be a dime piece," which is, to the uninitiated, R&B slang for an indisputable hottie. "She's just got to make me feel good."

With that, the rotund R&B jester launched into "Can't Believe It," a single that catalogs the many housing arrangements he could offer his new lady love, including condos in Toronto and, winningly, a "mansion somewhere out in 'Wis-cansin.'"

That pivot from vulnerability into goofy pompousness sums up the current state of much rap and R&B, at least from its male practitioners. Everyone at Cali Christmas, from the once world-crushing rapper 50 Cent on down to the welcome young crooner Jeremih, had a streak of self-deprecation to their acts.

Maybe it came from the humbling fact that their genres, which once prided themselves on distinctions between being gangsta and being a gentleman, are now indistinguishable -- and nobody can sound too thuggish over today's dominant Euro-trance beats and thin sales figures. Still, the shift humanized the boys' boasts regarding their earning and bedroom prowess in convincing ways.

Jeremih has two of the best singles on pop radio, "Birthday Sex" and "Imma Star," and his lyrics are hugely likable. But the English singer Kamaljit Singh Jhooti, better known as Jay Sean, showed the most precise pipes of the night, nailing all the high notes on his breakthrough singles "Down" and "Do You Remember."

Live: Power 106 Cali Christmas at Gibson Amphitheatre

Brooklyn rapper Fabolous has long operated at the fringes of pop while maintaining credibility as a dense, lyrical MC. His most recent album, "Loso's Way," sported the unfortunate Carrie Bradshaw-worthy shopping anthem "Throw It in the Bag." But during his set Wednesday, he made some welcome detours through his earlier, much flintier material.

From an opposite vantage point, T-Pain's lush robot quaver has become maybe the defining sound of pop radio in the latter years of this decade. His secret is that he's actually a fantastic singer and arranger; every single comes stacked with inventive harmonies and a playful way with melody. He's a much smarter songwriter than titles like "I'm N Luv (Wit a Stripper)" might lead one to believe, but he also refuses to take himself seriously.

His best verse came on the Lonely Island's "Saturday Night Live" skit for "I'm on a Boat," in which Pain taunts Poseidon and takes a mermaid home to his skiff.

Pitbull, the Miami-based Cuban-American rapper, is a crowd favorite in L.A. like few other musicians right now. Similar to T-Pain, he's something of a joker, wearing sunglasses and an unbuttoned sharkskin suit onstage and constantly grinning at his own tawdriness on "I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)." As the only act at Cali Christmas with a true live band, his smattering of congas and frequent Latin-pride interludes turned the room in his favor immediately.

50 Cent has had a tougher time of that in recent months. After Kanye West skunked him on the 2007 sales charts, 50 has struggled mightily to return to his "Get Rich or Die Trying"-era dominance. But one forgets that the 50 Cent who wrote "How to Rob" -- an older track that remains his most exciting song -- was a sneering underdog, not the guy who celebrates an actual "Curtis Jackson Day" in his über-rich enclave of Bridgeport, Conn.

50 does better when people don't see him coming. New singles like "Psycho" have a touch of his old menace; at Cali Christmas, he hit the high points of his conflicted new album "Before I Self Destruct," like the glitched-up ragtime-piano burner "So Disrespectful."

"Let me remind you how many hit records I got," he said, before firing off a volley from his early-aughts heights. That the many-times-platinum rapper thought the crowd didn't remember this fact was amusing. But it underscored that both rap and R&B work best when an artist has something to prove -- to foes and first dates alike.

august.brown@latimes.com

SHOWMAN: Rapper T-Pain, who even had a microphone stand with personality, veered from goofy boastfulness to an appealing vulnerability at the Power 106 showcase. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times

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