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Live Review: Lil Wayne, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj at the Staples Center

April 24, 2011 | 11:25 am

nicki minaj staples center
The rapper born William Roberts goes by the pseudonym Rick Ross, and in lyrics he claims he’s MC Hammer and drug kingpins Big Meech and Larry Hoover. Dwayne Carter is known to most civilians as Lil Wayne but claims the names Lil Tunechi, Weezy and the more formal Weezy F. Baby. Queens-bred Onika Maraj is Nicki Minaj. Her alter-egos include Roman Zolanski and Nicki Teresa. Once on "Lopez Tonight," she called herself “Rosa” (with an extended roll of the "R.")

Together at the Staples Center on Friday night, the three behind the I Am Still Music tour asserted their  place at the forefront of the cartoon-rap renaissance, a progression that has occurred as hip hop’s commercial wing has increasingly divorced itself from its gritty '90s gangsta iteration. But few represent the shift more than Ross, who when confronted by his past as a corrections officer that he’d tried to keep hidden, transcended the nearly career-ending revelation by writing lyrics so absurdly fantastical they made Afrika Bambaataa’s spaced-out track “Planet Rock” seem grounded.

lil wayne staples center Indeed, you’d have to go back to the early '80s, to days of rappers in Indian headdress and bedazzled leather suits, to find anything as theatrical as Minaj, the 25-year old superstar signed to Wayne’s Young Money imprint. Emerging midway through the four-hour concert with a retinue of backup dancers, an ersatz Druid and “Gladiator” clips, Minaj’s brightly colored costume and cotton-candy-pink wig resembled a raver attempting to re-create “Babes in Toyland.”

But like the men who preceded her, Minaj proved that authenticity was irrelevant when you can rap so well. Wowing a crowd with a large contingent of counterfeit Kardashians and designer thugs in black plastic glasses, Minaj deployed tonalities and voices usually only heard in a Pixar film: a Dungeons & Dragons growl, a coquettish coo, an “Oliver Twist”-type lilt.

Playing material largely taken from her platinum debut, “Pink Friday,” Minaj stole the show, ushering in a level of theatrics and color worthy of Cirque du Soleil. She gave an audience member a lap dance. She passed out T-shirts. Her cadences oscillated like a kite in an electrical storm. Alternately performing alongside and apart from her mentor, Lil Wayne, Minaj created her own archetype: part vamp, part Barbie doll and part character from a Prince song.

Despite the crowd’s adulation for both Ross and Minaj, though, most of the love went to Wayne, who was making his first major Los Angeles appearance since being released from jail last November. Now sober, Wayne displayed admirable focus and few of the tics that plagued his pre-prison performances. There was no slurring or any ill-advised guitar solos. Instead, he impishly leaped around the stage and climbed scaffolding, backed by kaleidoscopic visuals and a full band, while unfurling tongue-twisting rhyme patterns that resembled those of a young Busta Rhymes.

As Wayne ran through mixtape tracks and those from his Carter trilogy, the near-capacity crowd filmed virtually every move on their phones. And when he brought out L.A. rapper Game to perform “My Life,” the applause levels reached NBA Championship levels. When Wayne did “All I Do Is Win,” the room convulsed like celebratory confetti was raining down.

There were missteps: an attempt to promote Young Money hopeful Lil Twist that fell flat; a vocalist singing a solo quasi-gospel number, which seemed designed as an excuse for a bathroom break. But for the most part, Wayne and company lived up to the tour’s title. They are still music. Though the obvious intent of the rapper also known as Weezy F. Baby was to reclaim the rap throne, Friday night's concert delivered something even more important: sheer entertainment.


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Photos: Nicki Minaj, at top, and Lil Wayne perform at the Staples Center on April 22, 2011. Credit: Kevin Winter / Getty Images