By Dan Weiss
The thing about genius is genius is madness. Kanye West may be the most artistically enduring man in hip-hop, but it’s also felt weird to use the g-word with him. Up until recent abstractions like Yeezus, he just came off like an incredibly hard-working guy who just seemed to be paying attention much longer than his peers who blinked and fell off. A world-class melodist, sample sourcer, speaker of his own mind, audio trendsetter, every part of the Kanye arc feels a bit natural; of course he claimed weirdness once his sales began quietly falling off.
But Dwayne Carter is a guy who released hundreds of tracks between 2007 and 2008 for free with off-the-dome rapping that any peer would kill for, capped by 2008’s bestselling album, which begins with him rapping over a non-repeating piece of classical music and ends with a ten-minute missive against Rev. Al Sharpton, with time out in between to seduce his arresting officer and claim he’s an alien. He followed it up with a virtual-reality rock album made possible by Auto-Tune and hated by everyone. The only predictable thing about him is that you don’t have to wait too long for a line comparing his high to the solar system or giraffe genitals. Kanye rants but you usually know where he’s coming from. Only the solar system knows where Wayne is coming from.
But as success wanes, the Dr. Dres of the world discover the Eminems — or they don’t, which is usually the case. Wayne discovered Drake, a biracial Canadian TV star who sings more he raps in a way that can’t be notated. That is, Wayne discovered the man who changed the last five years of pop music, as difficult as it was to believe at the time, or for this skeptic, as difficult as it was to believe up until the two took the stage at Forest Hills stadium last night in Queens.
Take away the 808s and the flip attitude towards “hoes” (this is what geniuses call women) and they couldn’t be more different, which makes the conceit of their tour together, one of the only true extravaganzas to justify the cliché “victory lap,” all the juicier. The Drake vs. Lil Wayne tour is inspired by Street Fighter II, the old Capcom fighting game, with cartoon graphics of the two rappers and interactive ephemera like an app that let the crowd decide who went on first. So why not indulge them? The Best Rapper Alive vs. The Biggest Rapper Alive.
Dress: Wayne’s narcissistic chiseled torso on display proved what OKCupid users already know: Ladies in attendance much preferred the fully-dressed Drake, clad simply, humanitarianly enough in a “Free Meek Mill” t-shirt.
Technique: While this category unquestionably goes to the Best Rapper Alive, it’s worth mentioning how that ugly gremlin voice does occasionally justify the name “Weezy,” particularly when a mic stand was brought out to Wayne for “Leather So Soft” and (the underrated) “Drop the World’ and he sounded like he could gaggily barely wrench out the words. Drake’s rat-a-tat perfect delivery of “Versace” proved the student can hang with the teacher sometimes. Sometimes.
Stage Presence: The sequence that perfectly sums up the Weezy-Drizzy dichotomy was when Drake boarded a slow-moving zip line, holding onto a pole nonchalantly, like he’s not in mid-air, to sing “Marvin’s Room” hovering above the crowd. Wayne followed it up by asking why nobody in the crowd “threw money when he was on the pole.” It didn’t get enough laughs even though he later continued to mock the stunt in a “themed” portion of the set featuring noted stripper anthems “Bandz a Make Her Dance” and “Make It Rain (Remix).” Drake’s star power will never be questioned by me again after this night, but Wayne’s funny. The mock-battle conceit allowed for gems like this: “If you’re here for sweet serenade singing that’s cool, but I been doin’ this gangsta s–t since that little boy was in the wheelchair.”
The App: The Drake vs. Lil Wayne App was a weird (calculated?) thing, like some kind of applause Geiger counter. Wayne won the initial “who goes first” challenge where his fans had to button-mash their iPhones harder than Drake’s, but at show’s end, amidst a volcano of confetti, Drake was declared the night’s “winner.” I guess that’s like the people’s choice award? Whatever happened to Sanjaya anyway?
Advantage: Drake, I guess
My Personal Bias Coming In: Right, so I’m not a Drake fan. On album, save for his glorious greatest hit “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” his best moments belong to people like Rihanna and Nicki (on “Take Care” and “Make Me Proud,” respectively). But those weren’t played last night and he held his own, making it truly hard to any longer deny the (crass) power of hooks like “Tonight I’m on my worst behavior” and “My excuse is that I’m young.” And Wayne’s selection wasn’t pristine (too much Carter IV, not to mention V, with their hopeful, so-so “Believe Me” duet toward the end) but still rippled with masterpieces from catalog canyon: “Money on My Mind,” “Duffle Bag Boy,” “6 Foot 7 Foot,” and of course, “A Milli” whose ecstatic crowd reaction, climactic guitar solo and fireworks inspired a genuinely gracious thank-you about coming all the way from the south to hear NYC rap not just his hooks word-for-word but verses.
Stage props: Obviously, flying into the crowd to perform a song nailed this one for Drake, but plenty other moments earned it too, like the Olympic-style flaming torches onstage for “Trophies” and NBA footage projected on the screen for “All Me.” Wayne’s bonkers Mega Man conveyor-belt style lighting for “John” (followed by him throwing up a sly peace sign) deserves mention though.
A Certain je ne sais Swag: Tunechi introduced “Mr. Carter” with the various names people call him, like his kids’ nickname for him, “Daddy,” which is also his b—es’ nickname for him, which is also your b—es’ nickname for him. By contrast, Drake praised his cohort’s upcoming album toward the end: “I’ve had the privilege of hearing the majority of it…” The majority? Wayne wouldn’t even play you the whole album? Sit down.
Final Outcome: It was truly weird measuring these two’s success against each other. Drake got the louder cheers but whenever he tried to get the crowd to sing along, like on “Crew Love” — where he jogged around maniacally on each reverse hi-hat chorus — the crowd knew more of the words to “A Milli.” Still, his place in pop history was clearer than it’s ever been on his self-pitying albums. Wayne, the one who’s supposed to be over the hill, coasting on his successors, was every bit the dryly hilarious weirdo (he crouched with a joint in hand looking unimpressed stage left at the end of “Hold On, We’re Going Home”) I would’ve expected to see after 2008. He shouted out Biggie as the greatest rapper of all the time. But Drake said it was Wayne. Spoken like a true progenitor of YOLO.
Winner: Wayne. (But not by much).