Lil Wayne is the biggest rapper in the world, so of course he's started talking retirement. "I'm gone at, like, 35. I'm serious," the 29-year-old star said in a radio interview earlier this week. "I have four kids."
Before he rushes off to be Mr. Mom, though, he's strutting around the country, reasserting his role as a musical patriarch. Sprung from prison last November -- he served eight months at New York's Rikers Island last year for a gun possession charge -- Wayne's not only reminding the world of his spectacular rhyming talent, he's introducing us to a different family.
The "I Am Still Music" tour, which landed Friday night at Chicago's United Center, spotlights Wayne (aka Weezy, born Dwayne Michael Carter Jr.) but liberally shares the limelight with several protégés -- most notably popular singer-rapper Nicki Minaj, singers Porcelain Black and Miss Shanell, a gaggle of MCs and DJs and many others.
These are the performers Wayne has groomed or backed through his Cash Money and Young Money labels and other ventures. Like Jay-Z and others shaping the hip-hop mogul business model, Wayne asserted himself, established a brand, and now he applies that brand to endorse young money-makers. These people are his retirement plan.
The plan might work. Friday's concert showcased a lot of talent from newcomers and old-timers, opening with Mix Master Mike, of Beastie Boys fame, DJing on one side of a boom-box stage set, while Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker hammered live beats on the other side. Buzz-worthy rapper Yelawolf walked on for one song ("Let's Go"), followed by Chicago's own Cool Kids. A couple of weeks ago they were in tank tops on stage at SXSW in Texas; Friday night they were in jackets and down vests as they performed "Bundle Up" ("I'm from the city and the frozen lakes!").
Rick Ross continued the Lil Wayne All-Stars theme, opening his set with pyro explosions ("Every Day I'm Hustlin'") and eventually was joined by DJ Khaled ("Welcome to My Hood"). They both frequently leaned back and let the crowd do most of the singing.
Wayne rose up from the edge of the catwalk, launching his own set with "I'm Goin' In," then removing his shades and taking in the sight of the sold-out arena. For a moment, Wayne and the crowd adored each other. Then, boom -- literally, thanks to the indoor fireworks -- he started ripping through rhyme after rhyme, his live band rocking it during "Sky Is the Limit," his own unchallenged flow spotlighted during "Ice Cream Paint Job." During his own set, he spotlighted DJ 4Five and was joined by Mac Mane for "Got Money" and several others. Lil Twist came out for "Love Affair" (evidencing a more nasal, Urkel-like voice than even Weezy). The Birdman showed up for "Fire Flame."
In the home of the Bulls and wearing a White Sox cap, Wayne made a football gaffe -- performing an abbreviated bit from Wiz Khalifa's "Black and Yellow," a song about the Steelers. The crowd booed, but Wayne laughed. "I forgot," he said, "these are Chicago Bears!"
Wayne's set wasn't even his. Miss Shanell took it over for two songs, bringing the energy to a complete halt with her Diana Ross ambitions (uh, no). Immediately after that, Wayne broke into "Roman's Revenge" (with scenes from "Gladiator" on the screens behind him) and introduced Minaj, who also emerged beehive-first through the floor. She then performed 10 songs on her own, including pulling a teenage boy onto the stage and giving him a very brief lap dance. Her set slowed into several ballads and anthems ("Right Through Me," "Fly," "Save Me"); she had reason when she asked the crowd, "Are you guys still there?" She got things pumping again with a rollicking, masked cover of Kanye West's "Monster."
Wayne returned, again through the floor, and drove on for another hour, his guests and protégés popping on and off the stage. Nearly 40 songs into the show, there he was surrounded by Minaj, Lil Twist, Mac Mane and others, all of them singing "Bedrock." At the end, as everyone drifted into the wings leaving Wayne in a rare solo moment in the spotlight, he said, "That's my motherf---in' family right there. You gotta keep showing them love."