At a sold-out Verizon Center on Sunday night, Lil Wayne — hip-hop’s brilliant tiny tower of babble — made his first Washington appearance since serving an eight-month prison sentence last year. And when fans weren’t shouting along with his every syllable, they were letting out big sighs of relief. Weezy was still the most dynamic rapper alive. He hadn’t changed.
But hip-hop — which boasts the fastest metabolism of any pop form — certainly has. During Wayne’s absence, it’s become a land of make-believe, thanks in part to Sunday’s opening acts, Nicki Minaj and Rick Ross. She’s one of Wayne’s proteges — a trash-talking, tiara-wearing Jekyll and Hyde with a penchant for rhyming in strange accents. He’s a former corrections officer who still raps from the perspective of a drug kingpin. Together, they dominated hip-hop radio while Wayne was serving time at Rikers Island on a weapons charge.
But Wayne didn’t completely disappear during his sentence. He released “I Am Not a Human Being,” an album with a title track that doesn’t find the rapper pretending to be something he’s not, so much as proposing that his talents are simply too good to be true.
It felt that way on Sunday as he vaunted through his 2008 single “A Milli,” a song whose spartan bass kicks gave him plenty of space to unfurl the charisma-soaked wordplay that made him a superstar.
Where Wayne rapped like a superstar, Minaj looked like one. She performed about a dozen songs during an intermission between Wayne’s two headlining sets, vamping across the stage in a sequined leotard and a purple bouffant wig that looked like stale cotton candy — half Rainbow Brite, half Elvira.
During the opening roars of “Roman’s Revenge,” she worked the stage less like a rapper and more an actor in a one-person-play, her face registering mock shock after delivering her own vicious punchlines.
On her platinum selling debut album “Pink Friday,” those brash moments are outnumbered by much fluffier stuff — reflective R&B tunes that gobbled up about half of her time on stage. (She changed into a frilly pink princess gown.) But the reserved mood did give Minaj a moment to dedicate a song to the earthquake survivors in Japan, reminding us that there was still a very real world still churning outside of the Verizon Center doors.
Ross’s set didn’t offer storybook fantasy so much as tough-guy daydreaming. “I think I’m Big Meech, Larry Hoover,” he bellowed during “B.M.F. (Blowin’ Money Fast),” a pummeling club anthem where one pretend-gangster compared himself to two real-life gangsters. The song sounds anything but dreamy — it’s propelled by apocalyptic drum machine thunder, crafted by the imaginative young producer Lex Luger.
Considering Sunday’s extensive guest list, it was a surprise Luger didn’t show up on stage. In addition to Ross performing alongside Washington’s own Wale, Wayne welcomed a slew of guests to rap by his side: a collaborator (DJ Khaled), a mentor (Birdman), a gaggle of negligible proteges (Gudda Gudda, Mack Maine, Lil Twist, Corey Gunz, Jae Millz, Shanel) and one star protege (Drake).
Drake’s appearance was the biggest, most welcome surprise of the night, but it still quashed the headliner’s momentum. And even after he had cleared the stage of guests, Wayne managed to bring the energy down a few more clicks by performing material from his failed rap-rock album “Rebirth.” He encouraged the crowd to “Jump!” during the Black Eyed Peas-ish “Da Da Da,” but fans didn’t come here to rock. They came to celebrate the comeback of a rapper whose words they could shout right back at him.
Wisely, Wayne closed his set with his recent comeback anthem “6 Foot 7 Foot,” a song that feels like an exponential improvement on “A Milli” — incredibly skeletal beat, whole lotta words. “So misunderstood, but what’s a world without enigma?” he asked during the song’s opening bar.
Babble on, dude.
Correction: Earlier versions of this post incorrectly said that Lil Wayne recently served a prison sentence for drug possession. He was serving time on a weapons charge. This version has been updated.