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Lil Wayne and T-Pain, Strange and Stranger

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 1, 2009

Out (or at least out-weirded): Lil Wayne.

In: T-Pain's dancing midgets.

It takes a special kind of surrealist to outdo Lil Wayne, the prolific, gremlin-voiced New Orleans rapper who dominated pop music in 2008 with his bizarre and brilliant raps. But he seems to have met his match in T-Pain, the prolific, cyborg-voiced R&B singer and producer who staged a stunningly strange performance at Verizon Center on Tuesday night, during what should have been Wayne's coronation as the new king of pop.

The ubiquitous Southern hip-hop stars are actually kindred spirits: They appeared on each other's recent albums and felt good enough about their proffer to launch a duo project, called T-Wayne. (Why not? Their joint singles, "Got Money" and "Can't Believe It," were both top-10 hits.)

Now they're on the road together, with T-Pain on the undercard of Wayne's "I Am Music" tour. The name isn't mere hip-hop hubris: Lil Wayne's 2008 blockbuster, "Tha Carter III," was the year's best-selling album, outpacing the next-best sales figure by one-third, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

The diminutive rapper with a penchant for nonlinear, often nonsensical vocals was a constant presence in the upper reaches of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, too, landing in the top-20 eight times in 2008 -- the year in which he became a mass-appeal superstar. He recently received eight Grammy nominations, the year's biggest haul.

In headlining arenas for the first time, Dwayne Michael Carter Jr. is sticking to his core competency: winding free-associations that are at once completely weird and utterly compelling -- particularly when delivered in his distinctive, raspy croak. Wayne is 26 but has the grizzled voice of a 94-year-old man with a lifelong smoking habit.

His 90-minute set was at turns ribald, hilariously ridiculous, boastful and deeply personal. His rhymes, such as they were, often were about money and girls; sometimes, they were about both: "I wouldn't care if you was a prostitute/That you hit every man that you ever knew." If the song was a joke, then Wayne was in on it, as always: No chart-topping rapper smiles more than he does.

Not that he was short on that all-important hip-hop commodity of swagger. When a DJ -- suspended on a platform above the stage, as was the rest of the band -- cued "Swagga Like Us," the Jay-Z/T.I. club banger on which Wayne was a featured guest, the rapper didn't rap, explaining: "I got so much swagger, I ain't even doing my [expletive] verse."

T-Pain, who'd ridden onto the stage on a Segway during the set, nodded before the pair previewed the T-Wayne project, with a song (apparently) called "He Raps, He Sings." It was something of a role-reversal, with Pain rapping while Wayne sang the hook.

Mostly, though, Wayne rapped his way through his catalogue, from 1999's "Tha Block Is Hot" to "Lollipop," a dirty ode to oral sex that reached No. 1 in June, proving that Wayne could frolic in the crossover commercial sandbox without reining in his outrageous and unconventional impulses.

The shirtless, sinewy rapper closed with a potent version of "A Milli," spitting lyrics of fury over pealing guitars, detonative bass drops and sharp snare hits before flash pots put an exclamation point on his year. He grinned, standing under a spotlight while a video clip from the '90s sitcom "Martin" played on the screens behind him. Then, "I Will Always Love You" came spilling over the speakers, and Wayne danced across the stage.

But his baffling exit hardly topped the night's long list of head-scratchers. For Wayne was preceded by T-Pain and his merry band of contortionists, fire jugglers, stilt-walkers and dancing midgets in a set that was one part concert, seven parts circus, with T-Pain even wearing a ringmaster's jacket and top hat.

Noting that Britney Spears also seized on the theme this year with her "Circus" album, T-Pain introduced a diminutive Brit-Brit, who bounded onstage in a red vinyl cat suit, did a mini-Britney dance, then stripped down to her spangled undergarments. Can't imagine what those pre-tour production meetings were like.

There were songs, too -- sort of: They were mostly snippets strung together like so many ring tones. T-Pain generally performed his vocals without his trademark Auto-Tune effect, which distorts his voice to the point that he sounds like a Speak & Spell that's been submerged in a bathtub and programmed to speak about being in love with a stripper and about buying shawty a drank and such.

T-Pain even sat at the piano for a plaintive performance of the old Negro spiritual, "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen." It might have been the most shocking and surreal moment of the night.

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