By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer
"Rock the Mic" came to Riverbend Wednesday night, and the biggest rap tour of the summer met up with a thunderstorm to match. But even that couldn't stop the show, as Riverbend officials allowed the 3,000 or so lawn-ticketholders into the sold-out pavilion. Despite rap's reputation for violence, the crowd of 9,000 that packed into the 6,000-seat pavilion was surprisingly peaceful. Security was tight and every male in the audience was carefully patted down before entering the facility.
Hip-hop heroes Jay-Z and Snoop Dogg and rap's current hottest act, 50 Cent drew a widely diverse audience to "Rock the Mic," as the crowd was pretty evenly divided between men and women, blacks and whites, 'burbs and urbs, Fubu and Abercrombie & Fitch.
And while most of the acts - Jay-Z, 50 Cent and opening act Fabolous all hail from New York, the show included the West Coast style of Snoop and the Southern style of Atlanta rapper Bonecrusher.
Both Bonecrusher and Fabolous opened with well-received 20-minute sets. Fabolous' show was notable for the heaviness of his bass beats, just this side of causing internal bleeding.
Then the show really got started. Snoop Dogg is allegedly drug-free (though he did light up a blunt in mid-set). Whether he is or not, he is definitely a changed man from the muddled performance he gave at the final Lollapalooza. This old Dogg has learned some new tricks, most notably, how to front a live band. His Snoop-adelics was a hip-hop version of an old-school soul band, right down to the three-man horn section. And while he didn't use the group for much of his 45-minute show, instead relying on his DJ's beats, when he did, his show kicked into overdrive.
He began the tributes to dead rappers that ran through the night, as he evoked the spirits of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. But it was his own hits, including the singalong "Gin and Juice" that really got the crowd going. He also proved to be a hip-hop Jimmy Buffett, getting the crowd to chant, "Smoke weed, get drunk and (expletive)."
In his fourth show here since February, 50 Cent mounted his most elaborate production to date. The 40-minute extravaganza featured pyrotechnics, lasers, confetti cannons, a video of a Frank Sinatra impersonator and a 3-D set of the New York skyline, complete with a Statue of Liberty.
But the rest of his show remains the same, from his ritual stripping down to reveal his trademark bullet-proof vest to his incessant rapping about his violent, criminal past. His surviving being shot nine times remains the cornerstone of his act, mentioned in several of his raps, notably "Wanksta" and "U Not Like Me," and even recreated in detail on the sole remaining concert video screen (the two side screens were removed due to high winds). In addition, bullets appear as graphics onscreen and gunfire is often used as percussive effects. He deals with the reality of the lifestyle in "Gotta make it to Heaven" and takes a break from it in his more lighthearted breakthrough hit, "In Da Club."
But he's painting himself into a corner. He's the premier gangsta rapper, but where does he go from there? What's the next album going to be about?
For pure star power, Jay-Z remains the man to beat. With a military theme that featured DJ Just Blaze's turntables surrounded by sandbags and male dancers in camo fatigues and female dancers in what looked like Victoria's Secret olive drab collection, the New York rapper closed the show with shock and awe. He's the Michael Corleone of gangsta/hustler rap, with an authoritative stage presence that kept the crowd rapping along with the songs from his string of albums, dating back to from 1998's breakthrough hit Hard Knock Life. His show made no mention of R. Kelly, his collaborator on last year's ill-fated The Best of Both Worlds.
And he had the nerve to simply rap unaccompanied by beats, showing impressive ability to rhyme forcefully enough to carry his message and his rhythms. That's beyond the skills of 50 Cent, who was often out of breath during his raps, or Snoop, who too often tried to sing, but obviously could not.
And Jay-Z carried it all off for a full 55 minutes, closing out almost four hours of non-stop rap. Like Snoop and 50, he paid tribute to dead rappers and hip-hop women of the past, paying special honor to Run DMC's Jam Master Jay and doing a full version of his Aaliyah tribute, his remix of "Miss You."
"Rock the Mic" may be the next annual summer festival, as Jay-Z promised, "We're gonna be doing this every year."
All shades are not the same
Trans fat battle enters new phase
"Rock the Mic" storms Riverbend
ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT
Seeing the BIG picture
Three reasons to see 'La Traviata'
The next wave: 12-year-old to tour world
The Early Word
Get to it