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Wiz Khalifa

Wiz Khalifa and Yelawolf torn down the 9:30 Club last night as part of the appropriately named Deal Or No Deal Tour. Both artists made unceremonious exits from major deals in recent years only to rebuild their buzz from scratch on the underground. Deservedly so, judging by last night’s performance.

Wiz, the headliner and overwhelming draw for the sold out show, might already be one. The most visible (and basically only) rapper to emerge from Pittsburgh, Wiz got his start several years ago rapping really well on fakey Kanye West beats. Those tapes mostly fell on deaf ears. Somewhere down the line, after I stopped paying attention, he discovered marijuana and expensive sneakers, both of which are popular with the kids today. Now Wiz, too, is popular with those same kids.

Pot and hip hop being the grand unifiers, Wiz’s fanbase is strikingly diverse in some ways. They’re mixed in race and gender but also uniformly young (roughly 17-21) and beautiful in the Marilyn Manson sense of the word. (Though maybe youth is easily mistaken for beauty when you’re the old guy in the club.) The miscreants who usually occupy the margins at non-dress code hip hop shows were completely absent. No Unabomber bearded white boys, no overexcited dreads in full body camouflage jump suits, no fat guys with Cheetos stains on their white tee. Just a throng of kids from varying points on that narrow spectrum between J. Crew ads and Jay-Z videos.

And every last one was an unapologetic fan. Not a casual or curious listener, but a flag waving, lyric reciting, fanatic. Girls were screaming, guys taking their shirts off (huh? isn’t it supposed to be the other way around?). There was a young couple in front of me who were sloppily making out for the duration of the show while simultaneously pulling their tongues out of each others throats at random intervals to rap along.

Wiz deserves every molecule of this adoration. He’s an incredibly animated performer, weighing about 15 pounds soaking wet and rocking, well, soaking wet, shirtless and drenched in sweat. His hooks are big and easy for the uninitiated to pick up, which is important. The modern rap concert mostly exists as an excuse for fans to hear rap songs they already know loudly while having an opportunity to breath the same air as the man who made them. Actually winning over fans a at rap show is a rarity, but that seems to be exactly what Wiz has been doing to build this ravenous audience. Radio doesn’t play his music and, superficially, he’s interchangeable with any number of Blog/Hipster rappers with a bigger press buzz – B.O.B., Wale. But I’ve seen those guys rock the same stage to a fraction of the response. Partially because they were only putting forth a fraction of the effort.

Yelawolf, the rapper I went to see, is a white Alabaman who rhymes about meth labs and Cadillacs in an immaculate, Twista-style double time flow. Often times fast raps crumble in a live setting but, like Wiz, Yela us primed for the stage. He rocks with no hype man or backing track and delivers a pitch perfect reenactment of the recordings on his well received Trunk Muzik mixtape. If I hadn’t seen the soundcheck myself I would have sworn he was lipsyncing. It helps too that his production, courtesy of beatsmith Will Power, is grounded by crystalline bass tones that are heart stopping on a system as large as 930’s. Any hesitance Khalifa’s crowd may have had when the mohawked hillbilly stepped on stage quickly dissolved when he started spitting.

Grand declarations about rap’s next big thing seem moot in this fickle market but both Wiz and Yela certainly have strong enough personalities and talents to transcend their status as word of mouth favorites. And if last night’s show doesn’t prove to birth rap’s next great superstar, it was, at the very least, a good omen for the future of hip hop concerts.