The trend in hip-hop when it comes to developing new talent is for an older, established artist to take younger artists under his wing, rapping on their songs, touring with them, and, of course, signing them to his record label. The most successful example of this is Lil Wayne, who signed Drake and Nicki Minaj to his label Young Money Cash Money Billionaires.
Usually, the more successful artist sets the tone for tracks. But such situations get interesting when the rookies begin to push the limit of acceptability in hip-hop; Drake and Minaj have become megastars in their own right partly because they continue to push the genre in new directions.
Saturday evening at the Consol Energy Center a different set of mentees performed with their mentor -- but this trio made clear that with collaboration doesn't always come innovation. Meek Mill and Wale performed with veteran rapper Rick Ross, who last year signed both to his Maybach Music Group label. The three offered a largely flat Summer Jam concert on Saturday -- seemingly uninterested in surprising the modest but excited audience that had gathered.
Most disappointing was Mr. Ross, a Miami-based rapper known for his harsh, scraping voice. This and last year have been particularly strong for Mr. Ross: he fought his way into the heads of rap listeners everywhere with aggressive verses on several Drake and Lil Wayne songs. He also proved successful at marketing his Maybach artists.
But on Saturday the sense of security that comes with success was more apparent than the creative energy needed to achieve it -- Mr. Ross seemed content to enjoy his time on stage rather than use it to push himself further.
On "So Sophisticated," a synth-heavy single from his new album "God Forgives, I Don't," due out July 31, Mr. Ross rapped his verses with some genuine energy; his huge physical presence dominated whenever he wanted it to. But confidence faded to cockiness when after finishing his part of the song he walked over to the DJ booth to wipe his face with a towel and chat while Meek Mill and Wale finished the song. That pattern was repeated multiple times.
Why Rick Ross failed to bring much energy wasn't clear; he seemed happy to be on stage but lacked the hunger which often makes his verses so compelling. His signature grunt didn't convey its usual sense: that Mr. Ross is a hustler, who got rich from hard work and thick, aggressive rapping.
Part of the problem was that Mr. Ross is best known for his verses on the songs of other rappers. On "I'm On One," his raspy, measured baritone contrasts the fast, talkative rapping of Drake and whiney drawl of Lil Wayne, but without the other two to support him the song felt, well, unfinished. Mr. Ross also put in a strong verse on "John," a galactic beat from Lil Wayne's latest album "Tha Carter IV," but again the creative wordplay and crazed intensity of Wayne was missed.
Meek Mill and Wale, however, offered some contrast. Mill seems to embrace his role as youngest member of the Maybach crew. He paused at one point to take pictures of the audience with his cell phone, saying he'd post them to the photo-sharing site Instagram.
On "Ima Boss," a song that dominated radio waves this spring, he rapped in his frenetic, jumpy style about his insatiable thirst for money, a theme that dominates most of his lyrics and those of Mr. Ross.
To find much variation from that theme fans had to turn to Wale who, before joining Meek Mill and Mr. Ross, provided the most interesting and varied set of the night. It was Wale who sang "Sabotage," an upbeat song that featured recorded electric guitars, drums and horns during a concert that was otherwise heavily electronic in its beats. On "Lotus Flower Bomb," neither he nor his backup singer needed to sing the chorus: The audience did it for him.
And it was Wale who best recognized that at a live show the music alone is rarely enough; he left the stage and headed out into the audience, plunging into a small sea of fans who seemed to want nothing more than the chance to adore him up close.
Marcus Schwarz: email@example.com or 412-263-1964. First Published July 23, 2012 4:15 AM