MANCHESTER, Tennessee — Over its 10-year history, the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival has played host to all sorts of acts, but few of them — if any — ever took the stage to a prerecorded message from the New York State Department of Corrections (not even Phish).
[artist id=”510062″]Lil Wayne[/artist] did just that on Friday night (or, more correctly, early Saturday morning), bounding onstage while the last strains of a DOC phone message — recorded after he was released from prison last November — faded from the rather formidable stacks of speakers that flanked him. And it was just one of the history-making moments during his headlining set. Bonnaroo has had hip-hop acts headline previously (Kanye West took a rather disastrous turn in 2008, and Jay-Z mainstaged without much incident last year), but they weren’t Wayne. He’s not a household name on par with ’Ye or Jigga, and there existed the very real question of whether his set would translate to the Bonnaroo crowd .
But when Wayne wrapped his set just before 3 a.m., that question had been answered. Not only did he go over like gangbusters, but he did it in gritty, sweat-drenched glory. He worked it hard, hanging from his microphone stand, descending into the crowd below and rolling around on the stage floor. He tore off his yellow tank-top mid-set and stalked the stage in only a low-slung pair of shorts, aqua-colored socks and checkered Vans. And he spit verses at a staggering rate. You could call it a star-making turn, but Wayne’s already a star … though, perhaps, on this night, he truly became one in the eyes of the Bonnaroo elite.
Song-wise, his performance didn’t stray too far from the set he’s been working on his I Am Still Music tour — he opened with “I’m Goin’ In” and segued into “Bill Gates,” thundered through “A Milli,” deftly moved through “Swag Surfin’ ” and “Hustle Hard,” worked in swatches of “Green and Yellow,” slowed things down for the ladies on “I’m Single” — and he brought out members of his Young Money family (Mack Maine, Lil Twist, Shannell, Jae Millz) to give them some shine too. And in that regard, his Bonnaroo set was pretty historic too. He was one of the first headliners to put on a genuine revue, a musical, multiple-act bill that just so happened to double as his set.
As can be expected, his performance tended to lose some steam when Weezy was sharing the stage with his associates (or when he’d disappear and let them perform on their own), but he more than made up for it in the sheer tenacity of songs like “Welcome to My Hood” or “Drop the World” (which didn’t suffer from the lack of Eminem).
Backed by a lock-step live band, songs like “Forever” and Lollipop” pulsed and surged with icy precision. Songs from his upcoming Tha Carter IV album, “How to Love” and “6 Foot 7 Foot,” expanded and contracted with elasticity, particularly the latter, which brought his set to a close — eternally buoyed by his rasping voice and staccato cadence.
Perhaps to mark the momentous nature of his headlining performance (which, if it wasn’t his biggest show to date, has got to be in the top three), or, maybe just to make actual history, Wayne even brought out his former in-house producer — and, by all accounts, former friend — Mannie Fresh, who parted ways with Cash Money in 2005 under less that harmonious circumstances.
The two embraced onstage, while those in the audience who were wise to the backstory cheered wildly, and though the moment was brief, it served notice that whatever disagreements the two may have had, they were all but forgotten by now. After all, no one — not even Lil Wayne — would let a petty feud stand in the way of history.
Stick with MTV News for show reports and interviews from Bonnaroo 2011 all weekend long.