AUSTIN, Texas -- If you decide to call your South by Southwest showcase "Killers Lasers Papers," and then find out, much to your dismay, that neither the Killer (Cee Lo Green, whose 2010 album is called The Lady Killer) or the Laser (Lupe Fiasco, whose Lasers currently sits atop the Billboard albums chart) are actually going to show up, what do you do?
Well, if you're Atlantic Records, you simply plug in another of your chart-topping stars, add your critically acclaimed futurist-funk chanteuse and keep right on trucking. Things are that easy for the label these days.
So, on Thursday night at Austin's La Zona Rosa, instead of Green and Fiasco, SXSW-ers were treated to semi-surprise sets from B.o.B and Janelle Monáe -- both of whom filled in admirably -- plus Wiz Khalifa (who, with an upcoming album titled Rolling Papers, made up the "Papers" portion of the evening and, unlike Green and Fiasco, actually showed up), and no one was the wiser. Like we said, when you preside over a hip-hop roster as stacked as Atlantic's, you can afford to change things up on the fly.
Taking the stage after performances by up-and-comers XV and Donnis, B.o.B bounced his way through a tight 30-minute set, one that drew predominantly from his #1 debut, The Adventures of Bobby Ray, but also included a few nods to both his past as an underappreciated Atlanta MC (back when he was trying to get a tip at Subway) and a mixtape staple.
So while he weaved through Adventures cuts like "Bet I" (featuring an onstage assist from Playboy Tre), "Magic," "Nothin' on You" and, of course, "Airplanes" (all of which featured pre-recorded bits from their various big-name co-stars), B.o.B truly came to life when he was tackling tracks that were either not his or from his not-so-distant past. In fact, he couldn't wait to get to them, even going so far as to cut "Nothin' on You" short to declare, "I feel like y'all hear that sh-- on the radio all the time," before taking requests from the audience.
He then dove headlong into Tre's "Talking 'Bout Her," spitting over a gnarled electro whomp and, backed by his live band, tore though "Batman Flow" and "Beast Mode" (from his No Genre mixtape) plus "Haterz Everywhere," an early street single from 2007. And rather than be mystified, the crowd ate up every second of it . a point of validation not just for B.o.B's past successes, but for his future promise, too.
And speaking of future promise, Wiz Khalifa followed with a loose and laconic set that featured plenty of nods to his upcoming Rolling Papers album (due March 29), not to mention a swagger that belies his years.
Loping across the stage with a red Solo cup his hands, and backed by his Taylor Gang posse, Khalifa may have made the occasional reference to pot smoking -- at one point asking, "Where my ladies at? Y'all know how to roll a joint?" -- but his performance was anything but stony baloney. Instead, whether he was working through songs from his Cabin Fever and Kush & Orange Juice mixtapes ("Phone Numbers," "Gang Bang," "Waken Baken") or pimping Papers' release with new tracks, Wiz displayed not only a deft lyrical dexterity but some genuine grind, too.
He snarled through "Taylor Gang" and "On My Level," dropped phrases like "Time is money so I went and bought a Rolex" and "We wake up drunk, go to sleep f---ed up," and made the crowd go bananas with his hit "Black and Yellow." But really, perhaps his most lucid moment came toward the end of his set, when he stopped the music and spoke openly about the late Nate Dogg, calling the G-Funk legend "one of my biggest heroes" and running through an impromptu tribute performance that featured he and the Taylor Gang singing some of Dogg's most memorable verses, including (fittingly enough) his off-the-cuff "Hey hey hey hey/ Smoke weed every day," from Dr. Dre's "The Next Episode."
"Rest in peace, Nate Dogg," Wiz then announced.
Closing out the night -- also in tribute to the red-hot soul-and-funk sessions of luminaries like James Brown and Isaac Hayes -- was Janelle Monáe, the pint-sized, pompadoured powerhouse who wowed critics with her 2010 effort, The ArchAndroid. And while she may not have been the logical choice to wrap things up, she didn't let that stop her for a second.
Over her air-tight set -- which covered most of her latest album -- she strutted and preened, posed and popped, backed by a vamping, high-stepping show band and a whole lot of artful costuming. There wasn't a moment that wasn't filled with oddball dancing druids or wildly bearded Hassidim, and whether Monáe was leading her full ensemble through standouts like "Dance or Die" or "Wondaland," performing a jaw-dropping version of the standard "Smile" or ceding the stage to her guitarist for a deep-fried psych version of the national anthem, the singer put on an awe-inspiring show, the kind where the folks in the audience are reduced to simple shaking their heads in disbelief. Not bad for a last-minute fill-in.