You could probably write a pretty decent sociology paper about the crowd at Hill Auditorium for Ludacris’s performance last night.
Old, graying ushers taking tickets from 20-year old guys in jerseys and hats.
High school kids with parents in tow.
Cheering masses of college kids – of all ages and colors – chanting along verbatim as Ludacris tore through bundles of Top 40 hits.
Cousin Dre from Detroit’s 102.7, the radio personality who acted as the night’s master of ceremonies, taunted the crowd from his usual shtick before awkwardly shifting into shout outs for the University chapter of Hillel, the University Activities Committee and Michigan Student Assembly.
Small moments like these are what made the great rap experiment at Hill so compelling. But thankfully, and most importantly, it was a completely successful night for the artist and his music.
Hill’s acoustics were Luda’s right-hand man; the bass stayed surreally crisp on his set opening “Number One Spot.” Each loop on “The Potion,” a Timbaland-produced, textured jam from last year’s The Red Light District, was firm and distinct.
The bass never squashed any of the higher-pitched drum loops on the songs. Luda’s voice, adroit and booming on record, hit even harder live. Even without any real “political” slant to his rhymes – probably the most socially responsible thing Ludacris stands for is safe (but really frequent) sex – it was impossible to notice the similarities between Ludacris’s durable, echoing voice and the timeless shout of Public Enemy’s Chuck D.
Both opening acts, P-Live and later One.Be.Lo, were more reserved than the headliner and struck to nice, if a bit average and forced, verses. The dingy, worn-in atmospherics toward the end of One.Be.Lo’s set in particular acted as a nice calm before the storm. With no DJ’s on stage, the openers had Hill in a more intimate light, certainly fitting both acts’ status as local and largely underground warriors.
But any impact either opener had was washed away by the seismic crowd roar as Ludacris leap-frogged from hit to hit in the blistering opening minutes of his set.
With such a bulletproof career as a singles artist (though his last two albums have shown a startling focus), he had an arsenal of hysterical party hits from which to choose.
He tore through his two best soundtrack appearances, “Act A Fool” from “2 Fast 2 Furious” and “Area Codes” from “Rush Hour 2.” He could have easily omitted these two and picked from a glut of songs he left on the shelf this night (“Roll Out,” “Fat Rabbit,” “Blow It Out”).
He offered snippets of others’ hit singles (Ciara’s “Oh,” Usher’s “Yeah!”) and gave a collage of his notorious guest verses.
The up-tempo numbers slayed the already famished crowd, Ludacris’s voice reverberating exquisitely over SKYLAB-blips from the Neptunes on the thrashing “Southern Hospitality.” In easily the night’s most intoxicating moment, the dually sleazy and irresistibly gallivanting Ludacris changed a famed couplet from the song to “U of M girls gimme U of M head.”
You could’ve howled in disgust but for most, this was what Ludacris was expected to bring. And he brought it pretty completely.
Hill’s delirious shift from bastion of “high art” to “popular music” is what let the audience see the man who once referred to himself as the “abominable ho-man” in an ornate, gorgeous venue that’s one of the world’s acoustic gems.
Keep in mind that Dylan, and INXS played Hill in decades past. Not to belabor the point, but as much as Ludacris is irreverent, astute and utterly memorable, he’s also completely a possession of this generation. Hill is made for international orchestras. Hill is made for Ben Folds. Hill is made for Ludacris.
Weak as the middle section of his set was – the mid-tempo, even ballad-like joints like “Splash Waterfalls” drained the crowd’s energy just as destructively as Shawnna’s overlong stint on stage – Ludacris still prowled the sparse, lonely even, stage and never let dips in the crowd’s activity stunt his ego.
The “big ideas” surrounding rap right now – who’s listening, who goes to concerts, where rap shows can be held, old and black and young and white – are vital and important, but with a show like last night’s it’s damn near refreshing to find that Rakim’s old adage still holds: It’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at.