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A formidable Lil Wayne leads a celebratory hip-hop showcase at the BET Experience

When Lil Wayne finally came onstage to close the BET Experience’s Saturday night showcase at Staples Center, he wore a bright pink sweatshirt and shorts emblazoned with a simple message: “Know Yourself.”

That was apt advice for a rapper who many fans briefly feared was on death’s door just a few days ago. Twice earlier this month, Wayne suffered debilitating seizures bad enough that a private plane he was in had to land so he could get emergency treatment.

On Saturday, he looked much better, a dervish with no signs of the ravages of his old favorite drug, “lean” – codeine cough syrup mixed with soda and candy.

But at this celebration of hip-hop and the ways it informs popular culture, Wayne simply seemed grateful to be there. “Make some noise for yourselves just for being alive,” he said to the crowd. He may as well have been talking to himself.

He also might have been stirring up some solidarity at the BET Experience, an event that’s now a contemporary survey of black music culture, yet a bit unsure about what to do with that status.

Saturday’s show brought together a huge swath of radio-friendly rap acts, from Wayne and his “Collegrove” collaborator 2 Chainz, the “Trap Queen” MC Fetty Wap, L.A.’s genre-bender Ty Dolla Sign, New Yorker ASAP Ferg and Toronto crooner Tory Lanez, among others.

In an era with so much political volatility and racial and civic tensions, Saturday’s show was often a reprieve from all that. But the world still couldn’t help intruding a bit.

Ty Dolla Sign took the escapist mantle most literally, transforming his stage into a fake beach replete with bikini-clad female dancers tossing inflatable toys on lounge chairs. Hits like “Blasé” toe a line between trap’s oceanic bass and R&B’s icy reserve, and Ty walked it well (it’s no wonder he can show up on scores of underground mixtapes and lend a verse to the excellent pop girl group Fifth Harmony).

The same goes for Lanez, who draped himself with rap attitude on “Say It” yet had total vocal confidence when he covered Ginuwine’s “Pony.” Lanez wore a shirt that read “The New Toronto,” and he joins city-mates Drake, the Weeknd, Partynextdoor and DVSN as artists figuring out contemporary ways to navigate multiple genres.  

He traded stage time with ASAP Ferg, a rapper with no such crooner ambitions but a mountain of old-fashioned mic presence. His hits like the dance-hall-riffing “Shabba” and a new song with Migos, “Back Hurt,” had camaraderie and gravelly confidence, enough so that he tried to stir the crowd into rushing up to the front of the stage to dance.

“This is BET,” he said. “We all cousins and [stuff].” Many joined in, but the reverie was brief after a sizable fight broke out in the center aisle of the crowd.

Fetty Wap, the New Jersey radio star, was even more congenial, bringing about 10 pals onstage to dance, mug for cameras and repeat the name of his 1738 crew several hundred times. Wap’s perhaps the most crossed-over act of today’s sing-rapping crowd, and hits like “679” and “My Way” are some of the most recognizable on radio.

He let his DJ play solo for about 30 minutes too long after he left the stage, but it’s hard to argue with the merits of an almost a capella “Trap Queen,” a rendition that left Staples Center shaking.

Wayne and Chainz closed out the night with a set split between their solo hits and their collaborative “Collegrove” project (the LP is billed to 2 Chainz alone due to label issues, but he’s described as a tribute to Wayne’s influence).

The two Southern MCs have crossed paths for a decade, and Wayne’s loopy free associations make a natural fit with Chainz’s rowdy sloganeering. They made for quite a buddy-rap duo (Chainz, wearing a sweater crocheted with two pistols, was at least a foot taller than Wayne), and singles like “Gotta Lotta” and “Bounce” honed their dueling charismas into a formidable party-starting machine.

Is Wayne lucky to be alive? His well-being wasn’t in question Saturday, and hopefully he can take all this new self-knowledge he touted and stay healthy. Even at such a wide-ranging BET Experience, he’s one of a kind.

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