BET’s massive hip-hop/R&B package tour Scream Fest has long been an event for and by teenagers, including last winter‘s iteration headlined by Omarion. This summer, though, it was clear that the tour had decided to go in a slightly more grown-up direction with A-list Southern rapper T.I. and co-headliner Ciara, the young singer who has become second only to Beyoncé in R&B’s alpha-female pecking order. Only two nights before Scream’s Baltimore stop Aug. 24, the tour made headlines when 50 Cent, Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Diddy all showed up unnanounced and performed together at the New York show. So expectations were high for more surprise guests to tear the house down at 1st Mariner Arena, but in the end we just had to settle for the superstar names on the ticket.
One of the tour’s opening acts was T-Pain, the singer/rapper who has become inescapable on urban radio in the past year with a sound built using Antares autotune technology to pixelate his voice into bizarre robotic tones. His recent second album, Epiphany, is a charmingly eccentric record that displays production and songwriting skills that are frequently overshadowed by Roger Troutman-esque vocoder gimmicks. And while T-Pain performed with no effects on his voice, he unfortunately eschewed that album’s varied deep cuts to focus on hits like “Buy You a Drank” and “Bartender” that have already been played to death all summer, and then danced to more songs you’re probably already sick of, such as “Party Like a Rock Star” and “Crank That Soulja Boy.”
In between acts, Da Brat appeared onstage, for no apparent reason other than to promote a show on satellite radio, demonstrating just how far gone her career as a rapper is. But she did get a nice response from the crowd when she brought The Wire cast member Felicia “Snoop” Pearson onto the stage.
When it was time for the headliners, they chose the format of one long, alternating stage show, with Ciara performing half her set, then T.I. performing half of his, and taking turns again to close out the night. Ciara has come a long way since three years ago, when she came to Baltimore to promote her debut single, “Goodies,” as an opening act at a Towson University back-to-school concert. A half-dozen monster radio hits later, her live show is an arena-ready spectacle, patterned after Janet Jackson circa 1989 (or 1841), right down to the headset mic and militaristic backup dancers uniforms. And while the tinny crunk production values of most of those hits don’t translate especially well to the stage, Ciara’s songs nonetheless whipped the crowd into a frenzy.
Ciara’s taken a good deal of flack, much of it justifiable, for not being the greatest singer, and for having a live show that resembles nothing so much as a Disney dance troupe. But tonight, even while singing only sparingly in between dance moves, she displayed a greater vocal ability than she usually gets across on record, picking out runs and high notes to emphasize and leaving the backing track to cover the easy stuff. She even managed to give her best song, “Promise”–last year’s smash ballad full of underwater drums and intricate vocal hooks–an appropriately passionate reading after a pole-dance intro. And whether or not she knows anything about Baltimore club music or merely had her DJ find a local record to get the crowd fired up, it was pretty thrilling when Ciara danced to Blaq Starr’s “Slyde” for a good minute or so.
Easily the biggest hip-hop star to have emerged in the last few years, T.I. didn’t need to do much to make his performance feel like a big, monolithic event. That he’s a tiny, skinny little guy doesn’t matter when his face is blown up across a jumbotron, performing a seemingly endless array of thunderous, anthemic songs such as “What You Know” and “Rubberband Man.” Unfortunately, he ran through most of those hits in the first half of his set, before ceding the stage to Ciara again. And when he came back, he performed mostly album tracks from his recent T.I. Vs. T.I.P., reminding the crowd that although he’s the King of the South, he’s currently promoting a pretty underwhelming record. But when he closed out the night with that album’s underwhelming single, “Big Shit Poppin’”–performed as its toothless radio edit, “Big Things Poppin’”–once again Ciara’s cornball enthusiasm made the night, wearing a backward baseball cap and looking more excited than she had the whole night just to play T.I.’s hypeman for one song.