SuperJam 2012 was Cole’s World, but Ross is still the boss

by Ryan Snyder


The thermometer popped at 102 degrees late Friday afternoon as lines stretched across the baking asphalt outside the Greensboro Coliseum, but the 102 JAMZ SuperJam going down inside didn’t offer much refuge from the heat. Those waiting patiently for the Greensboro radio station’s annual hip-hop revue to evolve from the parade of clowns with little more than cheap singles had to have been somewhat vindicated by this year’s lineup. The 16th annual event not only featured a nonpareil emcee backed by a stout live band, but one of the rap’s true current heavyweights — in multiple senses — with the best of his protégés in tow.

For the most rabid consumers of hip hop, it’s an indisputable fact that the last few lineups had left more than a little to be desired. Not even standout performances in recent years from Ludacris and a grossly misunderstood/underappreciated Waka Flocka Flame could save the ship torpedoed by dime-store acts like Party Boyz and Fast Life Yungstaz, or poor showings all around from the disinterested strip-club-anthem jockeys like Travis Porter and the never-was Plies. The 2012 installment wasn’t a complete makeover, but it was a huge step in the right direction towards the perennially sold-out show being less a desultory promotional engagement for its performers and more like an event where the undercard had to bring its A-game, lest they get shamed by the superior rappers to follow.

Rick Ross’s Maybach Music Group associations aside, this year’s less-is-more mentality played into the strengths of the solo artist over the hip-hop crew, with headliner Ross, NC prodigal son J. Cole, MMG first mate Wale and surprise guest Stalley all products of their individual hustles. The slimmed-down lineup meant that there was less flexibility in the event misfortune struck, however, and it did. The father of mid-card rapper 2 Chainz had slipped into a coma the previous day and eventually passed the morning of the show, forcing his cancellation and leaving a fairly gaping hole in the middle of the lineup (Respect to the event host who, after proposing a moment of silence, said “To everyone talking during that, y’all stupid.”).

Opener Ca$h Out couldn’t fill it, though that wasn’t completely his fault. The Atlanta emcee has approximately one song, “Cashing Out,” that those who haven’t heard his lone mixtape It’s My Time would possibly recognize. He fluffed his 10-minute slot with his likely next single “I Got That,” which bears awkward resemblance to Lil Wayne’s “We Be Steady Mobbin’,” along with a mashup of miscellaneous verses that most who didn’t arrive extremely early never got to hear. “Early” doesn’t exist in most hip-hop dictionaries, but even with other potential complications looming, SuperJam overcame that cliché with timely production.

One cliché that didn’t get put to bed, however, was that of the touring rapper getting harassed by Triad police. There were concerns among Coliseum staff that Ross wouldn’t arrive on time for his set, as it was said that authorities had detained the MMG boss downtown for unspecified reasons before he was to go on stage. Ross’ star MMG disciple, DC rapper Wale, took the opportunity to both clear up a spotty performance record and eat a few minutes off of the clock with a set that only made passing references to his Interscope and independent days. Clad in an Alonzo Mourning Charlotte Hornets jersey, Wale (who’s cousin to “The Wire”’s Gbenga Akinnagbe) made only a drive-by of his 2009 hit “Pretty Girls” with a verse and a chorus early in a set that went well beyond his 20-minute allotment. He tossed out full versions of “Bad Girls Club,” which ended up being a wasted opportunity for an onstage collaboration with J. Cole, “Make It Rain” and his R&B hit “Lotus Flower Bomb.”

Further evidence that this was no ordinary SuperJam: A VIP stage crasher was rudely manhandled after facing up Wale, an act that might have been handled a little more gently in previous years. Wale’s early days with the Backyard Go-Go Band established him as a vital performer, a reputation which waned considerably when he had to start making a go of it on his own, in front of crowds with steadfast demands. Under Ross’s guidance, Wale has rediscovered that bounce. It might have been some small stimulus that his boss — The Bawse — was (presumably at the time) dissecting his set, and his potential replacement was waiting right there in the wings. MMG signee Stalley joined Wale for the former’s track “Party Heart,” where it’s Stalley who puts both Wale and the 300-pound. Ross on his back.

It was a strong effort by both Wale and Stalley, but preceding a set by performer extraordinaire J. Cole magnifies the one-dimensional nature of the traditional DJ/MC dynamic. The Fayetteville emcee’s set required the DJ booth with the gigantic advertisement declaring “$50 down and you can drive away on a new set of rims today” be pushed out of view to make room for a drummer, guitarist and keyboard player to recreate his cinematic, highly melodic beats. Cole’s set, which included standout performances of “Who Dat,” “Every Day A Star Is Born,” “Work Out” and Beyonce’s “Party.” He cited a range of influences, including Michael Franti, Paula Abdul, Roger Troutman and his own mentor, Jay-Z, before rubbing the stack of rims like a collegiate football good-luck tradition before exiting. Cole has made no fewer than six performances in the Triad in the past two-plus years since appearing on the same stage with Jay-Z, and each time feels like he raises the bar just a little bit higher. There are some who deride him for unmemorable verses (including Grantland, that bastion of hip-hop expertise), but there are few surer bets in hip hop than Cole to still be producing and performing at a high level in 10, 15, 20 years.

That kind of longevity, as it stands, might represent a challenge for Ross. That’s not an indictment of his skill set, which sits well above the norm, but there’s a parody of his track “Blowin’ Money Fast” where “Call me Big Meach/Larry Hoover” is replaced by “Big Meat/Whopper, Jr.” for good reason. A more reasonable man would assume the two seizures suffered in the same day in October 2011 — that forced the cancellation of a Greensboro performance the next day — would have been a wake-up call to work on his body, but it wasn’t. Ross is big. It’s no doubt part of his claim to be “the biggest boss you’ve ever seen,” but there’s a point where he has to reapply that “Self Made” mantra for the sake of his own career.

His girth doesn’t necessarily affect his show, though. Ross fills a stage quite well (no pun intended) and possesses an extraordinarily agile flow that he ties together with motivational slogans like “be rich forever” and, of course, “self made.” Those are all ideas that Ross appreciates, though, but may not be totally bought into by his cohorts. It was only the day before SuperJam that MTV had published a story where Stalley decried his part with Maybach Music Group, saying that he merited an expanded role within the activities of Ross’s label — an action that seemed inherently against Ross’s “Self Made” mythos. Stalley ended up finding his place by the DJ booth for the entirety of Ross’s set — setting the table for a Sideline Story of his own — while Wale provided support on “Hustlin’” and new track “Bag of Money” while shouting out the impending release of Self Made Vol. II.

Stalley’s situation was a microcosm of how much good hip hop there is out there that simply goes overlooked for whatever reason. In this case, it was in favor of other good hip hop, but that hasn’t been the case at past SuperJams. Though it’s happened on different wavelengths to which promoters of the event may have been tuned, SuperJam 2012 suggested that they’re finding the right frequency.

Follow Ryan on Twitter @YESRyan