Arena-sized hip-hop music is a rarity in Roanoke. Last time rap hitmakers came to Roanoke Civic Center was 2008, when Rick Ross performed in front of fewer than 1,100 in a poorly promoted concert.
The G-Unit played to 2,886 in November 2004. And Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs led a 1998 show that drew 8,500 to the venue.
But after Friday night’s performance by T.I., 2 Chainz, Kelly Rowland and a passel of Roanoke Valley rappers, hip-hop fans might see that handful of shows expand more frequently.
The show didn’t twist the turnstiles the way Combs’ crew had. The civic center counted 3,385 in the 8,300-capacity coliseum. But the concert’s promoter, AG Entertainment, was pleased with the draw and hopes to bring more to Roanoke, civic center general manager Robyn Schon wrote in response to a text message early Saturday.
And in this triple-bill, the audience got plenty of hits.
T.I. had already shown commercial viability on Friday — Billboard.biz reported that the rapper had signed to move himself and his imprint, Grand Hustle, from Atlantic to Columbia. That deal came after his latest record, “Trouble Man: Heavy Is The Head,” peaked at No. 2 in the Billboard top 200.
He also put his Atlanta brogue on the summer’s most popular record, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.”
The self-styled “King of the South” opened with “Top Back” and “Rubber Band Man,” from the mid-2000s. On the former, he liked his bass cranked to booming as he rode in a convertible with the top down. On the latter, he was the guy who was “always in trouble, man,” and worth “a couple hundred grand.”
He’s done more songs and made more money since. He hit his verse on “Blurred Lines” soon after that, gesturing for a bouncing, dancing audience during the choruses. Elsewhere, he did an advanced Biz Markie, singing a crowd favorite, “Whatever You Like.”
Other highlights included his hitting-the-concert trail boasts of “Bring ‘Em Out” and “Memories Back Then,” a strong example of T.I.’s ability to describe his past with painful and compelling honesty.
A stream of people left soon before the night’s only real oddity, just before the show’s end. A violent fight pitted a man against a man and two women and ended when a police officer pulled a pro wrestler-quality move on one of the participants. It was a Springeresque moment.
By and large, the audience was relaxed and grooving. The people who left early were likely worn out at the end of a work week, having been rocked by 2 Chainz and Rowland and blasted by T.I.’s increased volume. He had two strong accompanying rappers — I am embarrassed that I don’t know their names — but had less volume than they did, particularly when they barked lines in unison.
T.I. is a pioneer of the subgenre trap rap, the trap being slang for a drug house. Gun and drug charges amounted to less than two years in prison for him. 2 Chainz, another Atlanta-based trap rapper, has experienced his own recent run-ins with police, and while his legal outcome is unclear, his performance and lyrics were those of a performer with a “live for today” outlook.
On “Feds Watching,” he described the high end clothes he typically wears, to be “fresh as hell if the feds watching.” He was wildly energetic, with a sonorous, clear voice that to these ears was mixed better than the headliner in this arena.
Among his own popular numbers, including “I’m Different” and “Where U Been,” he ran his verses from Nicki Minaj’s hit “Beez in the Trap.”
First-on-the-bill Rowland showed a gorgeous and powerful singing style and some slick dance moves in ridiculously high heels during her 30 minute set, which included “Dirty Laundry,” a song that referenced the end of Destiny’s Child, her bandmate Beyonce Knowles’ subsequent superstardom and an abusive relationship Rowland was in.
The lights were still up and the arena just beginning to fill when a group of Roanoke area rappers, including Poe Mack, Landlord, J2 Bumbry and singer RatedR, took the stage for a few numbers. The valley crew did an energetic, engaging job, despite a poor sound mix.