Ten minutes into T-Pain's set at this year's Art Attack, the annual concert put on for University of Maryland students deep in the throes of end-of-the-semester stress, it was clear the R&B star's performance style was markedly different from that of Lil Dicky's, the night's first non-student performer.
Throughout his time on the Xfinity Center stage, Dicky would enthusiastically interact with the crowd; throughout T-Pain's performance, he would largely ignore them. Dicky would stop his set to lead the audience in an impromptu rendition of the national anthem or hand out a can of tuna to a crowd member; T-Pain would fly through an avalanche of songs in the first 20 minutes of his hour-long performance before so much as addressing the crowd. Dicky was the outgoing cousin at a family reunion always ready with a joke, even if it grew a bit tiresome; T-Pain was the aloof family member who largely sat by his lonesome, save for an intriguing moment of conversation here or there as he went about his business.
The two performers are also in markedly different phases of their career. Dicky, recently rising to (frat bro) college kid prominence with his 2015 album Professional Rapper, is in the dawn of his music career, however long it persists. T-Pain — a veteran with 14 tracks on the Billboard Hot 100 since 2005, with the last being "Up Down (Do This All Day)" in 2014 — is arguably in the twilight of his own, at least as a solo artist. To put it another way, Dicky's music can evoke beer-soaked memories of last semester, but jamming out to T-Pain can transport an unsuspecting listener back to that awkward middle school dance they'd rather forget.
And the show, much like the duo of performers, was a mixed bag.
Following last year's Art Attack — a stellar show that paired pop (Jessie J), hip-hop (Logic) and EDM (The Chainsmokers) in a seamless manner that surely appeased most musical palettes — this year's concert had a lot to live up to. Whether it did, well, depends on your personal taste.
Before either Dicky or T-Pain took the stage, students from this university's Hip-Hop Orchestra hyped up the growing crowd with a barrage of high-octane rapping. Behind them, a line of woodwind instruments provided skillful embellishment for the fast-paced performers. But the true highlight of the opening act was a soulful rendition of Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black" from the group's female vocalist.
Soon after, the ever-goofy Lil Dicky, donning an unbuttoned Cincinnati Reds jersey, burst onstage to the pounding beats of "Professional Rapper," his funny-rap collaboration with the one and only Snoop Dogg. Right from the get-go, it was apparent that the 28-year-old rapper-comedian hybrid valued his onstage antics as integral part of his appeal.
First there was Dicky's awkward half shimmies during "Personality," the T-Pain-featured track on his debut album. Later, he tossed a bouquet of flowers behind his back into the audience to "see who would get married first," he said, and then congratulated the lucky recipient on their impending nuptials.
He even would graciously take some time before his performance of "Pillow Talking" to help with crowd control.
"Are they squishing you? Hey, don't squish," Dicky advised the enthralled audience members who were nudging themselves to the stage for a closer glimpse of him.
But Dicky, born David Andrew Burd, didn't just rely on his comedic appeal. He delved into a deluge of fiery flow sans beats during his Fetty Wap and Rich Homie Quan-featured "$ave Dat Money," displaying his rap chops that are sometimes overshadowed by his self-deprecating humor (his name, after all, suggests he might come up short in at least one department.) His lyricism, as silly as it may be at times, had a certain level of wit and depth that could easily go unnoticed.
By and large, it was easy to pick out the die-hard Dicky fans in the audience. They were the ones perched on top of their friend's shoulders (until security told them to get down, anyway), the group of guys with backward snapbacks and short-sleeve button downs or tank tops, the enthusiastic attendees matching the Jewish rapper word-for-word. It wasn't too much of a challenge, either, to spot the other half of audience members who didn't care much for the offbeat musical wordsmith, an understandable occurrence given Dicky's niche fan base.
When T-Pain strolled on stage, however, uproarious cheers from a majority of attendees suggested a much more universal admiration for the tried-and-true producer of party anthems.
Starting with "Booty Wurk (One Cheek at a Time)," T-Pain flew through a litany of top hits at such a rapid pace that it was hard to keep up. The master of Auto-Tune went from song to song with no break in between, often transitioning abruptly mid-track with little more than a verse and a chorus. Perhaps it was for fear of copyright violation (as some of the songs were not his own) or perhaps it was an attempt to span all the highlights of his discography, but either way, T-Pain could have benefited from a simple mantra: Less is more.
Instead of jumping incessantly between tracks like "Buy U A Drank (Shawty Snappin') and "Cyclone," T-Pain would have been better off whittling down his setlist and devoting more time to each song. It also wouldn't have hurt for the "Hard & B" vocalist to give a couple of shout outs to the energetic mass of students crammed before him. Other stripped-down moments with T-Pain's looping vocals floating over minimalist bass, while intriguing, lost the interest of some audience members noticeably hungry for crushing electro beats.
But that doesn't mean T-Pain, repping a red No. 1 Maryland jersey, struggled to give the Testudo-loving crowd what they wanted. Fresh off their Ellen Show appearance, Jared Nickens and Jaylen Brantley joined T-Pain and Lil Dicky onstage for a brief Running Man Challenge, eliciting the loudest cheers of the night.
As a connoisseur of music that sparks the will to dance, T-Pain largely did his job, invoking the crowd to move their bodies and sing along to his years of hits. At the conclusion of his final song, T-Pain quickly departed from the stage without much of a parting statement, a fitting conclusion for the distant performer.
The crowd funneled out of Xfinity Center into the damp night, the reality of impending finals once again materializing over the temporary distraction that was Art Attack XXXIII. But whether you hated or loved the performances that made up the evening, the concert gave everyone a chance to dance, an opportunity to laugh and a moment to connect with friends.
For a show at the busiest point of the semester, it's hard to ask for much more.