Give Lil Wayne and Jay-Z credit – they have cracked the code when it comes to live hip-hop. Rap has long been a tough sell on the concert stage thanks to skittish promoters, weak stagecraft and indifferent audiences (save for the occasional touring festival like Rock the Bells, rock-oriented rap acts like the Beastie Boys or certain one-off shows by superstars). Only in the last half-decade, as hip-hop enters middle age, have rap tours begun to draw grosses comparable to and competitive with road-warrior rock acts.
For the past few years, Lil Wayne has been the biggest draw on the road among rappers, putting together eclectic packages that appeal to the full spectrum of his fan base. Supporting acts have ranged from T-Pain to Keyshia Cole to Gym Class Heroes, making the whole of a Weezy tour greater than the sum of its parts. Wayne's $51 million total gross since 2009 includes dates from his I Am Music tour (which kicked off in 2008, in the wake of Tha Carter III's blockbuster sales) and America's Most Wanted tours, which together played to some 724,000 fans across 68 concerts. Scarcity, perhaps, has also helped – Weezy's incarceration in late 2010 probably made his return to the stage in 2011 hotly anticipated, and a new tour with Rick Ross has been selling briskly.
Coming in second on our live tally, Jay-Z offers, in essence, the other model of hip-hop touring success: rapper as self-assured Chairman of the Board (Frank Sinatra allusion fully intended). A decade and a half into his career, Jigga has an enviable catalog of rap classics worthy of a two-hour showcase. And while his shows regularly draw impressive support acts such as Mary J. Blige, Jay has the authority to headline showcases as large as Coachella or Britain's Glastonbury festival on his own. The Blueprint 3 tour made Jay 2010's top hip-hop concert draw and one of the biggest acts on the road, period. When he does share the spotlight, it's with a fellow superstar. His four shows in 2010 with Eminem, two each in Detroit and New York, reportedly grossed $15 million by themselves. And the forthcoming head-to-head tour by Jay-Z and Kanye West following the release of their joint album Watch the Throne promises to be a blockbuster.
For our contenders who have served as opening acts, we've apportioned one-fourth credit, which in a couple of cases provides a solid boost. Nicki Minaj has just started headlining gigs on her own, but as an opener for Britney Spears and Lil Wayne she has played for thousands of people. Drake and Rick Ross have also opened for Wayne, and the former's participation in the blockbuster America's Most Wanted jaunt gives him a large lift in our tally (Ross has only started touring with Wayne this summer, so his grosses are smaller). Rookies like Minaj and Drake have made lots of new friends on the road as openers, setting themselves up to headline their own tours.
Speaking of making friends, let's take a look at how our contenders are doing on the social-media front.
•Lil Wayne: A History in Photos
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