Paul Thompson is a real crowd pleaser.
There’s a bible on the dash of the Toyota 4Runner, I’m 24 and I’m balding, the line to check in at the Flamingo is a half-hour long we’re very sorry would you like to head over to the casino? This is your Wifi code it can only be used on two devices if you’d like to use it on more than two devices let us know it’s only $11.99 have a great time. Ice bucket is missing. Sean Hannity tells me about the deep state, the deep state. The gym is beside a lingerie shop you must be 18 to enter, a bar with slot machines built into the tables Pittsburgh 3-2 over Ottawa, Cleveland is up by 44. A portable sign: THE GOLDEN KNIGHTS, THE FIRST PROFESSIONAL HOCKEY TEAM IN VEGAS! APPAREL HERE!
You take the Cromwell’s elevator up to get to Drai’s. [Redacted] gets stopped because he has a spliff in his pocket; he goes to the lobby for a respectable amount of time and comes back, spliff still in pocket, security lets him in. There are posters for next weekend: Future. Wiz. Wayne. Our table can’t cost less than ten grand.
Someone born in 1999 dances on stage to Lil Flip, Ashanti, 50 (the club brings us his vodka), Jeezy, Juelz. The climax, for some reason, is “Empire State of Mind” except we’re not in New York, we’re four-tenths of a mile away from where Tupac was shot two-tenths away from two-story Starbucks. Lots of Ja Rule. He plays at the Flamingo’s pool tomorrow. Lil Mo never got paid for “Put It On Me.” Allegedly.
The last time I saw Nelly he and I were in a nearly deserted magazine office on the west side of Los Angeles. It was just before Thanksgiving, and the night before Puff had thrown him a birthday party in Vegas and so he kept his hood on, his sunglasses on and asked very politely that we dim the lights for him. He sat in front of a camera for over an hour and told me about Michael Jackson calling his cell phone to sing “Country Grammar” and Donald Trump eagerly gripping his hand at awards shows. Nelly just turned 42. He looks like he spent the Obama years in a gym. There are six people at our table with us and four of them have the same job with the same magazine I cannot explain to you the details of the job because I don’t understand them.
Nelly raps everyone’s verse on every song he’s Murphy Lee on “Shake Ya Tailfeather” he’s every Lunatic on “Air Force Ones” he’s 25 again on “Country Grammar.” He points to a girl in the third row who’s wearing a BRIDE sash and a white sun dress and says “y’all getting married?” and she says “yes” and he says “is your man here” and his boys shout and point at him it’s a dual bachelor/bachelorette party Nelly brings the bride to be on stage and gives her a touching speech about love and commitment and forgiveness and says “promise me you’ll give me one fuck up for my homie” and then he plays “Dilemma” which to be clear is about having an affair.
City Spud, who did nine years for armed robbery, and who was the inspiration behind that band-aid, is the hype man.
By the time we wake up we’ve missed Ja Rule. After the gym by the lingerie shop we slink through an adjacent casino until we find, sober, the same club entrance we used last night. This time we talk our way through security and somehow avoid paying $150 a head to pay $10 for towel rentals and $25 for sunscreen and $27 for a grilled chicken quesadilla. There’s an EDM remix of Black Rob’s “Whoa.” [Redacted] is reading The Origins of Totalitarianism, which gets wet.
Men who paid upwards of five-thousand dollars for “day beds” that comfortably fit one and a half Romneys hold their waitresses by the lower back as they order strawberry vodka lemonade by the flute. Surgery scars, mostly on the men.
AN INCOMPLETE LIST OF TATTOOS:
Man, 30s, lower back:
DREAM LIKE YOU LIVE FOREVER
LIVE LIKE YOU DIE TODAY
Man, 20s, left shoulder:
The And 1 basketball guy (full color)
Man, 20s, right oblique:
Disintegrating American flag in the shape of an eagle (full color)
Woman, 20s, upper back:
Angel wings with ALEJANDRO superimposed
Woman, late teens, right upper thigh:
A signature within the outline of a sheriff’s badge
Man, 30s, left pec:
Lipstick imprint and the words GIVE LOVE
Woman, 21 or 22, neck:
Man, 20s, right shoulder:
The Dharma Initiative from Lost
“Chris Evans is right there.”
“Have you watched Desus and Mero on Viceland yet? They’re just regular dudes from the Bronx.”
“Don’t bring up politics again Erin is from Texas.”
“…ten venues, restaurants and nightlife. I like PR because I like writing. But I went back to social.”
The publicists who are trying to feed [redacted] and I kimchi nachos are very excited about the looming Travis Scott set which turns out to be a Travis Barker set, apologies all around.
The big toenail on my right foot is cracked and bloody. Back in the Flamingo lobby I pay $4.35 for a Gatorade and the cashier, seeing the elk on my temporary debit card from Wells Fargo, launches into a sincere, impassioned plea for hunters to stop murdering such majestic beasts. I agree and sign for the Gatorade.
The cab hits a white Toyota. The other driver calls the cops we leave we make it to Mandalay Bay in time to see a 60-year-old man fall off of his bar stool while “This Is How We Do It” plays, presumably on loop.
The bouncer tells us to speak with a guy named Angelo. We see the lapel-pinned ANGELO and ask for our table but it’s the wrong Angelo, you see, there are two Angelos. The second Angelo is excited to see us, then grouses that “bitches will say anything” to get into the club.
Inside, two stories of faux-leather couches bracket a small stage, which is itself in front of a never-ending white screen. It takes up the entire wall of the club, thousands and thousands of square feet. The picture quality is terrible, like those old projection TVs that you couldn’t watch in the sun. The screen groans to life and runs through a series of animations that are, I guess, supposed to sync up with the songs playing: dancing white iPhones, approximated Goldeneye graphics, floating automatic weapons, a headshot of a blonde woman with HAPPY BIRTHDAY CANDICE #PIECEOFCANDY emblazoned underneath.
Male club employees with impossibly tiny waists carry even tinier bottle girls on their shoulders, the bottles lit from below by clip-on strobe lights, so that from the top level the Grey Goose they’re distributing blinks and flickers like an airport landing strip.
The “Walk It Out” remix is on, the one where Andre says “And if you say ‘real talk,’ I probably don’t trust ya.’” It’s a great verse but I hate it because everyone in my high school thought that Andre was making fun of Unk. They thought it was very clever.
No one knows where OT Genasis came from. The night was promoted as a Puff appearance, but an obviously drunk Genasis ambles onto the stage and says “I ain’t no different from MC Hammer. That ‘Coco’ shit was cool but it’s over. But I’m a street nigga. So I went back to the hood and did this,” before playing a song that nobody in the club had heard before, which angers Genasis, who cuts off the song and tells a semi-coherent story about Adele.
Then his DJ plays an unplaceable, hypnotic loop of Fatman Scoop shouting “Here we go now!”—Fatman Scoop is still famous in Las Vegas, as are the Ying Yang Twins—which Genasis once again cuts off to say, to nobody in particular, “You’re a Pisces, aren’t you?”
Puff is dressed in all white like an angel. Tomorrow would have been Big’s forty-fifth birthday. Everyone cries when he plays “Juicy,” and seven girls carry Ciroc onstage when he plays “I Got a Story to Tell.” His son is there, the one whose honor Diddy defended by throwing a kettlebell at a coach. We all sing ‘Happy Birthday.’
The next morning [redacted] and I stumble from our wing of the Flamingo down to the blacktop, scurry across the circular driveway, and slip inside The Cromwell.
A bouncer with frosted tips tries to charge us $150 each, again, to go to the Beachclub Bash but a promoter recognizes us and unclips the velvet rope from its little brass fastener. Elevators up, again.
[Redacted] is supposed to interview Rae Sremmurd for a sort of corporate-marketing assignment—it’s going to run on a regular outlet, but be “presented by” the nightclub, which has contracted Rae Sremmurd for a series of resident performances. These almost always pay better than actual editorial features. (I write most of mine under fake names.) The people in charge of ‘sponsored content’ at magazines always sell you on the assignment by bragging about how little creative control the client is going to exercise, which is sort of true, but there’s serious implicit pressure to not say anything negative. This is a good gig, though, because he’s supposed to hang out with Rae Sremmurd while they DJ and rap at a cartoonishly expensive pool party, and who would have anything negative to say about that?
When we get upstairs, the indoor part of the club is closed off to the world. Drai’s is like a long, narrow rectangle, of which the ~third closest to the hotel’s eastern edge is indoors. To the west is a series of pools and hot tubs, and another stage along the southern edge. The indoor portion of the club expands past the northern and southern boundaries of the outdoor portion, making room for more booths and tables. Most of the time, guests are free to flow back and forth from the pool to the indoor club, via a pair of massive, floor-to-ceiling doors that are swung open.
This morning, though, the doors are closed while a half-dozen men in all-grey jumpsuits clean the inside area. They vacuum up stray bits of confetti and furiously wipe down the faux-leather.
Neither Swae Lee nor Slim Jxmmi is here yet. [Redacted] enters to a long and almost impossibly complex series of negotiations between the publicists who work for Rae Sremmurd, the publicists who work for Drai’s, and the publicists working for the media company about where to conduct the interview itself. I wander around the second-floor balcony that overlooks the indoor stage and then continues into the pool area; I open and quickly close an elephant graveyard-like closet full of inflatable beach toys (an alligator, a slice of pizza, an actual elephant) and eventually settle into an empty cabana. I pull back the pink blackout curtains, move aside the dusty, plastic stemware and put my feet up on the faux-marble coffee table and watch the only thing on ESPN, which happens to be a softball game between Oklahoma and North Dakota State. This is more or less the next hour of my life.
Eventually Jxmmi shows up, with an entourage of approx. nine in tow. No Swae Lee. He’s shirtless and shouting the “Magnolia” hook over and over, beaming and shaking hands with everyone he sees. He’s an absolute joy. He perches on the back of a couch and starts talking about Boosie.
Swae strolls in, just him and two women. He’s wearing a shirt in only the most technical sense: a black Hawaiian joint completely unbuttoned and falling off his shoulders, billowing in the air conditioning. Below that: a Gucci belt, white jeans, socks, and the kind of sandals you wear when you have a 401(k). Those are Gucci, too.
They give [redacted] what seems to be a very pleasant, engaged interview—they talk about the deep south, their next record, and even more about Boosie. A publicist from Drai’s is very concerned that a cameraman take pictures of not only the rappers, but a Hennessy bottle that was gifted to Swae.
The brothers make off to their suite to prepare for their performance. We stroll out onto the pool-area balcony. The party is already raucous with the warm-up DJ. The crowd is considerably less white than yesterday’s pool party, and maybe a few years younger on average. The pool level is packed. The DJ played Tee Grizzley’s “First Day Out” and the crowd raps every word, the DJ goes back to Sean Paul, to Jeezy, to Migos. The two cabanas beside us have been rented out by men who look to be in their early- or mid-40s, and who have invited eight or nine girls, most of whom look to be twenty-two at the absolute oldest. They mostly talk amongst each other while the men show each other whatever’s on their cell phone screens.
When Swae and Jxmmi take the stage, the entire rooftop erupts. They run through their catalog of hits, which is already extensive, and Jxmmi juggles the four phones that have been tossed to him, Snapchatting from each.
After they’ve exhausted the set list, they leave the stage for a couple minutes, then come back out to DJ. This is the real party. There’s plenty of Boosie (“Zoom,” “Wipe Me Down,” “Set It Off”), YG, OutKast, “Fireman.” But when they put on “XO Tour Llif3,” it’s as if we’re in another plane of consciousness: people twerk, spill gin, nearly cry. The song has been ringing out of cars and tinny house speakers the whole weekend—it’s the most-played song by an exponential margin. The things it does to listeners are strange. Some are jubilant, but it’s a deeply hollow, horrifying feeling to watch people dance and Snapchat about their own death.
Phones dead, we retreat to the Flamingo. The state-run Russian propaganda network, RT, is on the hotel cable package. We still have two small, plastic bottles of whiskey that we picked up after a thoroughly disappointing, Jonathan Gold-recommended Thai dinner the other night. I go to get ice. Nodding at me in the hallway: a man who looks like Jonathan Gold and whose navy-blue shirt reads:
THE PRESS DON’T LIKE HIM
ILLEGALS DON’T LIKE HIM
LIBERALS DON’T LIKE HIM
HE MUST BE DOING SOMETHING RIGHT!
and on the back:
DONALD TRUMP 2016
I bring the ice back to the room and we find lipstick on the Flamingo-provided glasses. We tear open the shrinkwrapped plastic cups by the bathroom sink.
Tonight we’re supposed to meet with a freelance photographer, who was contracted by the media company [redacted] is writing for to take photos of Rae Sremmurd, to go and see Lil Wayne at Drai’s. We meet her—J—in the lobby. She’s hungry, so [redacted] and I lead her to the subterranean food court, where we’ve been gorging ourselves on Gold-disapproved pizza since we arrived. She’s wearing a denim jacket with a portrait of Kate Moss on the back, which she made herself.
The pizza is full of oil. We slip into Drai’s. At our table: three “producers” from the Company, who are not in town on assignment but are paying for bottles on their Company card, which they keep marvelling at. I don’t understand what any of them do. One of the “producers” tells me he produced a song on an upcoming, untitled Chris Brown album. (The production in his job title presumably has nothing to do with music production; these are separate things.)
A security guard who recognizes [redacted] and I from the night before comes to shake our hands, and then does the same to the three producers, who are men, but not to J, who is lighting a cigarette with one of her own matches.
The DJ says that Too $hort is here, but I never see him.
The DJ says “There’s gotta be some Asians here!” and then plays an airhorn.
The dancers are wearing shirts with “FRANZEN” in screen-printed script on the front; all the shirts are red.
Wayne materializes hours earlier than expected, in a red flannel and holding a single styrofoam cup. The styrofoam, at least tonight, seems to be for show: he’s incredibly energetic, bounding forward and shuffling back. At one point during “Got Money,” a security guard on the wing throws up a panicked arm to catch him, but Wayne is fully in control. He says “Make some noise for Lil Twist!” and there are muted cheers; he then says “Make some noise for Gudda Gudda!” and I believe I and I alone shouted.
Wayne’s set is confined mostly to his solo material from 2005-2010 and his guest appearances from after that. The one time he reaches back further is to do “Go DJ.” The set list is skewed toward casual fans, to be sure, but Wayne—a rapper’s rapper if there ever was one—saves his real vigor for the album cuts on Carters II and III, and for the handful of Drought 3 songs that make it in, most notably “Ride 4 My Niggas,” at the end of which he nearly breaks down in tears.
Given the circumstances (he was rushed here in a limo from the Billboard Awards a few blocks south, where he had to pretend to care whether his song from the Suicide Squad soundtrack won anything) it’s a remarkable set, interspersed with remarkably positive banter. He tells little tangents about staying focused while he was in jail, and tells the crowd to “make some noise for the motherfucker you see every morning in the mirror.”
At the very end, he thanks the house DJ, Mack Maine, the Drai’s people, and his fans, over and over again, his fans, his fans. It’s sweet. Then he thanks venue security and the police for keeping the performance safe: “Thanking the police is real when they hunted you.”
The he leaves. The lights come on, and “I Will Always Love You” comes out of the speakers.