CONCORD -- What happened to Lil Wayne?

He seemed well on his way to hip-hop immortality after the release of 2008's "Tha Carter III," which was one of the best albums of the decade. That offering, combined with his previous outings and his guest appearances on so many winning singles, left people talking about whether Wayne deserved to be ranked as one of the genre's all-time greats, right up there with Biggie Smalls, Eminem, Jay Z and Chuck D.

That talk is dead.

Since that third "Carter," it's been all downhill for Wayne -- artistically speaking -- in the studio. Sure, he's managed to deliver some commercially success efforts, but not a single one has ranked as a great -- or even good -- album. That includes 2011's "Tha Carter IV," which really doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same league as the other offerings from the series.

Fortunately, Wayne's problems in the studio haven't carried over to the concert arena.

He was as charismatic and powerful as ever onstage on Friday at the Sleep Train Pavilion. Lil Wayne was the biggest name on the bill for the America's Most Wanted tour, which drew some 9,000 fans to Concord. It's fair to ask, however, how many were there because they wanted to see the headliner?

Judging by the crowd reaction, it seems that a sizable contingent was at least as excited about catching the two openers -- T.I. and 2 Chainz -- as they were about watching Weezy. That's probably a reflection of the growing popularity of the supporting acts -- 2 Chainz, in particular, is one of the hottest players in the game -- as well as proper pay for the kind of mediocre recordings Wayne has given fans over the last five years.


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First up was 2 Chainz, whose set wasn't nearly as enjoyable as the one he delivered at the Fox Theater earlier this year. The production felt scaled back from what we saw in Oakland, but that was just one of the problems that plagued 2 Chainz in Concord. He also seemed much more concerned about advertising his forthcoming album -- "B.O.A.T.S. II: Me Time," which drops Sept. 10 -- than he was about putting energy into his performance. It was a flat, uninspired outing.

T.I. did better but still wasn't great. His set felt a bit disjointed, and the musical accompaniment (from a live band plus a DJ) was a little overbearing, but there were a handful of strong moments. The highlight of the set, although short lived, was a guest appearance by the Bay Area's own E-40.

Lil Wayne upped the ante in every fashion, starting with a dramatic opening segment that included oversized video elements and skateboarders gliding along a ramp at center stage. (Wayne, as you may know, is a major skateboard nut.)

His raps were strong, slung over the top of a powerful blend of DJ work and a rocking live band. He once again proved to be one of the most magnetic performers in the game, commanding our attention with the very first song and holding onto it throughout the entire set.

Wayne is also one of hip-hop's wackiest characters who dishes out bravado and gratitude with equal sincerity. He was particularly generous with the latter in Concord, outlining early in the show the three things that everyone needs to know about Lil Wayne.

"No. 1 is that I believe in God. No. 2 is I ain't (expletive) without you," Wayne told his fans. "The most important one is No. 3 -- which is I ain't (expletive) without you."

The fans were in his corner throughout the concert, even showing much appreciation for the newer songs -- all of which sounded stronger live than they do on record. Of course, the fans displayed the most enthusiasm for the older numbers, especially "Tha Carter III" tracks "Got Money," "A Milli" and "Lollipop."

Wayne brought out several guest stars -- including both of the tour's opening acts -- to perform with him. It was a nice touch, but it wasn't really necessary in order to make his set a success. That's because Lil Wayne still has such mighty mojo on the live stage.

Now, if he could only get some back in the studio.

Follow Jim Harrington at Twitter.com/jimthecritic, Facebook.com/jim.bayareanews and http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/category/concerts.