When Lil Wayne recorded the song ‘Best Rapper Alive’ in 2005, there would’ve been no nervous whispers in the recording booth. No furtive glances, no pained expressions from label bosses, and not a doubt in the mind of Dwayne Michael Carter Jr. From the age of 9 he’d been working up to this chorus, a breathless, beasting affair backed by steroidal guitars, a rib shaking beat and swagger absolutely unmatched anywhere on earth. In his mind, and in turn ours, he was the best. In the middle of an untouchable phase, he was busy re-defining hip hop through his tireless work ethic spawning hour after hour of recorded music that would put the back catalogue of many veterans to shame. On top of that, he was releasing most of it for free on the internet, ensuring that every high school and college in America was shuddering to the sound of his vicious, unique flow.
In 2013, Wayne is a different prospect. Addled from years of substance abuse, his releases have become more and more scattered, his mindset harder to pin down, his focus appears lost in the ether. Every release now bears the cross of his earlier work, the perennial question being ‘is this his comeback project?’ Each failure hits the hip hop world harder than the last, a tribute to the legacy that he built during the peak of his career. For the Lil Wayne of 2013 is, unfortunately, far removed from the potential, intelligence, cunning and acumen he showed throughout the birth and subsequent flourishing of his rap story.
Signed at the tender age of 9 by Birdman to Cash Money Records after leaving freestyles on the mogul’s answering machine, Wayne was nurtured by his new found father figure and excelled in school. He has subsequently managed to touch base with his academic career, earning his GAD before majoring in Psychology at the University of Phoenix, despite dropping out of school to pursue music at the age of 14. Displaying a potent gift for flow and a marketable quality as a tough talking teenager, Wayne excelled as a member of the Hot Boys and drank in a wealth of knowledge and experience from B.G, Mannie Fresh, Juvenile and Birdman, all of whom helped shape his sound and direction. He displayed loyalty as well, a rare and enviable quality in the hip hop game, remaining beside Birdman on Cash Money Records when the other protégés moved on. It was a pivotal moment in his career and a decision that proved life changing for both parties.
Lil Wayne was truly born the minute “Go D.J”. dropped. A stunning bounce orchestrated by the irrepressible Mannie Fresh, the track propelled Wayne back on to the charts and forced people to alter their spectacles; no longer a sideshow, the tough talking teenager had grown in to a bankable star. Tha Carter flew in out of nowhere. Whilst Wayne spent his first 3 records extolling the virtues of the Southern gangster, his direction was never clear. His themes were basic, his train of thought appeared immature and undeveloped. With Tha Carter, proof finally arrived that this rap anomaly could become the fiercest burning fire in the game.
To be a true force within any given field takes hundreds of different qualities and behavioural traits. Hip Hop is and always has been a complex beast. During the late 90s, artists such as Jay-Z, Nas, Eminem, Outkast and even Will Smith were beginning to re-define the mainstream. Rather than hard edged street production and focused, breathless gangster opus’, producers such as DJ Premier, Timbaland, Swizz Beatz and Dr. Dre were increasingly chasing that ‘bigger’ sound. The dancefloor anthem. “The Big Pimpin’ “moment. Mainstream success became a label obsession; artists who weren’t selling records or weren’t producing marketable singles were having their albums shelved (see The LOX and their relationship with Bad Boy for an example) and their careers put on hold. The crux, however, was those chasing commercial glory were deemed to be shunning their roots, the more organic street nature. A Tribe Called Quest, Ice Cube, Rakim, Busta Rhymes, Dr. Dre, Wu-Tang Clan, De La Soul were all artists that experienced mainstream success until the era of the club struck. Whilst some adjusted and thrived, others fell in to obscurity, remaining critical darlings but commercial misfits.
Lil Wayne’s trajectory was defined by, and helped to define, Southern hip hop. His love of the mixtape was nurtured through the humble beginnings of the theory. Put something out there for free, flood the market place with it, drum up support and launch a viable career out of it. Artists like DJ Screw pioneered this technique with his ‘Screw Tapes’ of the early 90s, and it is a culture that evolved greatly and heavily influenced Wayne’s eventual game-changing methodology. However it is bounce music that the man owes his crossover success to. Mannie Fresh was the key, having grown up producing this signature sound for MC Gregory D and matured with work for Pimp Daddy, Lil Slim, B.G. and of course The Hot Boys. His work on Tha Carter transformed Wayne, it was the blueprint that would turn him from a diminutive curiosity to something that transcended all musical definition.
By the time The Carter, a 2009 documentary film about the lead up to and immediate aftermath of the release of Tha Carter III, was released, Wayne had conquered the music world. He’d sold close to 6 million records, including a mammoth 964,000 in the first week for Tha Carter III, a record that shot to number 1, spawned the number 1 smash hit “Lollipop”, and was the top selling record of 2008. He’d redefined the mixtape game, applying his relentless work ethic to no less than 15 major releases between 2002 and 2009, and racking up huge appearance fees with a staggering 68 single collaborations, not even taking in to account album tracks he appeared on. His star was shining brighter than anyone could have predicted.
It was this inhuman work ethic that inspired modern day mixtape mainstays like Gucci Mane, Lil B and Soulja Boy, creating an entirely new genre of hip hop and a new method of interaction between audience and artist. The free associative era, where content and quality took a backseat to overwhelming quantity. Whether this is viewed as a good or bad thing, there is little doubt it has contributed to the success of these artists. But whilst Lil B and Soulja Boy are guilty of an almost total lack of quality control, Wayne, during the period between 2004 and 2008, was one of the most potent lyricists gracing the microphone. His cheek was only matched by his dexterity. Taking on any beat, from The Black Eyed Peas to Gnarls Barkley to Jay-Z, his efforts drastically outshone his counterparts.
What became of that mixtape fiend, who could so effortlessly spit 16 over any form or style and fit any track snugger than a surgical glove? 2 Chainz, in a recent article, extolled on his inspiration, explaining the way Wayne would finish a show at midnight and immediately set up his mini studio and go to work, not stopping until the sun came up. Rolling Stone did a brilliant feature on his release from prison. His second stop, once he’d checked in with a girl, was the studio, where he stayed until 5am, incessantly laying rhyme after rhyme until his own high standards were reached. For a workaholic, the proof is in the pudding, and Wayne’s was flecked with gold and platinum.
“The Carter Documentary” was the subject of much legal debate, and it points us in the direction of one of Wayne’s monumental pitfalls. Drug use. Wayne unsuccessfully tried to block it from showing, and understandably so. Cortez Bryant, manager and best friend, explained he wouldn’t ride the tour bus with Wayne because of his syrup usage, which had spiralled out of control, to the point where he had no qualms with being filmed mixing copious amounts of it before and after shows. Purple Drank, as it is known, is a dangerous concoction of codeine and promethazine. A full breakdown of its qualities can be found here. Coupled with his prolific marijuana habit, Wayne was always on a rollercoaster, the downhill was inevitable. Add in further his apparent disdain for any form of restriction on his musical output, and the picture becomes significantly clearer. As his mind state deteriorated, his rhymes would always suffer.
By the time Tha Carter IV came out, Wayne was already in initial grips of a total creative meltdown. Rebirth had come and gone, and was still seen as an anomaly on his record, an experiment that pushed the boundaries too far. Tha Carter IV got by on his inherent class and with the help of the smash hit “How To Love”. He could still flow, but his metaphors and similes were tragically weak, his mind descending in to a carousel of sex and drugs that resulted in lines like “I’m a diamond in the rough like a baby in the trash” and “Don’t fuck with Wayne, cuz when it Wayne’s it pours”. Being outshone by every guest was even more concerning. At the peak of his powers Wayne was absolutely no match for any emcee in the world, save for Eminem. Now his tired, weak attempts at punchlines fell depressingly flat, and those he chose to spend air time with rapped circles around him.
The felling of a colossus was complete by the time I Am Not A Human Being II came out in March. Once a lyrical might, a force to be reckoned with, an entity that existed seemingly separate from the genre he enriched and helped define, his legacy lay in tatters. IANAHB II, for die hard fans (like myself), didn’t fall quite as flat, but for the wider critical community, this was his final statement, last chance saloon for a project they’d invested hope in. Every mixtape, every guest verse up until this release was scrutinized. Dedication 4 was downloaded so ravishingly that Datpiff and Livemixtapes both crashed under the workload. Whilst the verdict was more positive than his latest release, patience was wearing thin for a Weezy comeback. IANAHB II was the final nail in the coffin, and whilst his highly publicized hospital visits may have spring-boarded him back in to the public eye for a week, it appears the critical and commercial communities are done waiting: they’ve given up hope.
So what impact did he exert over the rap game? Was his a case of a star burning too bright too young? Plenty of artists have achieved longevity in their careers, Jay-Z has managed to stay relevant since his very first record, Eminem has come full circle and, in Recovery, created the essential modern day addiction blueprint. Snoop Dogg has become Snoop Lion and released a stunning record, Reincarnation. Outkast are still spoken of in hushed terms. None displayed the work ethic of Wayne, and that is his legacy. His influence over how mixtapes are used and perceived has literally created careers for the Lil B’s and Gucci Manes and Waka Flocka Flame’s of the world. Soulja Boy appeared on IANAHB II and was helplessly outgunned by Wayne, but Gunplay, who could be considered amongst the same company, bodied his verse and his senior counterpart. His contribution to Southern Hip Hop cannot be underestimated either. Once the golden period of the mid to late 90s wrapped up, the South slipped from collective consciousness until “Go D.J.” reminded everyone where bounce music originated, and just how insanely fun it could be.
Lil Wayne, whether you love him or hate him, will remain amongst the most influential ever to grace the microphone. And whilst all hope may now be lost for that stunning comeback record we crave so dearly, his stupidly prolific output means there’s plenty of past gold to indulge in whenever we feel the urge.