Weezy F Baby. The Birdman Junior. Lil-Weezyana. The Rapper Eater. Mister Carter. Mister I Can’t Make an Appointment. Tunechi. And the F is for Forensics. And the F is for Phenomenal. Lil Weezy. The Best Rapper Alive.
Who is Lil Wayne? For years I’ve asked myself this question while listening to what feels like an infinite catalogue of his albums, mixtapes, and features, and have found myself more confused than someone coming out of a Sizzurp binge. Never in my life has an artist been so hot and cold for me; at times I’ll listen to his music and be floored by greatness, and others I’ll have no choice but to ask myself, is this even music?
With this week’s release of I Am Not A Human Being 2, I found all of my old questions about Weezy resurfacing as I listened to the album. (Actually, the first question I had to ask myself is whether Wayne’s hugely publicized hospital episode just weeks before the release of his album was beyond coincidence. Was this actually a near tragedy, or an extremely well executed marketing move? I’ll admit, I had all of my Lil Wayne discography queued up to binge on if he died, which is basically the go-to fan tribute for a fallen artist, and when I found out Wayne was going to pull through, I re-listened to all of his stuff anyway. But I digress.)
I’m just going to go ahead and say it: IANAHB2 was weak. However, I don’t think this was due to a lack of effort on Lil Wayne’s part, and that’s what scares me. You could feel his effort on this album, which, frankly, is often hard to find in his other work. Part of Weezy’s allure is that his music sounds effortless, but everything on this new album felt forced. You could tell that Wayne really wanted this album to be something special, but it just wasn’t. The only way I can describe HB2 is that it was tragically underwhelming.
Before I go further with Wayne’s newest work, I want to explain my complicated rap-fan relationship with his music a little more deeply. I used to hate Weezy’s music. I thought his massive music output watered down any of the quality that he might create. Basically, the motto I used to describe his music was: “If you throw enough s**t at the wall, some of it has to stick.” What bothered me even more about his music is that everyone liked it. From teenage girls to crack dealers (this is conjecture here, I haven’t actually asked any real crack dealers) , everyone thought he was fire, and I couldn’t figure out why. I remember in my first week of college, a guy in my hall commented on my massive iTunes library, which at the time probably held around 20,000 songs almost totally comprised of hip-hop. Here’s what he said: “Wow man, you have so much Lil Wayne! Carter 3 was dope.” We never spoke again.
Eventually though, I paid a little more attention to his Da Drought and Dedication tapes and started to admit that his best stuff was as good as anyone’s, but I still wasn’t sold because so much of his stuff was so bad. I was still frustrated. My buddy Mike (who we’ll talk about more later) once put my problem with Wayne better than I ever could have: “It’s infuriating! Weezy could slap his wang against a microphone for 3 minutes and a million people would pay to listen to it.” Still true, right?
But then No Ceilings came out and everything changed. In arguably the best mixtape I’ve ever heard, Wayne was at his absolute cleverness apex. He basically created a consecutive hour of Weezy-esque punchlines without breathing or pausing to sober up. It was breathtaking, and although it had the sound of a “just-for-fun” mixtape, there was an unexplainable feeling of cohesion and depth there, too. To me, my “Oh my God” feelings about this tape culminated the first time I heard this track:
After hearing this once, I had to play it for a second, third, fourth, and fifth time in a row. I’m not even sure I finished the rest of the tape that day – I just listened to this song over and over again. And could you blame me? This was what Weezy was put on Earth to do. He had finally maximized his ability. When Lil Wayne doesn’t confine himself to any sort of theme, concept, or storyline, and just spits out a raw series of playfulness over a well-picked beat, there is no one alive or dead who can do what he does. No one’s even close.
But here’s the problem: mixtapes are called “mixtapes” for a reason. They’re free. In order to rap for a living, and to actually maintain some sort of cultural or historical significance, you have to make studio albums. The average fan isn’t going to dig through DatPiff of 2DopeBoyz to find your mixtapes, so to be successful you have to be able to make commercial music. And sadly, Wayne’s inability to be anything other than the mixtape king is the reason he will never be in the “best rapper ever” conversation.
I want to go back to my friend Mike for a moment. He is by far the best source of knowledge I know of when it comes to rap (including myself), and there is no bigger, yet honest, Lil Wayne fan I’ve ever met. A few weeks ago, (right around Weezy in the Hospital-Gate) Mike and I had this text conversation:
Mike: “After listening to some pre-Carter Weezy, I’ve decided to try to last until the end of March listening to exclusively CashMoney Records rap. Needless to say, it is going to be a very entertaining month.”
Me: “I give you a week.”
Mike: “My playlist is 27 hours. A week is easy, I could rotate Weezy’s first 3 CD’s for a week.”
Me: “Hahah c’mon.”
Mike: “I’ll keep you updated. I’m having iPod issues so I need to overcome those first. Might have to resort to old fashioned CD’s for a few days.
Me: “I love your dedication (GET THE PUN???).”
(Mike then sent me this picture)
Accidentally, Mike perfectly illustrated the problem with listening to Weezy’s studio albums. Excluding Da Carter and Da Carter 2 (which are both very, very good), all Wayne’s albums can do is put you in the mood to listen to other Lil Wayne music that you like better. Although Mike happily listened to Wayne’s early stuff, all it did was inspire him to listen to something else.
Think about the expectations that come with a studio album. Typically, there is some sort of prevailing theme or narrative throughout the entire work that ties together all of the songs. There’s also usually variation in the types of tracks on the album; some are slow, some are fast, some are violent, some are loving, some are funny, some are serious. Even within one particular song, there is a higher level of meaning. Instead of just dancing on a beat with witticisms and wordplay, there’s a concept being discussed, a feeling being expressed, or an experience being described. Albums are basically everything a mixtape is not.
Has anyone ever tried to describe Lil Wayne’s work as “serious,” or even “meaningful?” Of course not, and to do so would be ludicrous. I want to reiterate that the biggest part of Wayne’s appeal is that his music is supposed to seem easy. His music is supposed to sound like someone hanging out with friends, just playing around, except that he’s way better at it than anyone else. But when Lil Wayne tries to make an album, with all of the elements that are expected to be part of that sort of creation, it falls apart.
This is exactly what happened with I Am Not A Human Being 2. The album starts with a gorgeous piano track, and when Wayne finally begins to rap, he’s introspective and deep while still sprinkling in his patented wordplay. For the first four minutes of the album, I started to think, Wayne finally figured this out. This is going to be classic. But then by track five we’re back at “No Worries” and Wayne can’t get away from euphemisms for oral sex and drug references again, which would be fine for a mixtape, but not for a $15 album. By the end, all I wanted to do was go listen to No Ceilings again.
Disappointingly, I Am Not A Human Being 2 just continues to support the notion that Wayne will never be an album rapper. And honestly, I’m fine with that, as long as we are willing to accept Wayne for the mixtape rapper that he is. Some people just aren’t born to make studio albums. It’s not like you can blame Wayne for this either; he’s been in the same rap world since he was nine years old, he doesn’t know anything else. Does he even have any life experiences or stories to tell if he wanted to? The craft is just fun for him; he’s even admitted that “Rapping is my hobby.” Wayne only knows one way to rap, and unfortunately, that style just doesn’t work for anything but a mixtape.
Fifty years from now, when rap is outdated music playing on oldies stations, and hip-hop heads are talking with each other in the nursing home about the best albums of all time, Wayne’s name will never come up in the conversation. He’s never going to have an Illmatic, or a Reasonable Doubt, or even a The Infamous. But if you were going to stock 60 gig iPod with the best rap ever created, it would almost certainly have Da Drought 1-3, Dedication 1-3, No Ceilings, and some sort of compilation of hits that includes “6’7”, “A Milli,” “Fireman,” “She Will,” and others. And chances are, Wayne’s music would get more play than almost anything else.
So who is Lil Wayne? He’s the best mixtape rapper who ever lived, but someone who could never translate his greatness into a meaningful, coherent studio album. He’s a wordplay master and a content failure, and listeners just have to be okay with that. The question is, will that ever be okay with Wayne?