High and Mighty
Lil Wayne takes over hip-hop.by Sasha Frere-Jones
Ne wYorker Source
August 13, 2007
Dwayne Carter, the twenty-four-year-old rapper from New Orleans known as Lil Wayne, hasn’t released an album or a single in months, though he has appeared as a guest on songs by other artists. But he is indisputably the rapper of the year. He has been recording songs constantly—sometimes three or four a night. Many are astonishingly good, and most eventually find their way onto the Internet, where they can be downloaded for free, apparently with his blessing. Among hip-hop fans, discussion has been dominated by talk of Lil Wayne—his place in the hip-hop canon, his romantic status, his sexual orientation, and the release date of his sixth album, “Tha Carter III.” Last week, MTV’s “hip-hop brain trust”—ten staffers—voted Lil Wayne the “hottest m.c. in the game.”
In four years, Lil Wayne has evolved from a fairly predictable Southern gangsta rapper into an artist who may actually deserve the bragging rights to “best rapper alive,” his current motto. His raspy, pixillated croak is as distinctive as Bob Dylan’s piercing Klaxon whine, and his music conveys the same sense of headlong propulsion that Dylan’s did in 1965. (Lil Wayne’s subject matter—drugs, women, and gunplay—is more typical of the blues songs that Dylan idolized than of Dylan’s own material.) Lil Wayne’s verse on DJ Khaled’s “We Takin’ Over,” which was released in March, is thirty seconds of uncontrolled id: he sounds demented enough to make the gothic boast “I am the beast—feed me rappers or feed me beats” seem like empirical description. The material that Lil Wayne (or his associates) has posted on the Internet so far this year could make up several albums, and the range of the work is impressive. On “Something You Forgot,” he delivers self-critique and emotional vulnerability: “Pain—since I’ve lost you, I’m lost, too. ----- feeling like he at the bottom, like a horseshoe.” On “Kush,” he strings together loopy rhymes about tooth fairies, turtles, and marijuana, and on “Did It Before,” over a beat by Kanye West that could be a sample of a New Orleans funk band, he tells a shaggy-dog story about promiscuity.
Lil Wayne grew up in Hollygrove, a working-class neighborhood known for producing R. & B. singers and hip-hop m.c.s, and began his career unusually young. When he was eleven, he befriended Bryan (Baby) Williams, a rapper and the co-owner of a highly successful New Orleans hip-hop label called Cash Money. Lil Wayne recorded rhymes on Williams’s answering machine and hung around the label’s offices. Williams mentored the genuinely little Wayne, including him in various group recordings, and in 1999, when Lil Wayne was seventeen, released his first solo album, “Tha Block Is Hot.” Cash Money made its name by putting out a cheap and dirty gangsta rap that featured all the threats and braggadocio that you could find anywhere else but also a uniquely lighthearted swagger and supple cadences that made even the dorkiest boast appealing. (Lil Wayne was already enough of a ham to know that stage-whispering the phrase “the block is hot, the block is hot” sounded more threatening than yelling it.)
Lil Wayne reached a national audience with his 2004 hit “Go D.J.,” a pulsing, bass-heavy series of exclamations, but it was his fifth album, “Tha Carter II” (2005), that secured his reputation. His voice had acquired a pleasing gravelly texture and his jokes were funnier: “Quick Draw McGraw, I went to art school. Yeah, the lights is bright, but I got a short fuse—don’t snooze. Been handling the game so long my thumbs bruised” (from the single “Fireman”). Lil Wayne is uninhibited about using a variety of vocal tricks—quavers, comic growls, reedy hollers—to make his words stand out. His theatricality, even more than his energy and sense of rhythm, sets him apart from the monotonous blowhards of thugdom.
In December, Lil Wayne announced in the hip-hop magazine Complex that he had superseded Jay-Z, who had been regarded by many—including Lil Wayne—as the best rapper in the business. “It’s not your house anymore and I’m better than you,” Lil Wayne said. Jay-Z took the bait, eventually releasing a lacklustre rebuttal in the form of a guest verse on the rapper T.I.’s song “Watch What You Say,” in which he disparages Lil Wayne for smoking “cannabis.” It’s hard to imagine that Lil Wayne, who has boasted of being so high that he “could eat a star,” was insulted. Soon afterward, though, he issued a reply—featured on a track called “Beat Without Bass,” by the rapper Freekey Zekey—in which he made fun of Jay-Z’s advanced age (for a rapper) by exploiting a numerical conceit from Jay-Z’s song “22 Two’s”: “You old-ass rappers better stay on tour. You’re like forty-four, I got a .44, I’m twenty-four. I could murk you and come home when I’m forty-four.”
The victor in this argument was evident in another set of numbers: Jay-Z hasn’t bothered to respond to Lil Wayne and, apart from his contribution to “Watch What You Say,” has appeared just twice in 2007, notably as a guest on Rihanna’s smash pop hit “Umbrella.” Meanwhile, Lil Wayne has appeared on songs by nearly every major rapper—including one with T.I.—as well as tracks by several R. & B. singers.
Jay-Z, who is actually thirty-seven, is the C.E.O. of Def Jam, a major label that still does business the twentieth-century way, selling records in stores. Lil Wayne’s commercial releases are distributed by another major label, Universal, but, by posting his songs for free on the Internet and, in the process, acquiring new fans, he is proving that the established methods of distribution, like the established rappers, no longer rule. His recent releases have taken the form of mix tapes—compilations of original songs interspersed with tracks in which the artist records new lyrics over another artist’s well-known beat—and they contain his best work to date.
The lazy psychedelic anthem “I Feel Like Dying,” a collaboration with the producer Jim Jonsin that appeared on the Internet in June, is one of the few songs about drugs that sound as if both the music and the musician are high. The music is based on a sample from “Once,” a bleak acoustic-guitar ballad from 2003 by Karma, a South African singer-songwriter who lives in Miami. Jonsin sped up Karma’s voice and rearranged her lyrics to create a new chorus: “Only once the drugs are done, then I feel like dying.” Karma sounds pained, but Lil Wayne doesn’t seem to be feeling much of anything. Over a jumpy kick-drum pattern, he recites his words slowly, separating each phrase with a long, narcotic pause that threatens to dissolve the rhythm: “In a marijuana field, you are so beneath my cleats. . . . I can mingle with the stars and throw a party on Mars. I am a prisoner locked up behind Xanax bars.”
Lil Wayne is wide awake on “Help,” a track driven by a sample of the Beatles song, which his lawyers at Universal would probably have had a hard time getting permission for him to use on an album. (Some rappers who give away mix tapes on the Internet try to avoid litigation by claiming that their sampling falls under the doctrine of “fair use” and by pointing out that they aren’t selling anything.) “So sick, need a doc, yes—a creature, monster like the Loch Ness,” Lil Wayne chants, relying on a combination of tart duplets and sixteenth notes to deliver his boasts. “I gets hotter by the tock; when I sizzle to death, I just tell the clock, ‘Give me a sec.’ ”
On YouTube, there was recently a clip of Lil Wayne performing this song in April, on BET’s “Rap City.” Instead of using the Beatles sample, though, he raps over a nineteen-seventies reggae track, stretching out the song in a sly, woozy style. He mugs for the camera, illustrating a line about bloodshot eyes by raising his sunglasses, closing his eyes, and smiling. Later, he waves his hands in mock fear as he says, “I hear the track, I’m like an energy pack. The instruments are crying out, ‘Where the sympathy at?’ ”
Last month, Lil Wayne played his first solo show in New York, at the Beacon Theatre. It was a solidly old-world, real-time complement to his cyber-age record-making, and he demonstrated that his self-regard may well be justified. After a ninety-minute set of current hits, played by the New York d.j. Self, Lil Wayne, accompanied by the rapper Mack Maine, entered the theatre to high-pitched screaming. He was wearing several enormous diamond necklaces over a faded Run-DMC T-shirt, a nod to the legendary New York rap duo who dominated hip-hop twenty years ago, the way Lil Wayne and the South do now.
Lil Wayne’s stage manner is as unpredictable as his lyrics. During a performance of “Fireman,” he punched the air and stomped. Moments later, he and Maine, moving into a chorus-line formation, leaned back and snapped their fingers in unison, and then leaped around the stage. Between songs, Lil Wayne repeatedly asked the crowd to “make some noise for your ------------- selves.” He added, “I wouldn’t be shit without you,” and he seemed to mean it. (An hour after the show ended, police boarded Lil Wayne’s tour bus and arrested him. He was charged with possessing an unlicensed handgun and has pleaded not guilty.)
In June, Lil Wayne announced in a videotape on YouTube that he had decided to give away the tracks for his upcoming album, “Tha Carter III,” on a mix tape called “The Leak.” Noting that the songs had already leaked on the Internet, he added cheerfully, “I must take better care of my things, and I will.” ♦