For a three-year period, from mid-2006 to 2009, Lil Wayne was unquestionably the best rapper alive.
It's hard to overstate the sheer skill that Wayne displayed during these years. His much-publicized drug addictions and disastrous ventures into other genres have since overshadowed his status as a rapper, but during those years he was simply unstoppable. He compared himself to Roger Federer, and the comparison was apt: his dominance was both absolute and seemingly effortless. He was so fluid, so off-the-wall creative, so spectacularly prolific and bizarre that he was simply on another level – to draw another sports analogy, he was like LeBron James, young, brash, and so talented as to make everyone else look like an amateur. The other household names in the rap game were nowhere to be found: Eminem's drug addictions had caught up with him after 2004's disappointing Encore, Jay-Z was struggling to break back in after a brief period of retirement after The Black Album, and Kanye West was in a slump after being passed over at the VMAs. Wayne had an opportunity to steal the spotlight, and steal it he did.
Wayne's dominance stemmed from more than his skills as an emcee: he pioneered the Internet as a platform for self-promotion in rap. I have no idea how much music he released for free in those years - considering his drug habits, he definitely doesn't remember - but in my iTunes library I have eight mixtapes alone, and I know of at least five others that I haven't gotten around to downloading. That's thirteen albums' worth of material, more music than most artists ever record – all given away for free – plus an EP and a triple-platinum studio album. His work extended beyond the realm of mixtapes; by virtue of his willingness to collaborate with absolutely anyone, he was a ubiquitous presence on the radio, eventually ending up on Billboard Hot 100 a full 109 times, breaking Elvis's record. For years he was inescapable, inexhaustible, and invulnerable.
Mixtapes exist in somewhat of a legal gray area. Yes, the samples used to create the backing beats are unlicensed, but in the age of broadband connections, the opportunity to profit off of mixtapes is essentially nil; most mixtapes now are never even printed to CD, just uploaded to websites like Tumblr or DatPiff. DatPiff, in particular, is flourishing, often partnering with artists like Rick Ross to stick their latest offerings on the front page. The entire situation is somewhat of a gentleman's agreement: everybody steals everybody else's work, and nobody makes any money off of it.
I'm only going to cover four mixtapes in this post – a very good four, all but one of which are officially blessed releases from Wayne. (As he says on a spoken interlude in the middle of Da Drought 3: "Hope you got this for free. If not, you're stupid.") Not all of his mixtapes are consistently good: indeed, some, particularly those covering the sessions for Rebirth, are straight-out awful. But these four albums are classics of the genre.
Before you check these records out, you might want to read SocialJusticeLeague's excellent article on How to Be a Fan of Problematic Things - many of these songs are deeply troubling in their language and attitudes towards women, gays, violence, and drugs. It can be cringe-inducing. Not everyone will enjoy this music.
Dedication 2 (2006)
This is Wayne's first document of real importance. It's a magnetic, violent, lurid album, gangster down to its diamond-studded teeth, stuffed with some of his most memorable lines. Its criminal braggadocio is convincing, though his gangster past is no doubt exaggerated. Wayne, after all, was a child star, signed to a major label at age twelve - he simply didn't have time to engage in all the drug dealing of which he brags.
Such exaggerations do nothing to detract from the grim magnetism of Dedication 2. Every track's stuffed with over-the-top-boasts of sex, violence, money, and drugs; Wayne paints himself as part Lothario, part Escobar, and part Angel of Death. He'll drop bizarre yet menacing threats one moment ("I think they sipping on that I-can-fuck-with-him juice / Test me if you want a bad man, I'll knock a limb loose") and then switch to absurdly raunchy boasts of oral sex in the next ("Y'all know me, I smoke a blunt while I'm getting brain / stick a finger in her butt while I'm giving brain / yeah I'm nasty, bitch, what? Lil Wayne!") Technique-wise, he's impeccable: he'll lock into hypnotic, alliterative, assonant streams of rhymes, drawing them out to absurd lengths and speed, then punctuate the phrase with a guttural gasp or raspy laugh.
On "Sportscenter", possibly the standout track, he raps over a DJ Green Lantern beat originally used by quasi-rival Jay-Z - it's a thumping kick-drum line punctuated by the sounds of a gymnasium (A tennis game? Basketballs? Hard to tell).
Wayne drops a dizzying array of sports and entertainment allusions, alternately referencing Forbes, the Jackson Five, Roger Federer, and The Source:
I waited on my turn to burn, can I get a light?
Little dog, bigger bite
Jackson Five, little Mike
Can I get a mic, or a mic-and-a-half?
That's the Source, homie, shoutout to the editing staff
I'm all grown, so much better with math
I need a spread in the Forbes, takin' a Benjamin bath
I'm serving this track - like -
Steffi Graf, yeah
Young God, baby, all these other niggas reverend
This is classic Wayne: pop-culture references, playful acknowledgment of the media, boasts of unimaginable wealth, sports references, and self-deification. The rhymes are scattershot, slanted, sometimes internal ("bath"/"Graf", "Federer"/"competitor"/"rhetoric").
And on "Georgia… Bush", the critically-acclaimed album closer, he goes after George W. Bush himself, slamming his response to Hurricane Katrina. Kanye West's accusation that Bush didn't care about the plight of the black community came off as ill-considered, but Wayne's critiques are the opposite: he is bitter, biting, and ferocious in his condemnation of FEMA's feeble actions in the wake of the destruction wrought on his home city. Don't miss the hidden track, a take on Tupac's "Ambitionz as a Ridah" that, dare I say it, demolishes the original.
Unfortunately, this mixtape is marred by its producer – the oafish DJ Drama – yelling his name and sprinkling irritating samples throughout, an incredibly tiresome practice known as DJ tags. DJ tags are a fixture of the mixtape scene, as any producer willing to lend his time to compiling an mixtape needs to self-promote. Regardless, if you can ignore the shouting, Dedication 2 is spectacular, dizzying and triumphant in its skill.
Da Drought 3 (2007)
Not many rappers release double albums. Keeping a listener's attention for a single disc's worth of rap is difficult enough. The rappers that possess enough skill to extend that over 120+ minutes of music are legends of the genre – Biggie, Tupac, Wu-Tang, Outkast. So it's extremely notable that Wayne was confident enough to release a double album for free. It's even more notable for how fucking great it is. If I had to recommend a single one of his works, Drought 3 would be it.
The beat selection is gloriously varied – in an interview, Wayne avowed that the only criterion for inclusion was whatever happened to be on the radio at the time. The beats are swiped from fixtures of the genre such as Nas and Jay-Z to modern rappers such as T.I. and Young Jeezy to utter curveballs like Gnarls Barkley. (Drought 3 can, thankfully, be found free of DJ tags, though there are tagged versions of it floating around on the internet).
Wayne is at his deliriously stoned best here - woozy, syrupy, blunted, he leaps from simile to simile and rhyme to rhyme. He switches up his flow on nearly every song: Jamaican stylings on the introductory track, half-sung storytelling over "Crazy", languid braggadocio (and vroom noises made with his mouth) over Beyonce's "Upgrade". The second track, "Black Republicans", features Juelz Santana of the Diplomats and is an excellent indicator of how profound Wayne's 2006-2009 gestalt was.
Santana, a longtime friend and collaborator of Wayne's, is not a bad MC by any means and is comparable to Wayne in many aspects: they were both stars at a young age, they both feature a slow, gravelly flow, and are both thoroughly grounded in the gangster persona. Juelz's verse is perfectly adequate, interesting in its allusions if somewhat stilted in its flow:
Pockets stay chubby like Tocarra
Or should I say, fat like the Parkers
Tote big guns like I'm still playing Contra
Y'all washed up, like money that's laundered
But Wayne jumps in after about a minute of Santana's verse, and the difference is night and day. Liquid, virtuosic, tongue-twisting, alluding one moment to the right-wing predilection for public firearms, in the next the Ed Sullivan show, in the next Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. And he fits all of these into a mere twenty-five seconds of furious, intense flow:
(I feel like)
A black Republican,
Toting the Mac in public and
Acting so Souther'n, die for my brother and
money, money, money, like money America publishing
One life to live, never ask for a mulligan
Streets cold, but the heat make me feel covenant
Been done, had cake, they late like Ed Sullivan
Fly like an Eagle but no I'm not Donovan
Wayne was featured on the original cut of "We Takin' Over", along with chums T.I., Rick Ross, Fat Joe, and adoptive father Birdman - and he utterly demolished them with a short, 16-measure verse. This was apparently not enough for him, as he returns to the track to incredible effect: he defends the photo taken of him kissing Birdman, then engages in some good old-fashioned bragging:
Lookin' for me? I'm in the three-oh-
five, I'm the best rapper alive
Homeboy got a mind that a map couldn't find
Homeboy got a nine that a cop couldn't find
But I could get to it even if I was blind
Like a scary movie, they screamin' when I rhyme
I'm a King, you can ask Stephen if I'm lying
then switches into straight-up free-associated yelling before ending the track just over the two-minute mark.
The Drought is Over 2 (2007)
After the success of Drought 3 (yes, Drought and Drought is Over belong to two separate series of mixtapes; yes, it's confusing) Wayne began working on his next commercially-released follow-up, Tha Carter III. Drought is Over consists of the tracks that wouldn't make the cut on that album, but to describe it as a record of castoffs would be doing it a tremendous disservice: there's some seriously stellar production work here, from Kanye's work on "Did it Before" to Maestro's work on "Prostitute Flange". The sampling choices are wonderfully audacious: the Beatles's "Help!", Heart's "What About Love?", and, on "La La La", The New Birth's "You Don't Have to Be Alone." The latter is the standout track: the pitch-shifted soul of the sample is wistfully beautiful, and Wayne's story of growing up in New Orleans is charming in its sincerity and endearingly laid-back in its tales of young misbehavior:
I used to come through the hood on the handlebars
Gat in my drawers, crack in my jaws
I hope it don't dissolve
And you know I'm duckin' 5-0 and my moms
Young, quick to set it off like car alarms
Wayne's fondness for extolling the virtues of pot and codeine/promethazine cough syrup is well-known, but on Drought is Over's track "I Feel Like Dying", he portrays the less glamorous side of addiction. He raps incredibly slowly, inserting long pauses between words and phrases, as though nodding off at the microphone. It's an ode to self-destructiveness, magnificent in its disjointed solopsism:
Swimming laps around a bottle of Louis XIII
Jumpin' off a mountain into a sea of codeine
I'm at the top of the top, but still I climb
And if I should fall, the ground will turn to wine
It's unclear why none of these songs made it onto the commercial release of Tha Carter III (though two songs would appear on the iTunes-only The Leak EP). It could have been difficulties securing sampling rights - there's absolutely no way that he could have gotten permission from the Beatles to rap over "Help". It's also possible that Wayne simply wanted to drop an album full of tracks that nobody had heard before, as an early leak tends to spell doom for an album's sales.
Tha Carter III came out to huge fanfare. Platinum in its first week, triple platinum within a year. (I won't discuss Carter III here, as a roundtable organized by Robert Christgau covers it far more exhaustively than I can. Go read that.) But by this time, it was clear that Wayne's genius had hit its zenith. The buzz on the street was that his upcoming rock album Rebirth was awful. He had stumbled through a painfully awkward Grammy interview with Katie Couric. He was arrested in New York for smoking weed in front of his tour bus while carrying a handgun registered to his manager, and would plead guilty to the resulting firearms charges - a jail sentence loomed. His mixtape output had slowed from its frenetic once-a-month pace. That same year, the documentary The Carter premiered at Sundance, painting an extremely unflattering picture of Wayne: he spends nearly the entire length of the film puffing on blunts, swigging promethazine cough syrup, and saying astoundingly stupid things. His legal efforts to prevent the release of the film seemed like an admission of guilt. But before he went to Rikers Island and finally lost his momentum, Wayne dropped one last classic.
A favorite quatrain of mine:
I'm a New Orleans nigga, I don't take no shit
Take the brain off the whip, now it don't make no sense
Stunt hard on these bitches, I ain't promised tomorrow
Now they kickin' it with me like Normar Garciaparra
The allusions to the tried-and-true hip-hop subjects of hometowns, automobiles, and women make it seem like this'll be just another verse - but then, out of absolutely nowhere, Wayne shoves a jaw-dropping rhyme ("tomorrow/Garciaparra") and extremely obscure sports reference (I had to look this one up: Nomar Garciaparra is married to soccer star Mia Hamm, hence the "kickin' it") all into a single punchline. This is one of Wayne's best vocal performances: he raps in a somewhat higher tone than normal, with notable rising and falling emphasis, dizzily rhyming for three hookless minutes.
Wayne's relationship with Jay-Z has been one of alternate friendship and conflict, and this is reflected by his choice to hop on two famous Jay-Z beats for Ceilings. The standout here is the well-known beat to The Blueprint 3's "Run This Town."
Few rappers are as playful as Wayne is here: dropping acronyms, goofy similes, and an astonishing allusion:
C-A-R-T-E-R, put the beat in ER,
I'm colder than "b-r", add another three 'r's
Watch me like D-V-D, V-C-R,
Pump to your chest - I ain't talking C-P-R
Riding this track like a motherfucking streetcar
New Orleans coroner, his name is Frank Minyard
Fuck with me wrong, you'll be waking up in his yard
(The New Orleans coroner really is named Frank Minyard.)
Wayne was really never the same after the double-whammy of the awful Rebirth and his yearlong stint on Rikers Island. Despite the street cred that a jail sentence confers, time in the slammer tends to stall careers (though Gucci Mane notably released an excellent mixtape from jail, even recording verses over prison telephones). Since the end of his gestalt Wayne has dropped a few middling mixtapes and the commercially-successful but critically-underwhelming Tha Carter IV. He'll no doubt continue to make incredible amounts of money, but I doubt he'll ever achieve the critical heights of his past: rap is a young man's game. But he has his place in history: nearly every rapper to have achieved prominence since (to pick some examples, Meek Mill, Wiz Khalifa, and the various and sundry members of Odd Future Wolf Gang) have done on the strength not only of their commercial releases but also on their contributions to the mixtape circuit. And economics aside, future rappers will always be compared in form to Wayne, as he is a yardstick for drugged-out lyrical genius and otherworldly creativity.
Many thanks to my friend Colin Barrett for editing drafts of this article, and to This City of Islands for providing it a home.