Saturday, May 31, 2008

Lil' Wayne and the Nature of Hype

From Vampire Weekend to The Strokes to 50 Cent, hype, whether deserved or fabricated (as in the case of every shitty band touted as the saviors of post-punk jangle), is always a tricky and tragic thing. We live in a time where constant consistency can make people tire of you, while on the other hand many aren't even given the proper time to develop their craft or mature before becoming has-beens. Its pretty arduous to navigate shit when everyone's a lot more savvy and hip to bullshit and attention-starved stunts or the kind of "transformations" Madonna and Bowie are hailed for.

With it much safer to me a mid-to-underground level musician, its this weird pendulous thing to be huge. But especially interesting is the ascent of Dwayne Carter since 2004.

It was weird to see the guy retain and increase his popularity, as with most people over 18 I vividly recall how the Cash Money Millionaires were everywhere in 98 and 99, usurping the No Limit throne and unleashing a bunch of hit songs under assorted group monikers that never made any sense considering every Cash Money album was a group album anyway. This is evident from the fact that no one remembers that "Bling Bling" was a BG song.

According to lore, a then 16/17 year old Lil' Wayne came up with the term that would quickly become to replace "jiggy" as the go-to overused piece of mainstreamed slang that would be retired out of embarrassment. I remember being about 11 when this all started and reading up on Wayne in the back of Jet magazine and how he was a 16-year-old father, which I though, as an 11 year-old myself, was kind of outrageous. That same element that made him being a teenaged baby daddy kind of made easier to relate to than other rappers, in the sense that dude was super young and a 6th grader can relate to a Lil'Wayne (or, in the darkest moment, a Lil' Zane) more than a DMX or M.O.P. Being so young is probably what helped him push so many copies of Tha Block Is Hot, despite the hit-or-miss Pac-Man beats of Mannie Fresh.

Wayne's other accomplishment at this time, besides being a retardedly young upcoming rapper in a clique of dudes bubbling in the mainstream and huge in the south with every gnarly, busted pidgeon-toed chickenhead without a gag-reflex trying to get backstage to molest the kid, was being the "wobbedly-wobbedly" guy. This shit was on TRL for weeks and weeks and became, strangely, the biggest Cash Money hit so pretty much that's how people would know him for a long time. But the nature of a lot of Southern rap is that despite guest spots on Jay-Z albums and national airtime, the tastes of the country were moving fast and people started getting sick of Cash Money and their 15-weedplates-a-year output and they started fading like No Limit, although unlike No Limit they still survived on BET and 106&Park and anywhere that non-lyrical Southern rap can flourish.

With no one giving a shit about Lights Out or 500 Degreez much despite some airplay of some of the videos and the defection of both Juvenile and BG, all of a sudden Mannie Fresh and Baby become the face of Cash Money. The Big Tymers actually have hit songs, and Baby goes on to make THREE solo records, all with pretty decent first singles. Meanwhile, Wayne is basically doing nothing but growing dreads, listening to Jay-Z a lot, and apparently, being tutored by Bun B on the finer aspects of rapping. And then sometime in 2004, a year after the official start of the dominance of Southern rap as Atlanta is controlling shit and Roc-A-Fella records is starting to crumble, out comes this:

And this is where the hype starts. Not only is it weird that all of a sudden Lil' Wayne has, though an oft-maligned and cliched concept, "swagger", but he had improved a whole hell of a lot lyrically. Of no small help was also that he basically rapped like he was from New York, which was unusual since only a minority of Southern or West Coast rappers do that. So all of a sudden, there's renewed attention of the guy, as evidenced by the standing ovation he got at the BET Awards in 2004 when he performed "Go DJ". It all started enough small enough, and then he began releasing mixtapes, the first of which is the pretty crappy Dedication which didn't really have much going for it except the interludes displaying a strange oddball streak permeating everything Wayne was starting to do.

Then there was him being stoic and seemingly tripped out when he hosted Sucker Free Sunday on MTV2 and the ensuing arrest with weed and a bunch of anti-depressants. Which in my eyes at the time made him a lot more interesting than everyone else rapping. Already his likable aspects were emerging. Then Tha Carter II came out.

"Fireman" got a lot of MTV2 play, and I recall "Shooter" being a really late single, made months after it would've done any good and really not being played much at all. So though the full fervor wasn't on yet, there was some mumbling at the most. Tha Carter II has about 4 or 5 legitimately good songs on it, so that at least gave some buzz for the inevitable clusterfuck that would follow the release of Dedication 2. I have to go on a limb and say that Dedication 2, along with We Got It 4 Cheap Vol. 2 are the only really good mixtapes ever, based upon the quality of beat selection and quality of rapping on each. Soon, everyone was catching wind of Wayne and the praise was starting to mount, allowing the odd vanity project Like Father Like Son to come out as both a stopgap measure before Tha carter III and seemingly an altruistic move to put Baby back in the spotlight to allow Cash Money to have two public faces rather than to just have the weight on Wayne.

...and this is where shit gets weird. A lot has been made about this, or maybe not, but all of a sudden, Cash Money has concepts. Not just concepts, but second-rate B-movie plots and a constant of Wayne putting on a show and making memorable videos and seemingly just telling Baby what needs to be done to keep the brand alive. There seems to be a lot of "Trust me" going on, especially in "Leather So Soft" which, until "Sexual Seduction" came out was my favorite video.

Now the Weezy hype is alive, and the schoolchildren are downloading mixtapes. No, really. I was freaked the fuck out to hear some middle school kids rapping Wayne's "Can't Stop, Won't Stop" verse in its entirety last fall, and based upon the release of Da Drought series of mixtapes and the reaction from the under 19 set, the guy is huge and my discussions about rap with 12-year-olds at the junior high I mentored at were torture, just because its hard to tell kids they're retarded and don't know anything when they're just being kids. And I'd just look like the asshole for yelling at them about Kool G Rap and Ghostface.

Performances, a constant slew of weird interviews and magazine covers, gossip for days, and the unfortunate "kissing Baby" thing from late '06 that strangely came out (no homo) around the same time as Like Father Like Son

And then, the backlash. The huge, huge backlash, which can be separated into two groups. One, which I'm in, is people who think he's good and recognize his qualities but think the hype is a bit much, and the other group is a larger, staunch group who just think he's complete garbage and evokes all of the recent failures of the South. The long period of time between Tha Carter II and Tha Carter III didn't do much to help the case, as did the rapidly diminishing quality of his verses and mixtapes. Even worse was the blind dickriding of Pitchfork Media who saw no fault in anything Wayne did. Lil Wayne was the off-and-on number one person on Myspace, and even his throwaway mixtape tracks were getting huge downloads. But after a long delay, having Kanye West, of all people, do a better verse on a track, and the complete media oversaturation and Youtube dominance of Lil' Wayne, 2007 was the year that he should've capitalized. There's a strong feeling, even a week before the official release of the album that the moment has passed and the hype bubble has burst, despite still being popular and ubiquitous as ever. And even worse for Wayne, in the minds of all the naysayers and fans, how Tha Carter III does determines if his career will even continue past its second-wind.

So mixed news. The album, leaked last evening, is decent. But nowhere good enough to silence both camps of detractors, but definitely decent enough that he'll go platinum, at the least. There's definitely Weezy fatigue, evidenced by the fact that this is the first time that I've addressed the guy in the 8 month history of this blog, despite his visage blessing every post from the upper right-hand corner. Despite "Lollipop" and creating a model for all old "Lil'" rappers from Bow Wow to Romeo to follow and blatantly copy, things look kind of bad for Wayne, considering the embarrassing guitar playing, the inability to create cohesive music and be more than a punchline rapper and the slew of weird outbursts and bad marketing decisions (Condom ads with a dude in doggy style position behind you? Sure he's frisking you, but, come on).

Ultimately, those failings might define Wayne, despite how much more lyrical and interesting he's become since pre-Tha Carter. That's why the beef with the Clipse was always interesting to me. The Clipse have punchlines but A)They're much better than Wayne and B)They have actually written whole cohesive songs before and have the ability to blend the two. Wayne has only done so on "Go DJ".

Past the hype that's synonymous with his career the last 4 years, is his actual aspects as a rapper. He evolved from having a pronounced NY-influence, particular mixtape rappers and Jay-Z, combined with all the trapping of Southern cadence and flow. But, as has been noted before, between '06 and now, his success seems to be because of the fact that he's the Barack Obama of rap. He is everything to everyone because he manages to encapsulate tiny things from a host of rappers, but he ends up being a jack of trades, never really being that great at any of it.

Example: Weird rappers have existed forever. Shit, all of Wu-Tang were weird. LL and Kool Keith were weird. But being weird was never really a way into mainstream success for any rapper since ODB, which is part of what actually makes Wayne notable. Another fault in the guy is the fact that he IS a mixtape rapper and though entertaining very little of what he's put out of late is anything that'll stick to your ribs. Then there's the fact that his Dane Cook-y tendency to over-enunciate that the younger rappers have already been dickriding, especially in NYC, is an Outkast invention. And Clipse have better coke raps. And Ghostface, UGK, Scarface and Biggie displayed emotion and moral complexities better. And Jay sort of invented the "swagger" (or stole it from Beanie Sigel and other Philly rappers around '99 depending on who you ask) that 00's rap is based upon. That's a definite weakness and the key to the issues with Wayne, as well as his tendency to say even wacker shit than Kanye and Jay-Z combined.

Then there's the limited nature of his rapping, which like most mixtape rappers, is extended in shelf life by all the similes, which are called metaphors because people are too dumb to get basic grammar, used. But Wayne tended to overdo it on similes. Constant one-dimensional comparisons like "I'm hot like light" don't really impress anyone who realizes people made records before 2003. Perfect example is "Fireman" whose concept is completely muddled. Wayne claims that he'll "put you out" like a fireman, but then also claims to himself be "hot" and "allergic to wintertime". Unless he meant to portray himself as a cartoon flame who moonlights as a member of the Louisiana fire brigade, shit doesn't make sense.

And then there's the disheartening but understandable obsession on money and nothing but money that has been the common thread between most rap of recent years and just seems to reflect the self-centered glamor-obsessed faux-borgeois Myspace mentality of seemingly half the country at this point in the decade. It doesn't really impress when you realize that money is a necessity for survival in the world but not the huge clumps of stacked twenties being thrown around in videos and fetishized.

But the positives are there, too. His fusion of all of those elements, his Pac-ian work ethic, the fact that he's gone on record as saying he doesn't dig Pac, and his very real charisma. The guy is entertaining and legitimately fascinating in a way I don't feel about better rappers like Ghostface. And that's really the thing. Rap has been dead for a minute and we're really just embalming it at the coroner at this point. Every supposed savior of rap are just okay and overhyped, like Kidz in the Hall and Little Brother who are both decent but also really fucking boring and not worth much mention. People are getting passes because on the whole we have such lowered expectations for music, hence Vampire Weekend. So for every Papoose, Saigon, Plies, Little Brother, Cassidy, and whatever boring conservative rap is supposed to be good, you get stuff like Cam'Ron and Lil' Wayne that are weird, funny, and interesting and are therefore exponentially more "hip-hop" that Jedi Mind Tricks and Immortal Technique. Plus, he seems to have a genuine love and understanding of rap, as evidenced by his reverence of UGK and alluding to and interpolating obscure lines on mixtape raps. He can even drop surprisingly unpretentious commentary like "...where money's more important than a person", that's bare and unironic in that early Common way but still affecting.

Overall, as most people are already saying, the album is decent and nothing spectacular or particularly great considering the hype and compared to the litany of great rap records that I hope all the Lil' Mama fans get around to caring about. It won't secure any sort of legacy, but if you'd been paying attention and being objective about Wayne this whole time, you'd know he was never going to make a "classic" or whatever in the first place. The guy isn't Kanye West, who in comparison actually consistently succeeds in his visions, but dude is trying his best to be the South's Kanye in terms of flying in the face of black conservatism and expectations. Its enough of a miracle that the dude didn't become B.G. or Turk or Juvenile, or even worse, Bow Wow, so that should be the silver lining, as well as Dedication 2 and a handful of great singles.

But for the public, that won't be enough. There's weird overreactions to the album on and lastfm already, and there's only a minority of people who are calling the album what it is, decent but too much like a mixtape, and the majority are split between calling is horrible or "a classic". Ultimately, the consensus is what Wayne needed for his career, or at least until his album with Juelz Sanatana hypothetically sees the light of day, as well as the 50 other things he's promised to do that haven't and probably will never be completed, a lot like when you'd buy a Roc-A-Fella album and they'd always advertise Rell's solo LP but would never release it. He's the world's best mixtape rapper, but that's going to mean less and less in the coming months. Which is a shame since he, Kanye and Lupe are the only exciting things about rap anymore, and more the first two than the latter.

He went from being everyone's cute-ass rapper to a too-swagged-out-for-everyone NY kid trying to go dreads to this complex mess of a troll who willfully calls himself a "beast", not in the musician slang sense, but in the same way he calls himself a goblin on Tha Carter III. His failure would be a shame in a period where 50 Cent, who 4 years ago was the most entertaining person in rap but went on to ruin Eminem's career and fall off within a scant two year period of being the world's most infallible rap superstar, is now this weird homothug parody. 50 picking on Wayne was one of several bad moves because quite frankly, everyone has realized how pathetic Banks and Yayo for being spineless benefactors, that Curtis was an indefensible shit sandwich, and anyone still checking for G-Unit or Game of 50 needs to be sterilized for the good of the species.

Seriously. Who still falls for this shitty formula? Its not awful, but its not good either. Like everything 50 does, its bland, and that seems to be the model. As gay as this song and video is, at least Wayne and Kanye defy the blandness of rap in recent years. And frankly, of people. The fact that he's gotten away with that picture of him kissing Baby (and their weed carrier having a WTF face in the background) shows that our Myspace-refreshing ADD-addled history-ignorant self-absorbed youth might not be as huge of a disappointment as I previously thought. Since the Southern club rap dominating the radio is silly but not challenging, its just those three MC's left to act as polarizing figures and I'd honestly like to see Wayne around into his 30's and survive the hype. Strangely, like 50 has.

I just hope he got all his nuts out before his career bell curves.

Click for Brandon's much much better assessment of Lil' Wayne


josephlovesit said...

I guess it's telling that Weezy was off my radar from after "#1 Stunna" until Pitchfork started hyping Tha Carter II singles.

You're right about the album as well. I was disappointed that my two favorite tracks ended up being ones I all ready heard ("A Milli" and "Comfortable"). Though I was genuinely surprised by "Shoot Me Down," which is just a head scratcher, but I like it. It sounds like a Saves the Day or Jimmy Eat World song with rapping on it. My file says it's a Kanye production, but Wikipedia says it's by Deezle. I hope Kanye made it though.

Jordan said...

Excellent post that understands a lot of Wayne's strengths and weaknesses. That said, has there ever been a rapper as interesting as Wayne when rapping about women? I know it doesn't really show up too much on his albums (although I haven't heard the new one yet), but it's all over those mixtapes/guest appearances. He switches ridiculously well between sweet mode, stalker, dirty, flirtacious, heartbroken, lustful, etc, with only the occasional typical thug 'too good for this shit' posturing. For a guy constantly accused of being gay, he's given us the most interesting portrait of heterosexuality I've ever seen in rap.

Christopher said...

Jose: I have a weird emo-ass reaction to "Freakish" by Saves The Day. Oh 2002-3. How much of a girl you made me.

Even with the BET airplay, dude pretty much vanished after his first album and the breakup of the Hot Boys. Its weird, because now everyone has their specific favorite Weezy "era". These inane little microperiods where people like me say "Oh man, 'Dedication 2'Wayne was the best" and shit.

Jordan- That's also a weird thing. he seems genuinely nice and interesting and complex in interviews. Most of the time. If you can, check out "Ask Weezy" on They ask him all these emailed relationship questions and its endearing and funny somehow. Like Ghostface when he needs to sell records on MTV2.

Yeah, that weird shift between "Lollipop", where he basically says "Yeah, I'll eat your pussy and fuck you better than your man", and "Gettin Some Head" where he's sort of distant and really macho about blowjobs, then "What I Call Her" when he actually argues with himself over how best to respectfully address a girl he's trying to bag.

brandon said...

"And Jay sort of invented the "swagger" (or stole it from Beanie Sigel and other Philly rappers around '99 depending on who you ask)"


Thanks for the link but your post was better and more even-handed, I think. You do a good job separating the hype from his talents and indeed, labelling him as a mixtape rapper.

Not calling you out but what's wrong with that? Why can't he just make an album of mixtape-type songs?! Even the 'Lollipop Remix' sucks because Wayne's wacky verses still have to fall into a chorus- a chorus now totally disconnected from the verses- and it's a total boner kill.

Best Cash-money record: 'The Mind of Mannie Fresh'!!!!!!

Christopher said...

"Brandy (What a Fine Blog)"- See, in my eyes since I really love "Dedication 2" (and on a similar point, "We Got It For Cheap. Vol 2" I don't see anything wrong with being what Wayne is, which is the best mixtape rapper ever, the end result of 7 years of dudes trying to get on but not being good enough to make records or an impact.

I'd much prefer to be the greatest mixtape rapper ever than a guy who can't make a solid album for shit, which is where he may always be at. Unfortunately, a lot of people not in love with Wayne don't think that's enough. The same people who are convinced T.I. makes awesome records believe that somehow your role in hip-hop is meaningless, regardless of how entertaining you can be, if you don't plop out some Jeezy rap every year.

When I was mentoring in Harlem, the teacher, a woman, therefore not helping people's impressions of women=bad taste in music, basically said "He don't have no songs of his own, he just rap on other peoples shit". Sad because the concept of rapping over someone else's beat isn't anything new, and Wayne does have something like an album or EP's worth of great non-mixtape songs, but the woman represented the hesitant public and that's what dude has to deal with. That apparently there are people who don't understand the simple concept of mixtapes.

People should note that, along with Chamillionaire, Ludacris, T.I. (I guess) and Devin The Dude, Wayne's one of the few Southern rappers out now that have technically amazing flows, the sort that impresses insular "Bring NY back" cats.

DocZeus said...

This post is the best article that I've probably read about Wayne. It basically sums up all the feelings that I've ever had towards the man. Amazing job.

Christopher said...

Doc: Thanks! I think between you me and Brandon there's a pretty solid breakdown of him in total. Especially what you did on the album and hype and the clarity and insight your post had.

Now only to parlay my youtube laced rantings into straight ca$h.