Can Lil Wayne save hip-hop?

He insists he's "the best rapper alive" -- and many agree. But can his smash-hit new album really redeem a flagging genre?

Published June 19, 2008 10:20AM (EDT)

Lil Wayne
Lil Wayne

Hip-hop critics and fans honestly want Lil Wayne to be huge. "Tha Carter III," the rapper's sixth solo album in the past nine years, was released last week after nearly a year's worth of delays, the sort of drawn-out tussling between artist and label that usually helps to throw a bucket of cold water on heated fan anticipation. Instead, the album is likely to be sitting at the top of the Billboard Hot 200 after massive first-week sales; blogs are falling over themselves to offer the most in-depth analysis of what many dubbed a masterpiece just hours after it hit the Internet. And all of this attention is something of a fitting reward for Wayne, having spent a decade-plus as a hip-hop workaholic, a man who is, in his own estimation and increasingly in the minds of thousands of hip-hop fans, "the best rapper alive."

Many hip-hop snobs have responded to that ballsy self-assessment with a snort of derision, of disbelief that a kid whose legacy primarily rests on bouncy Southern booty rap would have the gall to prematurely install himself in the pantheon. But what other young rappers could they suggest in his place? As hip-hop sales sink along with the rest of the record industry, rappers of deeply questionable gifts, like Miami hacks Flo Rida and Rick Ross, continue to dominate the charts and the magazine covers. Wayne, who kicks off "Tha Carter III's" "Phone Home" with his oft-repeated claim that he is "a Martian," paints himself as a neon alternative to recent monochrome hip-hop, a budding George Clinton where most rappers are content to be third-rate Eazy E's.

In the context of hip-hop in '08, the acclaim for "Tha Carter III" feels like people are trying to will a new rapping genius into existence. The album has immediately become a flashpoint for lapsed listeners hungry for old-school rhyme skills, for indie hip-hop fans hoping some of the underground's weirdness bubbles to the surface of the mainstream, for rock fans drawn to Wayne's overwrought psychedelic metaphors and for listeners hoping to hear something with more longevity than the next one-hit wonder.

At age 25, Wayne's already a multi-platinum selling artist who was, until recently, both a high school dropout and the president of Cash Money, the record label that all but reared him. He's a fatherless child who grew into a respected M.C. after being mentored by Cash Money's Bryan "Baby" Williams (without a doubt one of the worst rappers in the genre's history). He's a one-time divorcé and a part-time college student currently waiting to see what his future holds thanks to an Arizona drug bust this past January. He's raising a daughter as he fends off homophobes thanks to persistent gossip that he's gay. That may be a richer back story than even the self-mythologizing Kanye West's.

Wayne certainly picked up a healthy bit of his friend and producer Kanye's ambition and self-regard, even if their music offers very different pleasures. In an era when a rapper's success is measured in ephemeral 99-cent downloads and YouTube hits, "Tha Carter III" has been hyped up as a meaty, long-in-the-making album from a talented perfectionist who apparently just couldn't stop fiddling with the songs and the track list until a former colleague leaked it to the Web.

Yet for all his finessing, the available-in-stores "Tha Carter III" is as frustratingly patchy as any overlong, slapdash mainstream hip-hop album from one of Wayne's far less talented peers. Stretches of the most inventive rapping you're likely to hear all year are nearly drowned out by generic R&B choruses and soggy pop-chart copouts. At other times Wayne sounds like he's rapping on autopilot over the best batch of beats he has assembled since the late '90s. "Tha Carter III" doesn't fit together or build momentum, and it will disappoint anyone looking for another auteur of album-length hip-hop.

Sometimes it's jaw-droppingly brilliant, too, and the album's inconsistent quality is probably heightened for many by the fact that Wayne really has matured from a second-string rapper to a frequently stunning one; he has enjoyed one of rap's most unexpected artistic transformations. In 1997, as a live-wire high school freshman during Southern hip-hop's nationwide ascendancy, Wayne's shiv-sharp squeak cut a playful path through the menacing raps of his man-size peers in New Orleans' Cash Money crew. Wayne's first three solo records displayed little of the dense, abstract wordplay that has recently won him acclaim. On the other hand, the Cash Money days were the start of Wayne viewing conspicuous consumption and casual violence through a surrealist lens. At one point the crew bragged about wanting to buy a platinum-plated football field.

Just a few years into the new millennium, however, and Cash Money was passé enough in the trend-hungry world of hip-hop that Wayne's "comeback" with 2004's "Tha Carter" caught many old fans off guard. As his records began to attract notice from people craving mainstream rap that went beyond Souljah Boy-style novelty dance singles, Wayne's claim to be the best rapper currently operating started to spark actual debate. Between "Tha Carter" and 2005's "Tha Carter II," he had definitely lost his musical baby fat, maturing vocally and lyrically at a frightening clip. His voice dropped in tempo to a tense drawl whose edges got especially gnarly when he dipped into a lower register and often wobbled and quavered like he was struggling against drug-induced vertigo.

He'd developed something that's sadly hard to find in hip-hop today, among all the teenage shouters and monotone mumblers trying to sound hard: a voice that's unmistakably his own, one that conveys eeriness and ebullience with equal ease, a sound that fits the most honest fan of narcotics in modern hip-hop. And "Tha Carter II" offered the first concrete evidence of Wayne's increasingly fearsome technique as a writer, a virtuosic broadside aimed at those who'd dismissed him as a has-been or a never-was. If one of your complaints about recent hip-hop was that rappers had abandoned their poetic instincts in the rush to craft the most pop-friendly hook, here was one who dissed fellow rappers as if he were dishing out dada: "Me the disaster/ Pity the fool/ Eat a catastrophe/ Swallow the truth/ Belch reality/ How does it taste/ Pie to your face."

Despite occasionally displaying the kind of social conscience critics love, Wayne's freewheeling wordplay certainly doesn't fit the mold of hip-hop reporting made famous by Chuck D and KRS-One. His inscrutable silliness and self-satire separate him from the likes of Jay-Z, whose sense of humor is always in thrall to his swagger. His singsong phrasing and experiments with tempo and time signatures are drawn from the work of Southern rap pioneers like the Dungeon Family, the only big-selling rappers who may outdo him for cosmic weirdness. Wayne may not be the best rapper alive. But he's certainly one of the most sui generis, especially among those under 30.

Wayne's singularity makes "Tha Carter III's" inconsistencies easier to overlook. When it comes to subject matter, the album hardly paints Wayne as an innovator. Firearms, women of ill repute, illegal substances and his own awesomeness -- these are Wayne's obsessions, just like those of hundreds of other rappers. He's that rarest of inadvertent hip-hop messiahs in 2008, a commercially minded artist who gets by on tons of idiosyncratic panache, a writer filtering shameless pulp clichés through his out-there worldview. And so even though he lazily swipes moves from R&B singers in order to make a buck, "Tha Carter III" also finds Wayne playing the giggling tough guy in lyrics that suggest fairy tale characters cast in a straight-to-video gang picture ("He's a beast/ He's a dog/ He's a motherfucking problem/ OK, you're a goon/ But what's a goon to a goblin?"). Or he issues baroque boasts where you can almost see him grinning as he takes things one step beyond his peers in proclaiming his own greatness ("I ain't kinda hot/ I'm the sauna/ I sweat money/ And the bank is my shower ... and that pistol is my towel").

Even as Wayne wallows in money-cash-hos content, he bends language to shame the cookie-cutter contemporaries that he'll still bless with a guest appearance for a price. In the last four years Wayne has lent his bankable voice to dozens of artists, from world-conquering divas like Destiny's Child to here-today-gone-tomorrow rappers like Playaz Circle. That's how he has been making his rent, so instead of bothering to release solo albums (or even solo singles), Wayne has vented his chemically enhanced energy into endless mix tapes, the quasi-legal promotional CDs that rappers release through the Internet and mom-and-pop shops. He has released at least six or seven in the past two years alone, each stuffed with between 20 and 30 tracks. The mix tape route offered little in the way of remuneration, merely the chance to flex his skills in a way that put the fear of God into other rappers.

Released on the cheap and packed enough to make them a good value even if you hated half the songs, mix tapes were the perfect format for an inconsistent obsessive like Wayne. They turned him into a critics' phenomenon. As his press clippings piled up over the last 24 months, his succès d'estime began to feel like a blog-era punch line: a "pop" musician who actually got listeners excited, except that you'd never be able to find his best work in Best Buy. In May of this year, however, all of this critical hubbub finally met the real world as "Lollipop," the debut single from "Tha Carter III," hit the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. Catchy in the worst sort of way, it sounded little like Wayne's mix tape tracks -- and more like R&B chart colossus T-Pain got his hands on a duck call and decided to dial a phone sex line.

"Tha Carter III" comes padded with enough "Lollipop"-style crossover singles to cement Wayne's recent return to the spotlight. He sleepwalks through "Mrs. Officer" to let guest crooner Bobby Valentino try out the ickiest come-on of the year so far: "When I get up all in ya/ We can hear the angels calling us." Tracks like "A Milli" and "Phone Home" burn with the energy and oddness Wayne fans now demand thanks to their hero's mix tape work rate and inexhaustible store of silly self-descriptions. But boasting that you're a "venereal disease," a "goblin" and "rare, like Mr. Clean with hair" doesn't make sitting through a drippy love rap like the Babyface-assisted, Beyoncé-quoting "Comfortable" any easier. Even when Wayne attempts to get incisive about the state of post-Katrina New Orleans on "Tie My Hands," he turns the chorus over to gloopy blue-eyed soulman Robin Thicke.

Both "Comfortable" and "Tie My Hands" were produced by Kanye West, and it's probably not coincidental that wigged-out Wayne exhibits an unfortunately West-ian maudlin streak on these tracks. And Wayne's stab at a Kanye-style concept song, "Dr. Carter," where he plays a physician attempting to "heal" wack M.C.s, finds him rapping more nimbly than he ever has before. But the "choruses," which are actually little skits in which a nurse updates us as to the patient's progress, murder the song's momentum stone dead.

And yet at least half of the album thrills, because when it comes to talking smack about his peers, Lil Wayne remains in a league of his own. "I can get your brains/ For a bargain/ Like I bought them/ From Target/ Hip-hop/ Is my supermarket/ Shopping cart full/ Of fake hip-hop artists," he spits on "Phone Home," before he chops his flow into even shorter, harder angles, beginning with the aforementioned "we are not the same, I am an alien" line. He pronounces it halfway like "Elián" so he can finish up with "like Gonzalez/ Young college/ Student/ Who didn't/ Just flip the game/ Like Houston/ I'm used to/ Promethazine/ In two cups/ I'm screwed up."

Even the weaker songs are strewn with breathless moments like these, where you're forced to rewind a track because your brain isn't moving quite as quickly as Wayne's. And when Wayne the rapper drops the ball, his producers are usually there to cover his fumbles. Musically, "Tha Carter III" will probably end up the most accomplished and purely enjoyable hip-hop album of the year, from David Banner's sinister carnival Muzak on "Phone Home" and "La La" to Kanye's spare Roots-esque retro-soul on "Tie My Hands" to Bangladesh's maddening robotic minimalism on "A Milli."

Hip-hop lifers may be looking to Wayne to pull the genre out of its funk, but he's more an inspired one-off than someone to spark a rap renaissance. His eccentric style truly has earned him all those critical props and, now, the kind of sales that surprise a battered industry. But new listeners may not want to spend their time cherry-picking their way through an erratic album like "Tha Carter III," let alone Wayne's massive, unruly catalog as a whole. Even more than a rapper for the era of mix tapes, Wayne is a rapper for an era where iTunes' "move files to trash" function lets you easily edit out the flops from a musician's catalog and string together your faves. The best Lil Wayne collection will probably be the playlist you put together yourself after the guy finally retires, provided you can schedule a week off from work for the sorting process.

By Jess Harvell

Jess Harvell is a freelance writer living in Baltimore.

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