A Love That Shall Never Wayne

Apr 1st, 2008 // 17 Comments

AP060426038273.jpgLil Wayne will release The Carter III on May 13. Maybe. After all, the guy has spent the last two and a half years doing everything but making actual studio albums: seven or eight mixtapes, dozens of guest appearances, several arrests, and more hype than the“Loungin’” video*. Some of this attention has been warranted. The Carter II, his previous studio effort, is a good but not great record, with “Tha Mobb” ranking as one of the decade’s finest rap songs and “Shooter” impressively meshing hardcore raps with a crossover sensibility (though Alan Thicke will forever out-class his son). Moreover, Wayne’s ascendence benefited heavily from 2005′s ignominious distinction as one of the worst years in rap history, with critics so strapped for music to ride for that they actually tried to convince themselves that Paul Wall and Mike Jones were good.

Wayne’s drastic improvement from his Cash Money days, coupled with the South’s moment in the sun, ensured that narrative-hungry writers would annoint someone sub-Mason-Dixon as the new king of hip-hop. With Scarface and Andre 3000 falling back and half of UGK locked up, Wayne seemed like the best bet. In a way, his rise seemed tailor-made for the zeitgeist of this jangled Internet age, his songs blessed with a sense of ephemera that jibes with the notion of constant content fit to be devoured and forgotten ten minutes later. There are as many Wayne songs as there are blogs, and like the blogosphere, the quality is wildly uneven. For every show-stopping moment like “Cannon” or “Upgrade U,” there are ten tracks filled with repetitive simile-laden boasts that Wayne’s champions would like to call free-associative genius, but really just prove that it is somehow possible to be both the hardest working man in hip-hop and incredibly lazy at the same time.

Given the chance to appear on Graduation and American Gangster, two rap albums from 2007 that were good enough to receive burn beyond the turn of the decade, Weezy whiffed–squandering the rare opportunity to broaden his fanbase beyond his key constituency of Southerners, 13-year olds, and white music critics with 180+ IQs, prestigious liberal arts degrees, and questionable taste in hip-hop. Wayne apologists scoffed that their hero had already had so many great moments that year, but his detractors sagely pointed out that anyone purporting to be the best rapper alive shouldn’t suck this much on both of the year’s big-ticket rap records.

That’s perhaps the most frustrating thing about the Wayne question: only two opinions seem to exist, both of which are wrong. (Wayne is neither savior nor Satan. What he is a talented rapper with absolutely no concept of quality control.) The first swallows his hyperbole and concludes that he is the greatest rapper alive, a prolific, infallible genius who operates in a Bizarro galaxy heretofore reserved for such king weirdos as Mike Tyson, Cam’ron, and Kim Jung-Il. The other labels him complete garbage, a walking, talking, Baby-kissing plague on humanity responsible for SARS, Ebola, and the assassinations of both Kennedys.** Ultimately, what this yields is bad criticism, with his admirers refusing to acknowledge his myriad atrocious moments and his “haters” never conceding an inch, with both teams waiting for the “classic” album that will either confirm his place in the pantheon or halt the critical love train.

The notion of needing to drop a classic album seems slightly antiquated, but in fact it isn’t. While short stories, short films, and single MP3s obviously have their merits, no amount of postmodernist revision will ever alter the fact that the novel, the feature film, and the album will remain the standard-bearers of art. (Sorry.) Lil Wayne has not dropped a classic album, though if you lopped 20 minutes off Carter II, you could arguably state your case. Logically, Carter III would be make-or-break time, the chance for Wayne to either shut up the peanut gallery*** or leave the heads of the hype machine with a whole lot of omelet on their face. Neither of these two things will probably happen.

While it remains to be seen what exactly would convert Wayne’s naysayers, it is certain that no matter how bad Carter III is, some corners of the critical community will stop at nothing to convince you of its greatness. In particular, no two critics have been more strident in their homerism than Tom Breihan, of the Village Voice and Pitchfork and Marc Hogan, the main writer of Pitchfork’s Forkcast. ReadBreihan’s love letter to “Lollipop,” a song that he himself manages to call

a blatant sellout-move capitulation to everything lame in today’s pop-music world: gallingly obvious central lyrical sex-as-candy analogy, T-Pain-esque layered-up autotuned vocals, simplistic snap-music drum-pattern, hushed trancey synth-whooshes playing something that sounds suspiciously like the melody to Flo Rida’s “Low,” no rapping whatsoever and… screaming butt-rock guitar solos.

Forget the fact that “Lollipop” does have rapping, however terrible it may be; forget the fact that Breihan somehow manages to compare “Lollipop” to Earth Wind & Fire’s “Let’s Groove,” a piece of spin that would make James Carville smile. The review concludes by telling us that we should “celebrate the fact that Lil Wayne has made his “Candy Shop” without compromising his inner weirdness.”

In fact, there is nothing weird about “Lollipop,” a song that feels more cynically calculating than almost anything released in 2008. It’s lyrical content is a clumsy homework assignment from 50 Cent’s School Of How To Write Songs For 14-Year-Old Girls With Tacky Sex Metaphors For Hooks. (In particular, “Shorty Want a Thug/Bottles in the Club/Shorty Need a Hug” makes Benzino look like Arthur Rimbaud.) Meanwhile, it completely style-jacks T-Pain, a guy who stole every one of his ideas from Roger Troutman, never mind Snoop Dogg’s “Sensual Seduction.” Hell, even the “Lollipop” video is corny, a glitzy, formulaic romp through Las Vegas that feels suspiciously like a cliched combo of the videos for 112′s “Only You” and 2Pac’s “How Do U Want It.”

Incidentally, there is one defense for “Lollipop”: It’s a big, absolutely retarded pop song that you enjoy dancing to at clubs. This is its sole intent. As rap music, it’s garbage; as pop, it’s middle-of-the-road filler fit to be played until Labor Day and not a moment later. What it isn’t is “sly, heady… melodrama,” as Breihan puts it, or a “savvy pop move,” as Hogan calls it. What Snoop did was a “savvy pop move,” the sort of desperate sellout look that artists need to do when there’s nothing left in the well; “the greatest rapper alive” shouldn’t have to resort to singles you can Xerox (no Hillary Clinton).

If “Lollipop” is a shameless, poorly executed, but well-thought out play for the charts, “A Millie” is the opposite, a half-baked and sloppy street single with Wayne once again in mixtape mode, stringing together simile after simile for five and a half minutes of banal shit-talking. Of course, there are a few clever lyrical turns. “I don’t owe you like two vowels” is as good as anything Lupe Fiasco has written, but like Weezy’s entire discography, “A Millie” is maddeningly inconsistent. Its beat is a hiccuping, overly repetitive, minimalist mess that sounds like it could only have been selected by someone under the influence of too much drank and drugs. Meanwhile, Wayne attempts to mask his empty-calorie lyrics by relying on his now-familiar grab-bag of vocal tics, forcing syllables to stretch that shouldn’t stretch, modulating his voice without purpose, everything strictly for schtick and effect. At one point, he even boasts that “none of this shit is written down,” but that goes without saying. After all, any rapper who writes a lyric as lazy as “we pop ‘em like Redenbacher” deserves his MC pass revoked. (Can we all admit that Jay and Big’s claims that they never wrote down lyrics have caused more harm than any trivia tidbit in music history?)

But Hogan dismisses anyone with a gripe: “haters are already foaming at the mouth… the rest of us know better than to rush the flow.” God forbid, anyone gets between Hogan and Wayne’s uh…”flow.” “A Millie” is just mediocre, a boiler mix-tape track that would be met with yawns were it released by Papoose, most frustrating than is the one-sided nature of its criticism, with its arrogant tone and nebulous taunts at “haters.” Flip through the Pitchfork archives, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find inasmuch as a negative word about Wayne, with the one universally loathed Wayne record, Like Father Like Son, weirdly never getting a review despite its single, “Stuntin’ Like My Daddy,” receiving a glowing, four-star review from Breihan.

Granted, Wayne’s detractors are notoriously venomous and often misguided, but their anger partly stems from a critical vogue that refuses to praise anything that isn’t crack rap and/or nakedly commercial. In the past six months, hip-hop has seen strong output from a new generation of rappers–Jay Electronica, Wale, The Knux, Pacific Division, Blu and Clean Guns–yet not one of these worthy artists has gotten their own post on the Forkcast or Status Ain’t Hood, despite obviously needing the exposure a whole lot more than the platinum-plus “Young Money Millionaire.” It remains to be seen whether Carter III will be the masterpiece capable of validating the slavish Wayne worship that has taken place over the past few years. But what is certain is that judging from the reviews of its first two singles, you’ll be hearing the praises of its unmistakable brilliance.

Besides, no matter what, it can’t be worse than Mike Jones or Paul Wall.

* On another note, if “Loungin” is not the most quintessential mid-’90s rap video, than what is?
** Though if one were to judge Wayne strictly off his appearance–which is not unlike that of a drank and pills-addled Whoopi Goldberg–SARS seems like a reasonable guess.
***Likely filled with fans of Peanut Butter Wolf.

idolator

  1. baconfat

    There are as many Wayne songs as there are blogs, and like the blogosphere, the quality is wildly uneven.

    I’m sure this analogy has been used elsewhere before, but does that make Weezy the Robert Pollard of rap?

  2. SuperUnison

    So, since I’ve been turned off by everything you’ve mentioned (and hence, haven’t heard a note of Lil Wayne’s stuff), but I still wanna give Weezy a shot; where’s the best place to start? A lot of it has been the sense that there isn’t THE ALBUM that I grab, put on my ipod, and live with for a day before I start to form an opinion.

  3. Anonymous

    I agree that Wayne gets a free pass from a bunch of deifying critics
    and fans… but “Lollipop” is just a really good song. It’s formulaic,
    predictable, and simplistic, but Wayne’s eccentric voice and overriding
    charisma elevates it beyond the standard T-Pain crooning. That’s why
    it’s a hit. And “A Millie” is nothing more than a hilarious(if
    meaningless)mess of braggadocio. But you praise “Upgrade U” but then
    have a problem with “A Millie”? They’re the same thing: disjointed,
    swagger-backed lyrics that are clever as hell and ultimately better
    than any other rap that’s being released right now.

    As for the other rappers, someone like Wale is great, but Wayne gets
    more attention because where someone like Wale or Lupe Fiasco elevates
    lyricism to a higher, more meaningful level, Lil Wayne is taking things
    in the opposite direction and challenging (maybe unintentionally, in
    his drugged out haze) the notion that rap needs to be meaningful at
    all. It’s almost postmodern. And that thematic ambivalence, combined
    with his unique, almost dylan-esque voice, and along with his playful
    humor and infectious swagger, makes his music more compelling than
    traditional rappers like Lupe and Wale (not that they’re not great,
    too).

    So I guess my point is that from a traditional critical perspective,
    yeah, Wayne’s catalogue is uneven and overrated. But then, I think that
    Wayne is not a traditional rapper and can’t really be judged as such.
    Whereas thematic coherence and lyrical consistency may be the hallmarks
    of a traditionally great rapper, aspects of lil wayne music like his
    voice, his crazy ass laugh, and his meandering metaphors are all just
    as important in defining the “quality” of his musical blogosphere.

  4. Jeff Weiss

    I’d start with Carter II and cherry-pick the best songs off Dedication II and Da Draught III. That’s really all you need.

  5. Al Shipley

    So you make your argument against the hype that Lil Wayne is an otherworldly genius by…swallowing the hype that Cam’ron is an otherwordly genius.

  6. Jeff Weiss

    I don’t think Cam’ron is anything close to an otherworldly genius. By that same logic, I would be saying that Mike Tyson and Kim Jong-Il were geniuses, which I clearly don’t.

    The hype on Cam’ron was wildly inflated as well, but at least when Killa Season came out people weren’t trying to tell me that “He Tried to Play Me,” was a clever post-modern analysis of gender relations vis a vis, Cam, Jones, and Freaky Zeekey.

  7. Charles A. Hohman

    “2005′s ignominious distinction as one of the worst years in rap history”

    I actually found 2005 a decent year for rap, and not just because of “Late Registration.” Both Young Jeezy and Juelz Santana released stellar albums, and there were fine singles throughout the year. (I’ll gladly go to bat for Missy’s underrated “Lose Control.”) Looking back, 2005 was way better than 2007, when the Lil’ Wayne hype truly grew unbearable and kinda desperate. I still don’t quite get the passion on either side of the Lil’ Wayne battle, and agree with much of what’s said above. Great post!

  8. Tal Rosenberg

    @ grenhamsharp: I don’t think that Jeff is trying to say that rap HAS to be meaningful, but I think he IS trying to say that Weezy isn’t meaningful enough to warrant the kind of attention being paid to him, nor has he established himself as an artist whereby every word that he says should be praised automatically. Man, in the late ’90s, Weezy would have been equated with no better than Busta Rhymes, at best.

    Plus, there’s this:

    “Lil Wayne is taking things in the opposite direction and challenging (maybe unintentionally, in his drugged out haze) the notion that rap needs to be meaningful at all. It’s almost postmodern. And that thematic ambivalence, combined with his unique, almost dylan-esque voice, and along with his playful humor and infectious swagger, makes his music more compelling than traditional rappers like Lupe and Wale (not that they’re not great, too).”

    There is nothing postmodern about throwing everything you write on the pad into the booth and seeing what will stick. If you think that there is, then there needs to be another debate over how you would define postmodernism, and that debate is totally unnecessary when talking about Lil’ Wayne.

    Critic after critic praises Wayne for this precise reason and it’s verging on laziness. For every mediocre single or throwaway track a critic is willing to go to bat for Weezy with the same ol’ defense: It doesn’t encourage discussion or analysis, you’re just saying “case closed, move along now.” That’s not criticism, let alone journalism.

    And, “Dylan-esque voice?” For real? By that logic, Cam’Ron sounds a helluva lot like Pete Seeger. Come on.

  9. walkmasterflex

    Allow for a little pro-Weezyist theory here, if you will.

    I think you’re right in saying that Lil Wayne is stuck in a position where there is intense love and hate surrounding what he does. Because of who he is and what he does, it just doesn’t seem feasible for there to be a situation where there’s going to be any middle ground. This sticks him in an unfortunate position of intense critical love and intense critical hate, which only serves to increase the hype surrounding him. Weezy’s moved past being just a superstar rapper to being something of mythic proportions, either good or bad.

    I am a huge Lil Wayne fan, and I take his weak points along with his strong. I am one of the fans hoping for the classic album, but expecting a flop, and if “Lollipop” and “A Millie” are any indication, I will be unsurprisingly disappointed. “Lollipop” is a fine pop song, but it misses absolutely everything about Wayne that I adore: the wordplay, the clever disrespect for gangsta rap convention, the total absurdism on his own terms. The beat is reminiscent of “This Is Why I’m Hot”, and just makes me long for the opening track on Drought 3. “A Millie” is different stylistically, but ultimately the same: Wayne completely discounts whatever his essence is by trying to play to half-baked gangsta rap stereotypes spun into a lazy Wayne style. I think the fascination with Lil Wayne among the hipster set will be coming to an end pretty soon, and I think it’s important to recall what Wayne did, which is, I think, far more important for rap than anything else.

    Crowning himself “the best rapper alive”, and in turn being crowned by the media as such, coinciding with Jay-Z premature retirement and New York rap’s descent into Dipset/G-Unit fiefdom which led to needlessly complex infighting and diminishing returns in quality was the final blow which brought down New York rap hegemony and its aesthetics and made it just another region, something I view as a good thing. Of course, Wayne was preceded by a number of non-New York rappers who all made a claim for the reigning rap heavyweight title (see: Tupac, T.I.), but, as you put it, the timing of Wayne’s ascent made the blow to the idea of rap monoculture that much more effective. By removing one region from the seat of power, it removed a lot of pretension and bloated egoism surrounding rap, and I think makes the mixing of ideas from various regions easier. Secondly, Wayne’s disregard for the language in general and gangsta rap cliche in particular by placing his own brand of weirdness into his style helped rap break out at least a bit from the structures which were beginning to confine it, and his style of cameoing on pretty much everything showed that there could be success to such a style. These are things which make Wayne an important part of rap today, and ultimately will make him an important part of rap history I think. It also makes him wildly inconsistent and unfortunately particularly vulnerable to criticism. It’s a pretty cliched analogy by this point, but he really does bear a lot of similarity to Prince.

    Overall good post, it’s been the most interesting part of my day so far.

  10. Jeff Weiss

    @Walkmaster- I pretty much agree with most of what you just said and that might be one of the most even-handed/interesting I’ve read on Wayne. Thanks for the comment.

    Though I think the Prince analogy might be pushing it. Needless to say, the Young Money clique is no Morris Day & the Time.

  11. blobby

    “I don’t owe you like two vowels”

    That’s supposed to be a clever lyrical turn? I like Lil Wayne just fine, but honestly, my favorite verse of his is the one he dropped on the “Party Like A Rockstar” remix. I think I’ll stick with Lupe, thank you very much.

  12. Anonymous

    i won’t bore you with more Wayne apologia here since i already did that on your blog. i’ll just ask one thing though, were critics really saying Mike Jones was dope in 2005, or just in reference to “Still Tippin’” and “Back Then?” cuz i’m pretty sure everyone likes those songs. even though Mr. Jones (Jones) himself had nothing to do with their quality

  13. Jeff Weiss

    As I recall, it was more in connection with the singles, but still, a 7.0

    [www.pitchforkmedia.com]

    is well more than it deserved. Mike Jones makes Rick Ross look like Nas.

  14. Anonymous

    Yeah, I’m with Blobby– if you’re looking for Wayne punchlines that pun on letter-sounds, check out:

    “I ran the streets, check my bio
    I started off high with two O’s like Ohio”

  15. brwestho

    Great essay and great line >>> “…squandering the rare opportunity to broaden his fanbase beyond his key constituency of Southerners, 13-year olds, and white music critics with 180+ IQs, prestigious liberal arts degrees, and questionable taste in hip-hop.” Ha! I wonder if Wayne has any idea what Pitchfork or Status Ain’t Hood are.

  16. afriedman

    rawkus should do a mass mailing of soundbombing i to every rock critic on weezy’s jock. if they think dude has mindblowing punchlines their heads might explode when j-treds says “i got more presence than attendance in a class of schizophrenics, here here.”

    also mike jones was catchy and paul wall’s first album was brilliantly weird. it had a song about the internet, really good production and a track with freeway.

  17. encyclopediablack

    @afriedman: Ah, J-Treds was awesome. Whatever happened to him? Also if people want to talk about wordplay, Breezly Brewin (Juggaknots/Weathermen/Indelible MCs) has to be mentioned.

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