Lil Wayne Just Wants To Rock–But Will Rock Radio Let Him?

The gap between hip-hop and rock, whether musical or cultural, is often greatly exaggerated. There are simply too many people who enjoy large amounts of both genres, too many musicians from either discipline who have crossed that gradually disappearing line. But every time a rapper tries to rock or a rocker tries to rap, we go through the same familiar motions. The artist invariably behaves as if his actions are as bold and groundbreaking as the first time Aerosmith stood onstage alongside Run-DMC; sometimes, fans and critics agree, but more often, the reaction is of the “omg lol wtf” variety, with enough feigned outrage and distaste to make one think none of these people had ever seen peanut butter in their chocolate before. “Why do rappers like Coldplay so much?” may very well be the inane watercooler observation of the 21st century.

You can expect to see this debate play itself out many times between now and April, when the most popular rapper in the world, Lil Wayne, releases his first rock album, Rebirth. Wayne’s been the focal point of such discussions ever since he half-heartedly twanged away at a guitar in the video for “Leather So Soft” two years ago, and since then, the guitar’s become a staple of his public appearances and concerts, albeit employed more as a symbol than as an actual instrument. The MC whose rhyming skills seemed to rapidly improve over the last few years through a tireless recording regimen has been a surprisingly lazy guitarist, only learning just enough to pluck out half-assed solos on songs like “Lollipop” and “Shoot Me Down.”

Last year, Wayne signed white singer/guitarist Kevin Rudolf to Cash Money Records, and their collaboration “Let It Rock” was a fairly large hit, reaching the Hot 100′s top 10. But the rap/rock smash never managed to scale any rap or rock charts (although that may be because it was more of a synth-pop song from a production standpoint). Even as flirtations with music other than hip-hop went, Lil Wayne seemed far more invested in R&B, emulating T-Pain’s AutoTune-heavy singing style. The R&B album he’s occasionally talked up, Luv Sawngz, has never surfaced, and a rock album seemed even less likely—at least until Rebirth was announced last week. The record’s lead single, “Prom Queen,” leaked over the weekend:

From the nasal vocals to the lyrics penned by a twentysomething from the perspective of a high schooler—”I loved her fancy underwear/ I sat behind her every year”—it seems like Wayne’s rock ideal is Blink 182. Except Blink 182 usually made an effort to say something clever or funny in their lyrics (as did, for that matter, Lil Wayne’s rap records). The backing track is obviously a live band, and the song fits into your standard 2009 rock template quite a bit better than, say, “Let It Rock,” even if it is fairly poorly recorded and features some hopelessly generic riffs. The membership of his backing band is currently unknown, although given that Wayne has yet to demonstrate the ability to play chords, it’s safe to assume he didn’t lay down any of the guitar. Whether Wayne sticks with faceless session musicians or lines up a supporting cast of actual rock stars, it’s hard to foresee Rebirth getting any better than this.

It’s unclear if Cash Money’s parent company, Universal, whose roster includes such rock-radio heavyweights as 3 Doors Down and Hinder, will be using any of its resources to work “Prom Queen” to the stations that play those bands. In fact, I’m not sure the label has any plan for Rebirth, other than placating a profitable star who wants to get a passion project off his chest so that everyone can move onto the next blockbuster in the Carter series as quickly as possible. I’d bet this album wouldn’t even be seeing the light of day at all if Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak hadn’t recently proven that one of the biggest hip-hop stars in the world can sell copies of an album with no rapping that almost deliberately confounds much of his fanbase. 808s‘ production was still palatable to R&B radio, however, and Kanye’s divisive experiment had enough supporters to become a critical favorite. Rebirth, on the other hand, has pretty much no chance of not being a widely panned fiasco, unless the label shelves the album now and Wayne gets distracted with another project.

If he continues restlessly evolving and altering his sound and image at the pace he has in recent years, Lil Wayne may actually make good rock music someday. But that day won’t come anytime soon. Wayne became a favorite of rock critics because he made a convincing case that he may be (or was) the best rapper alive, not because he sampled Slayer on 2005′s “Best Rapper Alive.” We may chuckle when he name-drops Iggy Pop in a verse, but who wants to hear him cover “Raw Power”? That sounds about as appealing as hearing Geddy Lee rap on “Roll The Bones.” The mock-horror that greets most rap/rock crossovers is, as I said, usually forced and exaggerated for comic effect, but that doesn’t mean that the songs aren’t actually pretty bad most of the time.

Hip-hop stations may play the song for a couple days as a curiosity, but they likely won’t put it in rotation, and iTunes purchases may push it up the chart, but not for long. So “Prom Queen”‘s best chance at success is rock radio. (Although when Maura asked me to speculate on the odds of “Prom Queen” making its way into those station’s Shinedown-dominated playlists, my first response was “How many words do you want me to use to say ‘zero’?”) The Tennessee band Framing Hanley’s nu-metal cover of Wayne’s “Lollipop” was only moderately popular by novelty-hit standards, peaking at No. 22 on the Modern Rock chart a couple months ago, and I’ll be shocked if “Prom Queen” gets even that far.

Personally, I think that Lil Wayne’s best bet for appearing on a rock radio hit right now is Fall Out Boy’s “Tiffany Blews,” which features a catchy and entertainingly batshit bridge full of T-Wayne uttering Pete Wentz lyrics. Even that’s a long shot, however; the song hasn’t been released as a single yet, and neither of Folie à Deux‘s first two singles has cracked the Modern Rock top 20.

As I noted last year, the history of rappers crossing over to rock charts is spotty at best, and usually involves either white MCs (The Beastie Boys, Eminem), Clash samples (Cypress Hill, M.I.A.), or rap-rock bands who rely on instruments more than samples (Rage Against The Machine, Flobots). When Andre 3000 strapped on a guitar and scored the worldwide smash “Hey Ya!” in 2003, the song got up to No. 16 on the Modern Rock chart—a significant, yet still modest peak compared to just about every other chart it appeared on. And while I’m not a particular fan of the OutKast song, I will be the first to point out that “Prom Queen” is no “Hey Ya!”

  • Chris N.

    A fact’s a fact from Nome to Rome, boy.

  • DocStrange

    There’s been a few cross overs by rap groups on the Modern Rock Tracks chart (before the “active rock” creep i’ve talked about endlessly):

    The Beastie Boys were the first to do this with “Hey Ladies” (#10 Rap, #18 Modern Rock) and “So Whatcha Want” (#18 Rap, #26 Modern Rock) before rap radio abandoned them entirely, and they could now only get airplay on Modern Rock radio, which welcomed them with open arms (2004′s “Ch-Check It Out” remains the only rap song to ever hit #1 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart)

    Cypress Hill also did this. Despite what Wikipedia says, “Insane in the Brain” – a song that remains a mainstay of alternative station playlists – never charted on the Modern Rock Tracks chart. However, 2000′s “(Rock) Superstar” managed #18 Modern Rock, and its companion track “(Rap) Superstar” made it to #43 on the Hot Rap Singles chart. However, their next Modern Rock charter, the “Guns of Brixton” sampling “What’s Your Number” (#23, 2004) didn’t chart on the rap charts at all.

    House of Pain’s “Jump Around” hit #5 on the Hot Rap Tracks chart and #14 R&B in 1992. The group’s leader, Everlast, managed #1 on the Modern Rock tracks with his gigantic hit “What It’s Like” in 1998. He had three more (forgetable) hits on the Modern Rock Tracks chart between 1999 and 2001 – “Ends”, “Black Jesus” and “I Can’t Move”.

    Neither De La Soul or The Pharcyde – two rap acts who get more plays on alternative stations than hip hop stations now – charted on the Modern Rock Tracks chart, unless you count Gorillaz’s “Feel Good Inc.” – which De La Soul guested on – which hit #1 in 2005.

    Stereo MC’s 1993 hit “Connected” managed #5 on the Modern Rock charts, but failed to hit the rap and R&B charts. It did, however, hit #38 on the Rhythmic Top 40.

    Eminem managed to chart four songs on the Modern Rock charts – “My Name Is” (#37 MR), “The Real Slim Shady” (#19 MR), “Without Me” (#15 MR) and “Lose Yourself” (#14 MR). All of these songs were wildly successful on the Rap charts, too, making him one of the few rappers to manage songs on the Modern Rock Charts without alienating rap radio.

    The most recent example of charting on both Rap and Alternative charts is M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” (#12 MR, #6 Rap).

    So it doesn’t seem to be to long of a shot for Lil’ Wayne to do business on the Modern Rock Tracks chart – as long as he keeps on the “alternative” spectrum of hip-hop.

  • kicking222

    @DocStrange: I don’t disagree on Everlast’s other hits being forgettable as far as the music-purchasing (and music-remembering) public is concerned, but I am a huge fan of Everlast’s solo career (aside from his most recent album, which I’ve never heard), and though “What It’s Like” is undoubtedly his best single, I’d say that “Ends” and “I Can’t Move” are close behind.

    Anyway, as far as the main question of this well-written piece- who will play Rebirth?- I’d argue that if the first single is any indication, nobody will, but only because “Prom Queen” is awful. But let’s say the album is somewhat good- Rolling Stone gives it 3 1/2 stars, some douchebag writing for Pitchfork gives it a 6.1 but claims it has moments of true Weezy brilliance, etc.- then I think rock radio will give it some spins and let its listeners decide if stations should keep playing it. This is 2009, and everybody knows who Lil Wayne is- my dad has at least heard the name, and he thinks every rap song ever written is about “ganking bitches” and “fuckin’ the hos”. Rock radio (like any other format) is willing to play whatever they think will attract listeners, and conceivably, the first rock album by the person who made the top-selling album of last year will create more than enough curiosity to attract listeners… unless, of course, the album is garbage.

  • Ned Raggett

    “Why do rappers like Coldplay so much?” may very well be the inane watercooler observation of the 21st century.

    It’s because of Coldplay. Coldplay makes any observation inane by definition.

  • Audif Jackson Winters III

    @DocStrange: Those bits about Eminem tracks appearing on the MR chart reminded me of that brief moment where KROQ made the decision (which was strangely discussed on the air in various ways) to start playing his stuff. It was a really obvious gesture that they had jumped on nu-metal far too much, realized it was horrible, and more importantly, realized that the audience had realized it was horrible.

    The “we play Eminem at KROQ now” experiment didn’t last all that long, I think.

  • Eugene Langley

    I was with you until “not a particular fan” of “Hey Ya!” Incomprehensible.

    Also, where do the Shop Boys stand in all of this?

  • Al Shipley

    @Eugene Langley: I’m allowed to not love “Hey Ya!” I checked the law books, it’s OK.

    Shop Boyz fall under the “empty gestures towards ‘rock stardom’ that have little or nothing to do with rock music” category.

  • doctaj

    @Eugene Langley:

    i always took “party like a rockstar” as a huge parody of “white” rock culture. t-t-totally, dude.

    i wonder what role masculinity is playing in all this: with the exception of MIA, whose crossover didn’t raise nearly the stink Weezy et. al is, every single rap artist whose supposedly controversial rock crossover mentioned in the article is a dude. sure, some people noted that there’s a huge indie influence on “Kala,” but that didn’t seem “daring” or “controversial” in the way Weezy playing the guitar seems. and then there’s Peaches, an electro-party rapper who also plays a lot of guitar (and talks about how much she likes to play guitar on a COS track…).

  • LostTurntable

    Since modern rock radio seems hell-bent on destroying rock music I don’t see why they wouldn’t play Lil’ Wayne. I’m not saying this because he’s a rapper, I’m saying it because his attempt at “rocking” is ungodly bad – he should fit in between Hinder and Doughtry quite nicely.

  • Eugene Langley

    @Al Shipley: The Shop Boys question was really more about me trying to figure out if Weezy is actually interested in rock music. The Shop Boys seemed not be. Like you said, an empty gesture. But most of the other artists you mentioned, with the exception of maybe the Beastie Boys, weren’t really all that into making rock music either. Their music just appealed to rock music fans, or rock station playlist makers. Is Rebirth just gonna be “Party Like a Rockstar” on a larger scale with more of the actual trappings of rock music? Is it meant to be music that appeals to rock fans, or actual rock music, or neither?

  • Al Shipley

    @Eugene Langley: Judging from “Prom Queen,” Rebirth will be actually rock songs played by a live band, not just hip hop beats with sung vocals and squealing guitar loops. I have no idea who the audience is, if anyone, though, or what Wayne’s inspiration is. I think he’s just moving in this direction as the logical next step in his whole “I am a Martian” campaign to show how different and unique and unusual he is.

  • DocStrange

    @Eugene Langley: Now this is where we get into a band like the Oakland indie trio Why?, who can effortlessly pull of alternative hip hop (“A Sky For Shoeing Horses Under”), jangely indie rock (“Fatalist Palmistry”) and a combination of the two (“The Hollows”) in the span of one album, which is one of the reasons why they’re limited to the alternative stations of the Northeast and to college radio: they’re too hard to playlist.

    Also, it seems that artists on the anticon and Def Jux labels – even if they don’t do what Why? does – are ignored by hip-hop stations for not being dancey enough, and only being limited to new music programs on alternative stations (WFNX has “First Contact”, WBRU used to have an untitled indie rock-oriented freeform hour on Wednesday nights)

    Also in my big paragraph I first posted, I forgot Atmosphere. They had one hit on both charts, both with different songs – “Modern Man’s Hustle” (2002, #18 Rap) and “You” (2008, #38 MR).

    Anyway, it’s too late for Rebirth to do anything on the Modern Rock Tracks chart without involving the Beastie Boys and/or Linkin Park in a very large capacity.