Just imagining those legendary ambient sounds recalls memories of a Memorex CD player and burned discs. I remember the hammering 808s, the very rare soul samples, the undisputed best-rapper-alive claims. I remember the wordplay that was one of my earliest introductions to poetry.
Wayne occupies a hallowed part of the 21st century black imagination. That hallowed part in my mind lasts more or less until the end of 2009, a year when rap’s tectonic plates shifted ceaselessly, raising a certain light-skinned, thick eyebrowed, canadian mountain up from the earth.
And even in 2017, as new mountains of hip-hop are rising, I hear Weezy echoing through their peaks and valleys. People my age and older remember a time when melody was somewhat absent from rap. Well, except for that one rapper from New Orleans talking
‘Pyong on that Yamaha, Chrome ‘bout eleven hunnid
What I’m doing? Getting money.
What we doing? Getting money.
What they doing? Hating on us, but they never cross
Cash Money the company and bitch I’m a boss
Wayne would slide in on thunderous percussion and blaring horns, wicked synths that sounded somewhere between G-Funk and classic dirty south, an abrasive Three Stacks shredding tracks apart with unprecedented charisma and the most dynamic drawl rap had ever seen. He brought melody to the forefront of a genre obsessed with hardness, without R&B hooks on every single. Just a gangsta ass croon jumping out of your headphones like a bullet with a name on it.
And that’s why I feel Wayne in 2017’s biggest tracks. Wayne’s most successful progeny, Drake and Nicki Minaj, owe much of their early success to riding waves their mentor sent cascading through the seas of American pop. Today, when Drake slides into his Houstatlantavegas flows you hear the echoes of the man that put him on. When Drizzy puts on his menacing hat and bares his million dollar fangs he hits that Wayne snarl, punching the beat with rhetorical blows punctuated with a no-more-questions mark.
Is that a world tour or your girl’s tour?
What they doing? Hating on us.
As hip-hop takes a tighter hold on American pop music, Wayne’s trailblazing style shows itself in the themes and sonics of rap’s youngest stars. Postweezyist rap is the simile that Wayne mastered, autotuned vocal runs on block prose verses, diamond dipped tears and codeine cough syrup-drenched cries for help that fucking bang in the club. Let’s use rap’s most prominent idiosyncrat, Young Thug, as a case study.
Thugger followed a pre-forged path. He rose up from the dirtiest of the south (his debut is literally named I Came From Nothing), came under the tutelage of a legendary third coast tastemaker, and assaulted contemporary rap music with classic ghetto reporting, braggadocio, and a familiar dialectical, half-singing-half-rapping staccato over cutting edge trap beats. His idolization of Weezy F. Baby is well documented. He became the centerpiece of Birdman’s most recent attempt at forming a rap mafia, called him daddy (we’re not sure if he kissed him yet), and even named a project Barter 6, a reference to Wayne’s historically conflicted and delayed Carter V. Before Pitchfork and Spin decided that he was special, hip-hop media’s go-to description of the electric, budding superstar was the “new Lil Wayne”. Before he took his genre bending sounds and aesthetics to new heights, Slime Season era Thug seemed doomed to languish as an exciting Wayne clone, channeling his mid 2000s creative genius into the Metro Boomin designed soundscape of the 2010s.
Young Thug’s essential sound is the most fitting tribute to rap’s vaunted pioneer. His needle-in-the red urgency and emphasis on dynamism has given Thugger the elite status of a hip-hop wild card, an arbiter of the unexpected that demands the public’s attention by pushing the boundaries of rap’s status quo. It’s important to recognize that Wayne, and thus Thug, was innovative because he expanded upon numerous crucial preexisting standards of the genre. Wayne didn’t, for the most part, say anything new. He told stories of the realities of depravity, of ambition, of hustling. Wayne was successful because of how he presented his American dream. Thug is experiencing that same level of success, sticking to rap’s long trusted thematic playbook and embellishing sonically, bringing distinct styles of artistry and musicianship to a genre that finds itself stuck in limbos of widespread similarity. Perhaps it is most apt to describe Wayne’s legacy in rap music as that of a Dr. Dre or Pharrell Williams, embracing futuristic musical nuances and vocal risk taking. Still, what separates Wayne from these iconic producers is the simple fact that he’s not a producer. Wayne left behind standards of rapping, turning his voice into an instrument on the track, blurring the lines between rapping, singing, and production.
Today, rap music is hallmarked by a new attention to detail in production. Innovative digital music production and advancements in the fundamental pillars of beat making are to thank for the diversified sounds of contemporary hip-hop. Listeners have become accustomed to rap songs beginning with the usual four bar intro and then an unmistakable producer tag. Southside, 808 Mafia, Metro Boomin want some mooooooore, nigga! The sonics of popular rap music are the cutting edge of popular music production, trap music especially, infiltrating general pop and EDM and international hip-hop styles like grime, dancehall and Afrobeat. As a result, rappers are acting more as servants to the beat than the main attraction of the track. Yes, “barz” still matter in hip-hop. There’s no shortage of spitters; check Kendrick’s most recent assault on the general public or Skepta’s career-defining run of the last two years. But the dominance of Atlanta trap and its new guard of super producers on the top charts speaks to an increasing general interest in innovative production. Wayne was one of the first to see both sides, ensconcing his famous wordplay and figurative language in melodic vocal jumps and runs somewhere between Motown and Chopped-And-Skrewed. Wayne made himself the beat, laying his voice on the instumental in a way that was at odds with hip-hop’s titans of the time. He did more than just rhyme on beat; he literally harmonized his own voice with the high and lows of the backing track.
Let’s zoom in on my favorite song of this year so far, Lil Uzi Vert’s unstoppable XO Tour Lif3. The 808 Mafia handled track sticks close to Uzi’s established style; flamboyant melodies over stargazing synths and powerful trap percussion. Uzi launches into beautiful sing song flows and a stunningly emotional hook, an anguished outcry about living beyond the edge. Towards the end of the song’s first verse, when Uzi screams about Xanax being his escape and not fearing death before diving headfirst into a one-two punch flow in a distinctive melodic snarl, I hear peak mixtape Weezy. I hear the lauded deep track, I Feel Like Dying. The songs are immediately thematically and sonically similar. Wayne’s left field nihilism reveals itself in the deeply personal verses addressing the sorrows and joys of being a high functioning addict. These verses come over a stunning, soft alternative rock sample; a beautiful high pitched melody over a trademark 808 pattern. Nearly a decade later, this 2008 hidden gem has pushed its way to the forefront of music through another dreadlocked eccentric bouncing up and down on an unconventional beat.
Uzi is a lot of things. A rockstar, a firecracker, a postmodernist even. But above all, he is an expert postweezyist scholar, drawing upon the primary sources of a revolution Wayne led nearly single handedly.
In addressing Wayne’s status as an influencer, one cannot skirt around the unfortunate fact that the students of his philosophy have overtaken him. Is Wayne still popping up on Billboard charts? Absolutely; he’s on that lukewarm Nicki diss-track-pop-smash, and he’s his usual charismatic self on it. Will Wayne always maintain a certain level of relevance? You betcha; rap is still a very young genre (with an abnormally high mortality rate, especially amongst its greats), and its superstars of yesteryear still get good press. We will undoubtedly remember Wayne forever, but for many avid fans of ~T H E C U L T U R E~, the Wayne we think of most fondly, the Wayne we want to see and hear at concerts, is a remnant of the Bush years. That ferocity, that creativity, that overall difference between he and his peers, more or less disappeared after 2009’s Tha Carter III. After this immense career peak (the blockbuster project went platinum in a week, spawned the biggest singles of his career, and won the Grammy for best rap album), he fell off. It’s a hard fact to stomach, but it’s damn near as objectively true as one can be when discussing the talent of artists. He followed C3 with a straight up terrible rock album, Rebirth an eight month prison sentence, the incredibly divisive, yet successful, Tha Carter IV, and the maligned I Am Not a Human Being series. Wayne became the one thing any fan could not have expected; predictable.
In his 2010s slump, Wayne has appeared to be trapped in his worst. His metaphors and similes lost their potency, he got a little too comfortable with the same punchline flow on every track, and the same terrible punchline bars about his penis or cunnilingus. Never forget:
My tongue is an uzi
My dick is an AK
My tongue go BRRRRRRRR
My dick go BAH
It’s hard to imagine that when President Obama admitted to having some Weezy on his iPod, he was talking about the Soulja Boy produced Wowzerz.
Wayne’s contemporaries and proteges passed him up. Drake became, well, Drake. Nicki Minaj tore Monster apart and then redefined what it meant to crossover. Future went from being that-nigga-on-the-hook to occupying the space “drug-era” Wayne did; emotional bars about the perils of drugs and scandalous heathens and unconventional, daring implementation of Autotune and vocal spazzes. Young Thug did Wayne better than Wayne, was briefly a weapon in the ongoing Baby v. Weezy war, and is now hip-hop’s shimmering art-pop icon. Still, while Wayne is closer to Jimmy Buffet than Jimi Hendrix at this stage of his career, his status as an elder rap statesman is alive and well.
Just look at one of last year’s most underrated projects, 2 Chainz and Wayne’s passion project ColleGrove. The album opens with Dedication, an emotionally revealing ballad to Weezy, addressing his status as a pioneer and tastemaker, responsible for the careers of most of today’s rap stars. And while Wayne struggled to find form on this project too, he had his moments, delivering high points that The New York Times described as “his most spirited rapping in at least two years”, and still has astonishing chemistry with one of his most trusted collaborators, Tity Boi.
It is the spirit of rap that led me to write this piece. I see a lot of hip-hop media and fans (mostly old heads) lambasting contemporary hip-hop as anything other than rap music. And while these statements are not totally unfounded (there’s a whole lot of singing, a whole lot of melody, a whole lot of pop, dancehall, a whole lot of everything), the spirit of rap music today is the same spirit Wayne brought on Dedication 2; a spirit of defiance, of difference, of experimentation.
It’s still Wayne’s world, and we’re still just living in it.