Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Rock & Roll &

The Triumph of the Id

book cover

With his first prison bid set to launch simultaneously with his first official album since Tha Carter III, it seemed an excellent time to ponder Lil Wayne. Only then, Wayne's year on Rikers Island was delayed so the rapper could, well, go to the dentist. Some speculated that Wayne has so much bling in his mouth he was removing it for safekeeping, while jayhovawitness at the Rap Radar site snapped, "Hell, I know niggas that go to jail just to get their teeth fixed." Soon another Rap Radar comedian took care of the new, rock-styled Rebirth: "Judge: Cancel the release of 'Rebirth' and we'll let you free. Wayne: OK." On February 16, however, Wayne was subjected to eight root canals along with repairs on several implants and scattered remaining original teeth, not to mention many hits of nitrous oxide or something stronger. And on March 8, Dwayne Carter did in fact go to jail, allaying suspicions that he and his new grill might ascend into heaven instead.

Even for admirers, there's a temptation to make light of Lil Wayne's legal problems. The code of the streets whence hip-hop supposedly springs defines prison as part of the life, and many rappers--including Slick Rick, Shyne, Mystikal, and most recently and prominently T.I.--have already been incarcerated. True, the others perpetrated crimes of violence where Lil Wayne went down on gun possession solely. But we Second Amendment relativists support gun laws, and seldom approve when rich guys walk even if they have undergone undue police scrutiny. And though we may not place much credence in the crime tales that once dominated Lil Wayne's repertoire, we sure don't believe he lives within the law. Prison? You could say he was asking for it.

But you also could say his disregard for the law is what we admire him for. Being a Lil Wayne fan renders you complicit not just in his musical and verbal compulsions but in the lifestyle of an unpackable, untrackable workaholic hedonist. Scarfing beats, slurping rhymes, verbalizing desires as boundless as language itself like they're a joke he's sharing with his crew as they all play an ESPN videogame, Lil Wayne puts so much id into his labors he could make any cop nervous--in fact, any functioning adult. The ultimate locus of our complicity is our own infantile urges.

This complicity requires nothing like total commitment, which given Lil Wayne's uncatalogable catalogue would be a path of madness. It applies more to his high-mixtape mode, epitomized by the wild and woolly double-CD Da Drought 3, than to the formalizing double-platinum Tha Carter III, which perfected if not tamed that mode. And it requires no identification with the biographical Lil Wayne. M.I.A. and Kanye West I care about--their thought processes are something like mine. Lil Wayne belongs to some other species--and that is central to who he is, what he does, and how he presents himself. Maybe it's the dope. Or maybe it's just Lil Wayne.

Biographically, Dwayne Carter is a 27-year-old from New Orleans who's been rapping professionally since he was 12. Although thug money certainly got him started, there's no evidence he put in minute one "on the grind," to cite a title from 2000's Lights Out. Wayne owns luxury residences in New Orleans, Miami, and Atlanta, and has fathered four children by four different women, the last three born in 2008 or 2009. He chain-smokes blunts and has a taste for codeine-based cough syrup. He's a sports nut and an Animal Planet fan. But the really interesting stuff is his catalogue-that-isn't-a-catalogue.

In my iTunes folder subsist some 165 Lil Wayne songs, all of which went public after 2005's Tha Carter II, a farewell from Wayne the gangsta that launched Wayne the stoned free associater. Several times recently I've played these songs five or six hours straight without once fast-forwarding. Mostly the music percolated in the background as Wayne chuckled, chortled, croaked, cackled, heckled, jeckled, sidled, slurred, Auto-Tuned, and even enunciated over beats of varying irresistibility and originality. But every once in a while a moment previously unnoticed or fondly recalled would pop to the forefront: the mock-romantic Prince sample I'd never cared for, the triumphal Mike Jones sample I know in no other guise, the in-their-face seizure of the Beatles' "Help," some scat joke I'd missed, the endless threats to eat MCs, the murderous "Problem Solver" I first heard the day after my father died, the "Hip hop is mine now what you gonna do/I can jump on any nigga's song and make a part two." But except for Tha Carter III you can't buy any of this music, all of which has outlived its commercial function of seeding demand, and except for the late-2009 No Ceilings mixtape, you also can't download it gratis from any website I have the temerity to introduce to my hard drive. Friends less protective of their computers' immune systems report that they're easy to nab from peer-to-peer networks. Proceed at your own risk. I didn't send you.

These complications pertain because, as even casual observers are dimly aware, Lil Wayne acquired three luxury residences, three babymamas, double-platinum certification, untold blunts, and the attention of many police departments by recording every day and giving the results away. I owe my familiarity with this promotional material to the kindness of younger friends who violated their own best-practice guidelines by burning me CDs of it; the late-2009 No Ceilings I managed to download free with some help, after which I braved to obtain the earlier The Leak 6 from yet another younger friend. As a music critic I should get over this ineptitude. But I'm betting many readers here can identify--for non-initiates, free-music-for-all is often a false rumor that's more trouble than it's worth. And nevertheless, in 2006 and 2007, Lil Wayne put out more great songs than you or I will ever hear--songs enjoyable by anyone with no principled objection to impromptu, casually connected rhymes rife with obscenities, N-words, female dogs, garden tools, and general braggadocio.

Some of these were cameos, usually in the form of 16s he'd guest-drop for 100 grand a pop. Others were the kind of back-patting duets that mixtapes like his overrated Dedication 2 and recent The Leak 6 are larded with. But many more were pure Wayne, free downloads that included many supposed "previews" from the oft-delayed and so-worth-waiting-for Tha Carter III. Having secured four or five CDs worth all at once in early 2007, I found them hard to get my mind around. True, many jacked well-known dance and hip-hop beats that should have helped, but as someone who only dips into that world, rarely could I ID them, and even today I can't name half the tracks on Da Drought 3, which is among my favorite albums of the decade. Critics aren't supposed to cop to such ignorance, and there are certainly scholars who have mastered (almost) every detail. But to me it feels like the right approach to an oeuvre in which superfluity is of the essence.

Take Da Drought 3's "Walk It Out," which I'd never thought about before it came on as I completed the previous graf. Based on a stripper-ready DJ Unk track (I Googled that), it ends each of the 22 lines of its first half with a two-syllable short-u rhyme: stunner, stomach, rubbers, woman, dungeon, fun-ya (???), Bunyan, construction, seduction, discussion, trust ya, fuck ya, fuck ya (yup, twice), busta, touch ya, Usher, Russia, flush ya, crusher, gusher, production, abduction. You may think these aren't all rhymes, but Wayne disagrees, and puts their music where his mouf is. The content is mostly sexual insults and boasts targeting unnamed rappers, some wittier than others. But the beat is beguilingly unstable--now elaborated, now deconstructed--and the verbal mood outrageous and unlikely rather than crass or obscene, though the two options do cohabit. Always there's the sense that this is word play--that Wayne has diddled the "street" "reality" of hip-hop convention until a convention is all it remains. Dope, sex, money, sucker MCs, and murder turned cannibalism--all dope themes to hang rhymes off.

"The microphone wet cuh my words like seduction," Wayne spits, summing up my argument in eight juicy words, and then later giggles us humans a future: "I am just a Martian get prepared for abduction." This matter-of-fact view of his own unfixed species identification was perfected, sort of, on Tha Carter III's "Phone Home." The wordplay begins with the E.T.-referencing title, which reinforces the trademark childishness of Lil Wayne's nevertheless gravelly drawl and sets a storybook mood for the introductory "We are not the same I am a Martian." Second verse, the last word shifts to "alien," which is in turn sound-shifted toward famed alien Elian Gonzalez, who in early 2008 was in the news for having joined the Young Communist Union in his unphonable Cuban home. Whoever did or didn't get this, it's no accident that Wayne quickly juxtaposes the phrase "Gonzalez young college student" (actually high school, but then he wouldn't have two "oll" sounds). What it "means," of course, is itself. It's one of uncounted superfluous moments in a song about devouring MCs after the manner of the alien in that movie Alien, a song that concludes: "I can eat them for supper/Get in my spaceship and hover, hover."

Dwayne Carter is high a lot, and Lil Wayne hovers a lot. "I am sitting on the clouds/I got smoke coming from my seat/I can play basketball with the moon/I got the whole world at my feet," whispers the mixtape-only "I Feel Like Dying" after a chipmunk vibrato singsongs an eerie "Only once the drugs are done/That I feel like dying, I feel like dying." If I've ever been this high, which I doubt, it was 40 years ago. But I consider this voice-and-percussion lament Lil Wayne's greatest track--playful, he keeps heh-hehing, yet also suicidal, as if the marijuana, cognac, codeine, wine, and Xanax he namechecks are a reason for living that will someday plunge him into a cold dark sea. You don't have to care about Dwayne Carter the person to notice this theme. Flying images recur almost as often as eating images, and often the escape they describe is from life, not into freedom. It's like his id has a flipside.

But flying is fly on No Ceilings, Wayne's best mixtape in years, which repeats the title in all 14 rhymes and cites the Notorious B.I.G.: "There is no ceilings, there's only the sky, and the sky is the limit, Christopher Wallace said that." Improving beats from Dirty South one-shots and serving beats from Lady Gaga, Jay-Z, and the Black Eyed Peas, this is a gift except when some dolt like Tyga or Jae Millz gets a verse--the initiate's alternative to the Young Money crew album he co-executive-produced for the big label in December. But though the boasts are mostly prime and the rhymes fun enough, it's all pretty surface--there's nothing as tricky as "Walk It Out," much less "I Feel Like Dying." And the occasional references to his forthcoming change of venue are strictly by the book. "If it costs to be the boss then I guess I gotta pay." Right.

Rebirth is much less fun, especially on two flabbergasting songs where Wayne gets back at girls who dissed him in high school. In fact, it could be the worst-reviewed album by a name artist since Metal Machine Music--inevitably, Tha Carter III's megasales soured some initiati, and the Auto-Tuned outpourings of Wayne's inner Kurt Cobain provide a great place to vent. But riding guitar that makes DJ Unk sound like a genius, Wayne--who is in fact a longtime Cobain fan--clearly sees "rock" as a conduit for "serious" feelings disrespected on the streets: romantic self-pity, yes, but also rat-race angst, existential rage, and, strikingly, suicidal fantasies straight up. Not just "I could die now, rebirth motherfucker/Hop up in my spaceship and leave earth motherfucker," which is strong enough, but "Let's jump out of a window/Let's jump off a building baby."

Maybe Wayne's bid will be all push-ups and sit-ups, as No Ceilings claims. Maybe it'll even be good for him. But for someone so long on id, it might also be more than he can take--even more than he's willing to take. Suddenly I find myself caring about Lil Wayne the person.

Barnes & Noble Review, Mar. 10, 2010