September 20, 2016

PEGAN | Free Weezy: An Ode to an American Icon

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Would I ever think about retiring? I look at retirement like… you retire out when you die out… because you never retire at what you do, meaning… if what you do is your life like mine… like my career is my life… I could never retire out… even if I stop rapping I’m going to be in some form or fashion in it, know what I mean? –Lil Wayne, 2006

It’s been a hectic month in Wayne’s world. It all started when the 33-year-old hip-hop legend took to Twitter to announce his retirement, declaring himself “DEFENSELESS AND mentally DEFEATED.” The tweet was just the latest in the ongoing saga of Wayne’s legal feud with former mentor Birdman: a disheartening, gridlocked dispute which is itself the latest in a long series of adversities Weezy has faced over the past eight years. The tweet doesn’t mark the first time Wayne has publicly alluded to hanging up the mic — it has been public knowledge since 2012 that his long-delayed album Tha Carter V will be his last — but it obviously came from a place of deep personal despair. Thankfully, the hip-hop community was there to help Wayne out of that place: everyone from Missy Elliot to Kendrick Lamar (who uploaded a particularly touching, and probably drunken, video) reached out over social media to show their support and urge Weezy to keep going.

Not long after the tweet, Wayne renounced his retirement claim on Skip and Shannon: Undisputed, but not without opening himself up to further scrutiny with some dumb, offhanded comments about current race relations. Further to the edge of the media spotlight, however, Wayne has been, as he might say, “hustling, hustling hard.” Just hours after the retirement-tweet he performed an apparently lit set with 2 Chainz at the Made in America Festival in Philadelphia. Later that week he dropped a not-bad new track on Tidal called “Grateful,” on which he cast the Birdman feud in a much more positive light. And finally, on Thursday he joined Chance the Rapper on the Ellen DeGeneres show in a spirited performance of their collaboration “No Problem.” The Weezy of these performances seemed less like the “defenseless” and “defeated” Weezy of Twitter and tabloids, and more like the untiring, creative genius so many of us have always loved.

Like most fascinating people, Wayne has always embodied contrasts in this way. The ups and downs of his career can be understood broadly in terms of the tension between captivity and freedom. Ever since he reached the pinnacle of his success with 2008’s Tha Carter III, Wayne’s creative freedom has been restricted by one kind of captivity or another, be it the literal captivity of his 8-month stint on Riker’s Island, or the figurative (but probably more devastating) captivity of his continual struggle with codeine addiction, the rising pressure wrought by deteriorating critical reception and this latest struggle: Wayne’s attempt to break his contract with Birdman’s label Cash Money Records. But as anyone who has listened to even the most subpar of Wayne’s releases knows, once he finds his flow, there’s no holding him back. That’s as true now as it was in 2008, it’s just that for years, his flow has been interrupted constantly.

In his prime Wayne was a tsunami. Between 2004 and 2008, the rapper released three studio albums, a collaborative record with Birdman, an EP and four mixtapes.  Generally speaking, these releases increased steadily in quality, until the wave finally crashed with Tha Carter III: one of the best pop albums of the decade as far as I’m concerned. But to hear the most truly free Wayne, one must turn to the mixtapes. The Dedication, Dedication 2, Da Drought 2, and especially Da Drought 3 showcase the artist at his absolute best. On these we hear Lil Wayne letting loose, freed from the pressures and limitation inherent to making studio albums. The result is a collection of tapes packed with exuberant flows and brilliant wordplay. Wayne exudes the sheer, infectious joy of creation on every bar in a way that makes me feel like I could listen to the tapes every week for the rest of my life.

The post-Carter III story is familiar enough: the wayward genius burns out. The energy that fueled a tremendous run, starts to flow in a destructive direction. The turning point in Wayne’s career is well documented in Adam Bhala Lough’s fascinating documentary The Carter. The film captures some of the highest points in Wayne’s career from around the time of Tha Carter III’s release. It also captures the advent of the rapper’s infamous addiction to “sizzurp” (Promethazine-with-Codeine cough syrup), which of all of Wayne’s struggles has proven to be by far the most constant and deleterious. Sadly, there are few scenes in the film in which he is not sipping on the saccharine beverage.

Lately, Wayne has been portraying himself as a man imprisoned by a record label. There’s reason to be dubious, however, that his Cash Money contract is what’s truly holding him back. The Birdman-Wayne feud is obviously a personal matter between the two rappers, whose relationship has always been described as like father and son. Even if Cash Money has become as restrictive as Wayne would like us to believe, it is doubtful that he will ever be “free” again, in the sense that he was “free” during the peak of his career. His former success and string of troubles will always overshadow him. We’ll never have another Drought or Carter III, but that’s not what matters. What matters is that between 2004 and 2008, Lil Wayne released enough fantastic tracks to establish himself as an immortal source of inspiration for the hip hop community, and for us all.

In September of 2012, Wayne overcame Elvis Presley’s record for the most appearances by a solo act on the Hot 100. To be clear, Elvis still comfortably holds the record for most appearances by a lead solo performer (over half of Lil Wayne’s appearances have been as a featured guest, Wayne being a prolific collaborator). Still, the event was undeniably a milestone, and offered a clear picture of the status Wayne deserves.  Elvis and Lil Wayne have quite a few similarities at the end of the day: both hail from Dixieland, both outraged parents with their sexual frankness, and both are unparalleled American icons.

Matt Pegan is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]In Love with the Modern World appears online alternate Mondays this semester.