Remember when Lil Wayne was the weird one? In 2006, when Weezy’s career started picking up its second wind with the release of still-astonishing Dedication 2 mixtape, he was the touchstone for avant-gardism in rap, the purped-out, bloodshot-eyed spitter whose magic in the booth could have been conjured by mysticism as easily as anything else (though you’d probably put some of your money on weed). His metaphors were creatively unparalleled in rap, his voice a smoked out croak. He leered like Peter Jackson’s Gollum, and when he started noodling on guitars, the effect was that of someone play-acting in a rock film, waiting for a soloing overdub that never came. Possibly one of the most accidentally performance-art concerts in rap music ever was his 2008 appearance at Summer Jam, in which Wayne, clearly inebriated on some unidentifiable concoction, brought a previously hyped 40,000 or so crowd to a halt by pounding a poorly-tuned axe with impunity, vaguely crooning syllables into a microphone. The crowd just wanted to hear “Lollipop.” It was awkward, much in the same way Marina Abramovic making eye contact while nude and weeping is awkward — there’s no roadmap for where to go, what to do.
Now, though, they’re figuring it out. Wayne’s obviously the godfather of today’s much-touted “weirdness movement” in rap music, though psychic progeny like Lil B and SpaceGhostPurrp are crafting odder (if not stonier) movements, and Death Grips and B L A C K I E are releasing harder (and much better) rap-metal. So it makes sense that now, after stumbling through a possible addiction, lyrical brilliance, a greatest rapper alive pedestal, and a stint in prison (following a gun charge the NYPD used DNA technology to connect him to, albeit tangentially) on his recent mixtape Sorry 4 the Wait, Lil Wayne sounds gleaming. Pure. Tangibly squeaky clean. He’s flipped a switch.
Wayne rarely releases weak commercial singles, and his recent run from his forthcoming album, the Carter IV, proves the point: The monsters “6’7”” and “John” are still interminable after half a year, and the more recent “How to Love” transposes the moment’s current Drake-worshiping emotionalism into Taylor Swift territory (which is, obviously, awesome). Anticipation is high for his commercial release, but Sorry 4 the Wait might prove a point another, more cynical point I’ve been reluctantly weighing since clean Wayne was released. Sans the crag that regular herbalism caught in his throat, a voice unrasped by regular smoke, the question begs: Was weeded Weezy better at mixtapes? More importantly, were Lil Wayne mixtapes better before Drake popularized the punchline rap? Sigh.
One of the glorious points of Lil Wayne’s previous tapes was listening to his sometimes nonsensical, non-rapped interludes — little conversation skits that were a precursor to Lil B’s stream of consciousness raps. 2008’s Da Drought 3 had some of the loopiest, with Wayne audibly taking puffs between thoughts, heavily flanged as though he was recorded in an anti-gravity chamber. That mixtape’s outro, set jovially to Robin Thicke’s “Lost Without You,” served as a kind of liner notes, thank yous and shout outs eked out between ice-mouth giggles. Comparatively, Sorry 4 The Wait’s outro, equally odd juxtaposed on Beyonce’s Major Lazer beat for “Girls Who Run The World,” expands with a helilum-like happiness, Wayne yelling Southern barks over unintelligible acknowledgements. The track comes right after his “Inkredible” freestyle, on which he delivers a verse with unparalleled enthusiasm — really, there aren’t many rappers right now with better delivery than this dude — but recycles ideas he’s already used to better effect. Or, with the onslaught of rap music flirting deeper and deeper into the avant-garde, it’s possible we’re just getting desensitized.
The answer may lie on “Grove Street Party,” Wayne’s collaboration with Lil B. The relationship between the two is stark: Wayne is the elder and — however popular B’s positive mental attitude-touting verses become with the under 25s — he’s clearly doing B a favor, and will forever be the better rapper. But remarkably, in a world where one-time teen sensation Soulja Boy has scored a hit encouraging people to enjoy the deadly combo of Xanax and Codeine syrup (“Zan with that Lean”), surely it means something that two self-professed clean rappers are on a track together trading off-kilter verses about their crews. One of Wayne’s most legendary lines is “I’m so motherfucking high I could eat a star”; maybe now he can just become one.