What the hell happened to Lil Wayne? …beside of course the eight months spent locked up, the subsequent three years of (uh huh) sobriety de rigueur, those two (three, four?) ambulance-worthy seizures, and the birth of a daughter? Uh…
See, the question I’m really asking - or want to ask - is ‘What the hell happened to the quality of Lil Wayne’s music?’ but in light of the above, I’m hesitant to harass the guy. Especially since, at the age of thirty, with two (three, four?) perfect albums to his credit, an innumerable excess of astonishing - or at least hilarious, amusing, clever, innovative, controversial, provocative, and/or impossible - songs, he’s earned the right to relax a bit to deal with (what else would befit Weezy?) an excess of personal issues. A lot of us feel this way - it’s been echoed across the critical landscape for a few years now. But there’s a big problem. It just happens, to the chagrin of every unaffected pop fan in the world, that Tunechi likes to relax by sucking (no homo!) real hard. And often.
It’s easier to forgive Eminem, who has also sucked (…maybe homo) for longer than artists of this calibre are permitted before “this calibre” starts not to apply. He’s not really a mixtape-a-month kind of guy. You could say his excesses are more qualitative (“Kim,” “Drips,” “Big Weenie,” dessert, anyone?) than quantitative. Doing the math here… critics’re only forced to listen to him crap in his bathroom once every 22 months - which works out to about nine poopy tracks/skits/intros/outros a year (this, of course, assuming every track is bad - which is unfair but not aggressively so).
On the other hand (ew…) if Tha Carter III crests, as it should, at a high water mark - and what follows “flushes [straight] down the drain quick” (Weezy’s words, not mine), then the Wayne crap canon has shot 11 albums/mixtapes/collabs and, at least, 183 tracks/skits/intros/outros/shout-outs/whatevers directly at our ears in less than five years. Wayne is outshitting Shady by a factor of six.
Til now I’ve been a casual witness to this decline - and it was easy enough on me. Read a few reviews, give the new stuff a couple of spins… if it doesn’t click it doesn’t have to click. Whatever. There are 200 other Wayne songs I can play when I’m in the mood. But I write Odyshape now, and when I assumed the responsibility of dispatching Dedication 5, I surrendered to him for the first time since No Ceilings. My first lesson? I understand why grim expectation eroded into a critical fatalism eroded, now, to resentment. It’s the excess. Bad Wayne means a LOT of bad Wayne - and, paid or not, sitting captive to a clearly bored, frequently ill-meaning sexist pop off unrendered puns for more than an hour over and over and over (not to mention finding something meaningful to write about the themeless non-sequiturs that are no longer even fun) borders on the oppressively clerical.
Years of this - not just the monotony but the annual (well, quarterly) disappointment - no doubt breeds resentment in the critic. Hell, I felt it after one album’s worth of deep listening. I did what I could to qualify this frustration in a review, and filed it away for publication today about a week ago. In the meantime, I cheered myself up with his old stuff: shuffled Tha Carters II, III, Da Droughts 2, 3, No Ceilings, and Dedications 2, 4 into a huge mess and listened like Robert Christgau for “five or six hours straight without once fast-forwarding.” In the midst of it, I was reminded why I enjoy Da Drought 3 a little more than its buttoned-up twin, Tha Carter III: the beats are cherrypicked from ‘07’s best, yeah, and he’s looser because he’s allowed to be - but fundamentally the reason is this: these two debuted when I was in flux between high school and college… and that anxious summer’s itchy pheromones were all mixed up with forgivably callow ideas about Obama, and The Left, and, you know, the working man, man. And here was Drought 3: 29 songs/intros/outros/shoutouts/whatevers - all careening, laughing, lying, thieving, bubbling, drooling with wit and unmoored creativity - for free. I recall being super proud of myself for telling a chick ‘this album made pop short for populism,’ and however oh-my-god-kitschy that may have been, it’s not wrong. It outdid Sandinista! at its own ethical game while sustaining a way higher standard of quality - and, for me anyway, redefined the ways in which music could be political.
Anyway - I want to say that this refresher on dialectical materialism and not, say, simple nostalgia led me to reevaluate the pan I’d written earlier in the week. And not just the how of the matter (as in: ‘how can you tell a readership not to buy something that’s free?’), but the why (as in: ‘why would I ever need play consumer watchdog for a product that, again, is totally free?’). By now I’m old enough to claim unforgivably callow ideas about the Left - but I can’t say I’ve seen this question (however deeply entrenched in class politics it may be) raised in many critical pieces, popular or academic - though maybe Greil Marcus or, hell, Alain Robbe-Grillet has dealt with it. At any rate, if like me you think criticism is only incidentally about cultural-framing insofar as its mostly about protecting the consumer - then the virtues in a single negative review of a free and streamible piece of art are minimal if not absent. Actually, you might argue that negative reviews of mixtapes work against the purpose of criticism entirely: if over time they discourage the release of future - potentially astonishing - free art.
When I came around to feeling this way, I took Dedication 5 at its literal word - and recognized it as the admittedly flawed dedication to pop fans that it calls itself. Weezy confirms as much, I’m pleased to say, in D5’s 20th of 29 songs, “Competition Interlude”:
[Am I] still competitive in the rap game? Competition is different these days. That competition is competing for my awesome fanbase and my awesome fans’ attention. You know what I mean? For them to still say that they love and competing for they’re love and competing for them to still fuck with me and things like that. That’s my competition these days and, I love it.
Out of respect for this quote and his politics above whatever aural powers D5 can claim, I threw this new mixtape into the Wayne mess I told you about earlier. You know what that taught me about excess? Good or bad - it bleeds into itself. There are eleven perfect - or at least hilarious, amusing, clever, innovative, controversial, provocative, and/or impossible - tracks on Dedication 5, one short of half the stuff on here if you take away the six non-song interlude/shoutout/whatevers. You simply don’t hear them - in part because the first one appears seven songs in, and in part because the others are surrounded by a lot of murky, down-tempo trash.
So here’s my recipe for Dedication 2.5 (in the spirit of Wayne, a pun title: half of D5 and, yes, a jab-step better than D2):
7. You Song ft. Chance the Rapper
8. Ain’t Worried
12. Live Life ft. Euro & T@
17. Pure Colombia
19. Still Got That Rock
21. FuckWitMeYouKnowIGotIt ft. T.I.
23. Levels ft. Vado
24. Cream ft. Euro
27. Fuckin’ Problems ft. Kidd Kidd & Euro
Eleven great rap songs on one record? That’s Pazz & Jop top ten material - usually. Then again - usually - great records don’t have 18 tracks of filler. Consider it is shame then that generosity (as, opposed to, say, excess) is - based on the reviews - an aesthetic vice for Wayne and not a political virtue. And also consider this review a laud, not a pan.