.

Lil Wayne

    Tha B l o c k I s H o t (1999, Cash Money)
    L i g h t s O u t (2000, Cash Money)
    5 0 0 D e g r e e z (2002, Cash Money)
    Tha Carter (2004, Cash Money)
     Tha Car t e r I I (2005, Cash Money)
     Dedication (2005, Young Money Entertainment)
     Dedication II (2006, 101 Distribution)
       Da Drought 3 (2007, Young Money Entertainment)
     The Greatest Rapper Alive (2008)
       Tha Carter III (2008, Cash Money/Universal)
     The Drought Is Over II: Tha Carter III Sessions     No Ceilings (2009)
   R e b i r t h (Cash Money/Universal, 2010)

With his craggy croak, his space-case beats, and his perma-stoned vibe, nothing about Lil Wayne really screams Pop Star. Nothing, of course, except his genius. In the late 2000s, he won over the planet via shear talent and willpower, recording so many tracks so quickly (actual albums and singles, cameos on songs by everyone from Enrique Iglesias to Weezer, and mixtape after mixtape) that it seems the English language might run out of words before he runs out of rhymes. It was a pretty impressive brain-dump for a guy who allegedly goes through more syrup than IHOP and spends most of his time so high he could "eat a star." Wayne's cast-off lines would be a lesser rapper's gold. A million Fat Joes working a million microphones for a million years couldn't come up with, "Lampin' in the Hamptons like 'What the fuck is a hammock?' / The chef up in the kitchen like 'What the fuck is a sammich?'" For Weezy that's just something you toss off in the back of the tour bus while you're waiting for one of your lackeys to prepare the morning bong load.

But before he became the greatest rapper alive, Weezy was just another lil' soldier. It's hard to think of a musical genius whose career began so inauspiciously. The New Orleans teenage prodigy got his start in the late Nineties with the Hot Boys, playing the role of interchangeable baller over Cash Money house producer Mannie Fresh's sturdy, skittering assembly-line beats. There are moments of fun and promise on his subsequent solo discs—"Hit U Up" from 1999's Lights Out, "Fuck the World" from 2000's Tha Block Is Hot, "Look At Me" from 2002's 500 Degreez—but his early records are now little more than historical curiosities.

Mannie Fresh left Cash Money in 2005, freeing up Weezy to find beats that best fit his slippery, sumptuous astral-frog vocals. With its arty black and white cover (a pointed contrast with the radiant cheapness of Cash Money packaging), Tha Carter II is his great leap forward. A raft of producers give Wayne spare, humid funk beats to skate over, often rooted in classic samples (the Isley Brothers' "Lay Away," on "Receipt," for instance) that extend well outside the usual N.O. sound. His genius for the flaying bon mot is staggering ("You niggas small bubbles, I burp you/ I'll spit you out and have your girls slurp you") and lines like "Yeah I'm from New Orleans, the Creole cockpit / We so out of it, zero tolerance" add a soulful post-Katrina depth.

Earlier in '05, Wayne released Dedication, his first mixtape with Atlanta's great DJ Drama, beginning an astonishing run of official and unofficial mixes. His output for the next couple years would rival mid-Sixties Dylan or Seventies George Clinton, and even the most dedicated Weeziac would have a hard time keeping all his mixtapes straight (the discography above selects his more newsworthy offerings). Basically, they follow a reliable formula: Drama (or whoever) laces together some of-the-moment hip-hop beats (or Heart or the Beatles), and Wayne goes nuts. Dedication II overflows with lines like "Weezy F. Baby, the motherfucking Carter / Got bitches on my stick but my name ain't Harry Potter," but the real heart-stopping moment is the seven-minute "Georgia Bush," where Wayne tears the 43rd President a new one over a Ray Charles sample: "The white people smiling like everything cool / But I know people that died in that pool." Gulp.

The best of these sets is 2007's two-CD Da Drought 3: Da Drought Is Over, a face-melting tour de force. The lyrics are often standard gangsta rap stuff, but the psychedelic flourishes are amazing (in the middle of a song about selling drugs he raps "And when I was five, my favorite movie was The Gremlins / That ain't got shit to do with this, but I just thought that I should mention"). Elsewhere, Wayne turns Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" into a woozy crack rap, savages Jay-Z ("Young Carter, darlin' / Understand, I am Michael Jordan ballin'"), and builds a pop culture reference matrix that includes everyone from Stevie Wonder to Steve Largent. As a pure expression of genius for it's own sake, it's one the best rap record of the 2000s—even better than the mixtape he called The Greatest Rapper Alive. And, at a low, low Internet price of $0.00, quite a bargain as well.

Releasing an actual album-type-album after such a server-crashing deluge seemed kinda last century, so expectations for the Carter III were mixed. Still, Wayne delivered a disc that showed he could work in the whole-world-in-his-hand tradition of Biggie and Jay-Z. "Got Summer hatin' on me cuz I'm hotter than the sun / Got Spring hatin' on me cuz I aint' ever sprung," he raps on "Mr. Carter," celebrating his dominance in the most whimsical terms possible. After a decade of MCs who ruled with ruthless cool, a little surreal slapstick was liberating. Wayne rapped about drinking tea, big-upped Beatlejuice, morphed "Nigeria" into "venereal." "A Milli" laced Wayne's bragging over minimalist classical music with a crunk undertow, and "Lollipop" was uncut cybertronic purpleness. On the somber "Tie My Hands," Wayne notes that if the Saints and the Hornets left town he'd be the only thing New Orleans has going for it, a pathos-ridden boast to say the least and a dagger twist of irony from an extra-terrestrial who's more down-to-earth than the streetest rappers.

Wayne spent most of 2009 cameo-ing with anyone who could get him on the phone, dealing with a gun possession charge, and threatening a rock record (his only official mixtape of the year was the rotely awesome No Ceilings). Even geniuses make mistakes, and Rebirth is clearly the work of an insulated star who thinks his farts smell like daisies (not a rare affliction among even our greatest greats). Wayne seems to think he's taking rap back to the punked-up hard rock of the Beastie Boys and Bad Brains, but he ends up with a disc of angry, turgid rap-rock that sounds like the thinky bits on a Limp Bizkit record. It isn't an unmitigated disaster; "On Fire" is a tightly coiled mix of jeep beats, Miami Vice synths, and cheap guitar grind, and "Knockout" is a sunny Fall Out Boy-ish sprint. But Weezy's half-rap, half-bark is at once cloying, petulant and jerky, rendering his takes on Amerikkkan Babylon painfully forced and turning his standard sex boasts into the stuff of rock assholes (the "fuck her anyway!" chant that ends "The Price Is Wrong" is especially creepy). To hear the greatest alive "sing" lines like "I know a girl named Crystal, her last name Ball / I look into her eyes I can see it all," is like watching LeBron trip over his laces on the way to a layup. The next episode will surely be better.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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