Tonight, a friend of mine announced he was “retiring from listening to music”, but about a week before doing so posed a question that remains relevant: why has Lil’ Wayne caught on among the kids quicker than sipping tussin out of a baby bottle? Given John Poirier’s recent commentary on Lil’ Wayne’s showboating at Virgin Fest I figured now might be an appropriate time to post an account of my quest to find the answer.
As you might guess, by “the kids” my friend didn’t just mean suburban teenagers blasting T.I. out of their parents’ Range Rovers, and he didn’t mean people getting down in the club. He meant informed music listeners. And while I consider myself informed, I’d actually not listened to Tha Carter III, so, naturally, I turned to the internet. A quick poke through the blogosphere revealed mostly remixes, and after watching some of his videos on YouTube I only found myself more confused. Indie kids don’t usually get off on guys tossing Benjamins out of Hummer limos (especially with our social consciousness over a weakening dollar and air pollution). Even more interesting is that nightclubs don’t often play Lil’ Wayne, because unless he’s been remixed so as to be virtually unrecognizable, you can’t dance to him beyond a little head nodding–a fact which was revealed digging through the Billboard “Hot Club Dance Play” archives. And his raps are really weird to sing along to, possibly explaining my lack of exposure to Tha Carter III as I cruise down York Rd.
I began my investigation by heading to P’fork to see just what they had to say about the greatest rapper alive’s last effort–by now everyone’s gotta know it’s one of their 10 or so highest rated releases of the year. I’m not sure why a publication dedicated to independent music would be reviewing his records at all, but they sure liked it a lot, and subscribe to the view that he is, in fact, the greatest. From their reviews I gather that Pitchfork likes him because a) he can’t play guitar well but tries anyway, b) he doesn’t care much about his audience, and c) he lyrics are often puzzling. Ok, no surprises as to why they like him so far. But they also gave me the impression he was some kind of sex machine. Which is weird given that the Weezy of four years ago was frequently spoken of as being one of the strangest looking men in the genre–remember this guy?
Short, scrawny, dreadlocked Lil Wayne wasn’t supposed to be a ladies man, he was a feat. artist, at best part of a troupe, but not a superstar. His flow is off-kilter and stoned; his rhymes are often downright awkward. He’s not as thug as 50 Cent, he’s not as slick as T.I, he’s not as provocative as Nas and he lacks the crossover appeal of Outkast. So why the white kids love Weezy so much?
I asked some friends what they thought and learned more:
“It’s the way he uses his lyrics.”
“There’s a vacuum in the rap game.”
“Wayne is a really white name.”
The story of how Lil Wayne became huge is simple. He made himself huge. He said he was “the greatest since the greatest retired.” His lyrics aren’t the most clever in the business; no matter how much people want to assert that he’s some kind of genius, songs like his biggest hit so far, “Lollipop”, tend to make me think otherwise. His much touted sense of humor involves jokes about sex, drugs, and his name–not really breaking the mold there. As far as there being no big rap superstars right now, it’s true that only Kanye West can legitimately compete for the title of greatest rapper alive. And Lil Wayne’s far more visible; it’s impossible to listen to rap radio for an hour without hearing him in some capacity. But while that might explain why he’s at the top of the rap game, it doesn’t explain his critical praise. To the contrary, omnipresence is usually a portent of critical failure.
I think the real reason music critics jumped for Wayne might have to do with that last comment I received, absurd as it may be. Rap music is often fun because it involves some kind of vicarious excitement. In this instance that high is accessible for a different audience. Not only is Wayne bad at playing guitar, weird looking and awkwardly spoken, but he wouldn’t even cuss on his first cuts with Hot Boys out of fear of offending his mom. He attended University of Houston and studied psychology and political science, both healthy parts of a balanced humanities curriculum. A quick look at the Wikipedia entry on Lil’ Wayne shows that he was in the drama club in school, and one of his favorite bands growing up was Nirvana. Finally, we music snobs have a rapper we can relate to without irony.
Not that everyone who listens to Lil Wayne’s music knows this ancillary information about his background, but their effects shine through in his attitude, which is maybe what you would expect from a weirdo kid gone down the “gangsta” path. He’s not Gibby Haynes for the rap crowd but the merchants of culture have latched onto him as such. I mean, people were actually questioning whether this OC Weekly piece was a factual account. I have to admit, after listening to all of his latest effort, Weezy ain’t that bad a rapper. But these days the game’s about image, and Weezy F. Baby’s is really weird. He might be king amongst nerd-rappers like Common, Talib, and Kanye, but I can’t shake the feeling that someday soon somebody way sicker will come along and usurp the throne from Lil Wayne just as quickly as he assumed it.
- Lil’ Wanye [sic]Despite all the previous 11 acts that day starting on...