Thought exercise: What does it take to anoint oneself “the greatest rapper alive?” Is it a meaningful engagement with the socioeconomic and racial tensions that have long been a cornerstone of the hip-hop narrative? Is it a creative vision and technical dexterity unmatched by one’s peers? Or is it simply the sheer hubris to declare oneself the greatest?
By any and all of those definitions, Lil Wayne was 2008’s “greatest rapper alive.” Building upon a prolific stream of mixtapes, Wayne unleashed Tha Carter III, a critical and commercial juggernaut of Bush-era frustration, auto-tuned absurdity, and Sizzurp-laced verbosity. No one quite knew what to make of it — hell, Spin’s rating of the album was a collection of wingdings — but everyone knew it was perversely brilliant. And so Weezy changed the trajectory of Aughts’ hip-hop. His delivery enabled the emergence of weirder, wilder voices (Young Thug, Migos, you’re welcome). His good graces launched the careers of today’s A-listers (Drake, Nicki, you’re welcome). So what the hell happened in the interim to make Wayne’s newest mixtape, FWA (Free Weezy Album) such a non-event?
Maybe we should blame Tidal, the mixtape’s initial streaming platform. Or perhaps we can attribute the lack of fanfare to Wayne’s ongoing rancor with his own record label, the ferocity of which gives the album its title. Lil Wayne’s health struggles and a recent string of indifferently or disparagingly received projects certainly can’t be helping. Regardless, the fact remains that the mainstream hip-hop world has largely left Lil Wayne behind, and FWA is exemplary of the problems plaguing his career. For someone crucially responsible for the momentum of hip-hop in the late-Aughts, Wayne now seems perpetually stuck in the past. There’s nothing here that couldn’t have been released in 2007. The record’s occasionally bright moments are swallowed up by scattered thoughts and stale beats. Wayne wants FWA to be a statement of his artistic independence at a moment when business and politics have compromised that very freedom. However, liberation need not sound quite this incoherent.
Lil Wayne oscillates on FWA between two methods of delivery — a spitfire, stream of conscious rasp and a dazed auto-tuned drawl. The record would have benefitted from more adherence to the former and less indulgence in the latter. Wayne is indisputably creative in the most bonkers sense – his dizzying and inconceivable rhymes are one of the greatest pleasures of his music – but too much rap-singing dilutes their effect. Sluggish, lazy cuts like “Psycho” and “My Heart Races On” negate the impressive wordplay and good will cultivated by early album tracks like triumphant opener “Glory.” Wayne’s insane rapping abilities are still in there somewhere – see the B-side firecracker “Pull Up” for prime evidence as to just how skillfully and rapidly Wayne can spit his verses. FWA simply has too few tracks of that caliber and too much lazy pop-rap like “Living Right” and the portentous “Murda.” Hey, at least he’s not trying to play guitar anymore.
There are times when FWA’s lyrical preoccupations are strikingly straightforward. The mournful “Without You” is a surprisingly traditional breakup ballad. Wayne cheekily nods to his Rikers stint on the hilariously titled “Post Bail Ballin.” Second track “He’s Dead” is a warning shot to his labelmates, declaring the Young Money Wayne deceased and stressing the importance of his artistic freedom. Then again, there are also the moments when Wayne flies completely off the handle of sense whatsoever, somehow managing to string together “proper,” “opera,” “piranha,” and “tilapia” into a single rhyme scheme. If someone could explain to me a line like “I’m aqua cuckoo / I turn your Froot Loop to chocolate Yoo-Hoo,” I would be forever grateful. None of this is particularly surprising — the sizable disparity between insight and nonsense is common currency on all of Wayne’s efforts. But with so much real drama playing out in Wayne’s career at the moment, FWA could have more fruitfully explored that tension, rather than whatever cartoon character or breakfast cereal popped into Wayne’s head while the tape was running.
All of that criticism aside, FWA is not without its moments of genuine fun and musical inspiration. The James Brown-sampling “I Feel Good” features Wayne atonally growling and yelling over an exuberant horn sample. Some of Lil Wayne’s biggest hits (“Got Money,” “6 Foot 7 Foot”) were shamelessly dumb party music, and with “I Feel Good,” it’s heartening to see that Lil Wayne hasn’t completely forgotten about the good times. That vibe continues with “Thinking Bout You,” a scorcher ripped shamelessly from 2006 in both beat and lyrics. Young twentysomethings who fondly remember their high school days will find plenty to appreciate in its gleeful inanity.
At a juncture when hip-hop’s brightest lights are collaborating with former Beatles, addressing the politics of police brutality, or producing gangster rap of a more compelling and artful nature, it’s hard to see where Weezy fits into the current landscape. But maybe that’s not the point of FWA. Perhaps Lil Wayne simply desires the freedom to be his absurd, spastic self, and FWA lives and dies by that liberated yearning. Lil Wayne doesn’t have to give us what we want from him — all he has to give us is unfiltered, unrefined id, released on the Fourth of July, no less. God bless America.