It's an irony that inspired an entire book. In Killing Yourself To Live, Chuck Klosterman wanders around the country visiting the death sites of some of history's greatest musicians, all of whom were taken in the midst of their prime. At the center of his investigation is a simple question—why is death the greatest career move of all?
By disappearing, their myth becomes inescapable.
Kurt Cobain... Jimi Hendrix... Duane Allman... Jim Morrison... Janis Joplin... Buddy Holly... Bob Marley... John Lennon... 2Pac and Biggie... Elvis. And those are just the biggest names. It's not that they weren't appreciated while they were here, but by disappearing at the height of their influence, a mythology emerged in their wake that made them more meaningful. In celebrating Jimi Hendrix—as opposed to, say, Eric Clapton—we're not just listening to music. We're sharing in the loss of a genius and the gifts he left behind for us. Even if it all stems from some ridiculous impulse for nostalgia, you can't deny the phenomenon. It all becomes so much more profound.
Death can turn a 12-song album into something more than music. And death is something that's followed Lil Wayne as he's evolved from a 13 year-old afterthought to a 28 year-old icon. Not because he's a gangster in danger of some shootout, but because Wayne's far closer to the names in the above paragraph. He's not a gangster, he's an artist, tortured every step of the way by addictions that he freely admits. Addicted to recording music at an inhuman pace, and drinking prescription cough syrup that's already claimed scores of lesser-known hip-hop stars.
In a completely unambiguous way, Lil Wayne spent the past few years taking over the world and taking his own life in his hands. Along with copious, unapologetic drug use, Wayne just refused to stop drinking promethazine. Even as it claimed the life of his good friend and fellow hip-hop mogul Pimp C, he told MTV, "Why focus on me? Don't compare me to no one. Don't compare me to no one who has passed, and why they passed."
"Don't judge me," he continued. "You wanna judge me, put on a black gown and get a gavel. Get in line with the rest of them that's about to judge me. I got court dates every other month. It's me against the world—that's how I feel." And it all added to his mystique.
Here was this rapper that was literally ready to die. Telling Katie Couric on national television that his health is none of her business. Somebody who freely admitted to living on the edge of death, saying, "If I jump, I'm taking the world with me. That's my word." It's almost like he lived his life preparing to be taken from us, leaving behind sound bytes and an endless catalog of material, all of it just waiting to be romanticized by millions.
Then he went to prison, and for nine months, the world got a taste of what music might look like without Lil Wayne. And of course, that only enhanced the mystique. Not unlike the way we listen to Jimi Hendrix or old Nirvana albums to experience some sort of vicarious transcendence, "Free Weezy" became its own sort of rallying cry. Because you what's bigger than the biggest rapper on earth? The biggest rapper on earth that's invisible.
That was Wayne the past nine months. His prison sentence gave us a hint of what might happen if he ever dies. But not everybody understands the appeal, of course.
Which brings us today. Lil Wayne's out of prison, and the man that the New Yorker once compared to Bob Dylan is still alive, and returning home to enjoy the height of his influence in a way that all those other artists never could. And with so many people flipping out to celebrate the return of this would-be hip-hop deity, there are just as many that still don't get it.
For every Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, two men that call themselves Weezy fans, there are still skeptics shaking their head, asking "What's so special about a rapper that raps about all the same things as other rappers? That e does it more often, and on more people's songs? That he has a weird voice? What's so earth-shattering about that?" So let's explain Lil Wayne.
The mythology surrounding him—GQ once likened him to "a Sufi dervish or a pentecostal that speaks in tongues"—is a whole separate discussion. But let's discuss the music. Because it's true; he talks about nothing different from any other would-be gangster rhyming about women, drugs, guns, and money.
Isn't that what's wrong with hip-hop? I was on a date recently with a girl who doesn't like rap. When I pressed her for an explanation, she said, "It just all sounds the same, you know? When you play a rap song and I actually listen to the lyrics, I just hear, 'I'm cool I'm cool I'm cool I'm cool I'm cool I'm cool.' You know?"
"Well, yeah, but..."
"I'm cool I'm cool I'm cool," she continued. "I take drugs I have sex I'm cool I'm I'm cool I'm cool I'm cool I have guns I kill people I'm tough I'm cool I'm cool I'm cool. That's every rap song, ever."
She's totally right, of course. As far as mainstream Hip-Hop's concerned, that pretty much nails it on the head. But as I stammered to defend my musical tastes, I added, "The creativity isn't necessarily about what they're saying. It's how they say it."
And that's where Wayne wins. He's better than anybody on earth. When he raps about drugs: "red drank, blue pill, white dust, yes I love my country bitttttttttch!"
- Or when he raps about money, he's "Young Velveta, cheesy Weezy."
- When he raps about violence: "Home sweet, home deep, oh will you need a hammer, it goes down like Frasier, and I ain't talkin' Kelsey Grammer."
- About women: "Bet my fingers can turn you on like a television, turn it to the weather channel, 'cause I make it rain girl, you just been on Planet Earth, but you never been to Wayne's World."
- About snitches: "I walk around with a mice trap, niggas with cheese don't like rats."
- On hate: "And hate is at an all-time high, everybody gotta hate, it's like a fuckin ipod.
- Or drugs again: "I can mingle with the stars, or throw a party on Mars. I am a prisoner, locked up behind xanax bars."
- When he raps about hustling? "I'm on the paper chase, until my toes bleed. Then I get on these beats, and let my soul bleed."
- Or when he raps about rap: "I know the game is crazy, it's more crazy than it's ever been. But I'm married to that crazy bitch, call me Kevin Federline."
Weaving together arcane pop culture references with unlikely metaphors, a playful sense of humor, and the swagger that underpins every rap song, ever, Lil Wayne plays into every stereotype that's ever plagued gangster rap, then makes it all original and irresistible.
People criticize him for making too much music, releasing all of it to the public, mostly free of charge. So much that it blends together into one meaningless medley of metaphors and banal messages. It makes him taboo to the purists. Because hip-hop began as a movement, and lyrics are supposed to mean something. Weezy is just proof that true hip-hop is dead, according to critics.
But what if he's personifies rebirth? What if the death of hip-hop coincided with its acceptance among the mainstream, and suddenly, it's just another genre. If you can look at it that way, you begin to see why meaning is mostly irrelevant. Nobody worries Nirvana's angsty, anti-social messages. With them, it's all about the music, and how it's different than anything we've heard from anybody else.
Why should hip-hop be different? Instead of a guitar, Wayne's best instrument is his drug-addled, wandering mind and the raspy, blunt-weathered voice that goes with it. Coherence is beside the point. Who needs meaning when you can rap over a Beatles sample and say, "I'm from the dirt where the Beatles and John Lennon be at, and these niggas lookin' yellow like a penalty flag."
If you want to get really abstract with it—as far as hip-hop's rebirth is concerned—you could argue he's the first post-modern rapper we've ever. And when you consider the backstory behind his rise to the top, that's where the meaning begins to take shape.
Lil Wayne was literally raised by hip-hop. He was signed with Cash Money by 12 years-old, and touring at 14. He invented the term Bling, probably the single-most famous piece of hip-hop lexicon to cross over to the mainstream. And as he grew, he grew detached from all of it. The idea that artists are defined by albums or concerts or... Anything, really. After a while, he stopped writing down rhymes, and just started rhyming all the time.
He rapped about what he knew. Hip-hop culture, groupies, whatever sports he caught on ESPN, and whatever movies or TV shows caught his eye between recording sessions. Since he was 12 years-old, that's been his life. But rather than being confined by his perspective, he was freed to do whatever he wants. When you're rapping about nothing, everything's fair game.
And it's so much fun. For instance, you can go to listen to Lupe Fiasco rap about war and economic inequality on a Fall Out Boy remix—"I pledge allegiance to gasoline, and bulletproof limousines, and leans on the property of the poor"—but isn't the next verse so much more fun? "Really I don't get this song neither, but I'm a figure it out like a palm reader ... Hey, I'm so cool even I wanna be me. That was totally off the subject, but for me every song is like pussy, so fuck it!"
It's totally frivolous at face value, but when you consider the breadth of what he produces, and the creativity of the presentation, the mystique starts to make sense. In a sea of redundant rappers trying to fit a mold that no longer makes sense, Wayne resonates because he doesn't really care about making sense or conforming to any conventions. Just like any great artist, and unlike any of the greatest rappers we've ever seen.
"It's simple see-ence," he raps. "Oops I meant scinece. Or better yet math. Me plus you, baby girl let's add. And we never divide, girl we just subtract, his punk ass... I ain't worried 'bout that." Would Biggie or 2Pac ever be caught dead rapping about arithmetic?
But that's the joy of Weezy. Other rappers rhyme about selling drugs, he raps about doing them. Others rap about getting head, he raps, "Me and ya boyfriend are not the same, I goes down like the stock exchange." He just doesn't care what anyone might think.
This whole time, while I've just been listening to Lil Wayne on shuffle and writing down what I hear. And really, it's an incomplete way to explain his appeal, but it's also the only approach that makes any sense. You can talk about his voice, his humor, how he's rapped in French and a Jamaican accent on the same mixtape, how he reinvented the model for artists looking to market themselves, or you can just talk about his little giggle that pops up on almost every verse. But none of it really does Wayne justice as an artist.
The creativity, though. The playful humor, the vivid metaphors, the confidence. It's what makes him resonate in a way that nobody else could ever imitate, and it comes through when you look closely at the lyrics. "My thoughts wild, my ideas are scattered," he rhymes, "but we are young money, and age doesn't matter." If that were a Bob Dylan lyric, we might say that's a metaphor for life or something. But it's hip-hop, so people call it nonsense.
Whatever though. That's the beauty of Lil Wayne. He clearly doesn't care, and neither do the fans that understand him. While everyone else strains to fill a creative vacuum in 2010, Wayne's completely detached, bouncing from studio to studio, recording non-stop, and adding to a legend that not everyone can totally appreciate.
But as far as understanding Wayne is concerned, and why he's the best, you can choose a million different lines or songs to focus on, but in the end, it's sort of perfect when he raps, "Analyzing, criticizing, you should realize what I am and start epitomizing." Exactly.