[26 September 2013]
Once upon a time, it was a given that a Lil Wayne mixtape would be one of the best things you heard all year. During his legendary mid-2000s run, two Wayne mixtapes might have competed to be the best thing you heard all year. Mixtape Weezy was a mythical beast: a fire-spitting, free-associating rap savage with an endless supply of punch lines. He’d destroy your track with lyrics he thought up on the spot, and then he’d laugh about it. He was that dominant for almost a decade. Even rap royalty like Jay-Z couldn’t deny his power. On “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)”, Jay said “I might send this to the mixtape Weezy.”
But this decade has not been kind to Wayne, and vice versa. Eight months in prison on gun charges, some mediocre-at-best rap releases, a god-awful rock album, threats of retirement, a series of seizures serious enough to fuel rumors of a medically induced coma, and, then, in what even the most ardent Wayne apologists couldn’t stomach, Wayne signed Limp Bizkit to Cash Money. Let me repeat that: the guy who once said, “If every artist has a thing, my thing is going to be my fucking talent ... people will have to recognize that,” decided to jump on the corpse of Fred Durst’s career to extract a few more dollars. But not even that was the lowest point in recent memory.
On 2009’s No Ceilings, arguably the last good thing Wayne did, he took Jay-Z up on his offer and rapped over “D.O.A.”: “Boy you ain’t did shit, I done said worse / Flip your fitted cap back like Fred Durst.” It was a throwaway punch line, a quick jab at Durst who had risen and fallen so hard in pop culture that all that was left was the memory of a backwards hat. Fast forward four years and Wayne is rapping on Limp Bizkit’s first YMCMB single, “Ready to Go”: “I can’t stop, I won’t stop / I got the pistol on me, I guess I went pop / Now I’m free-fallin’, yeah, head first / Red hat to the back like Fred Durst.” Suddenly it was clear how far Wayne had slipped. He wasn’t even trying to recapture the magic of his classic mixtapes; he was just dumbing down and recycling lines from No Ceilings.
But no matter how much credibility Wayne has lost in this decade, Dedication 2 still commands respect. The promise of the fifth installment in the series had everyone’s attention, and on it you can hear Wayne’s renewed interest and energy. With Dedication 5, Mixtape Weezy once again flexes the muscles that earned him the Best Rapper Alive crown and takes a modest step toward reclaiming his lost credibility.
What exemplified Mixtape Weezy, aside from his ability to absolutely tear the ass off of any beat imaginable, was that he sounded like he was having fun doing it. Dedication 5 finds Wayne running through tracks by Kendrick Lamar (“Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe”), 2 Chainz (“Feds Watching), Kanye West (“New Slaves”), Ace Hood (“Bugatti”), and Meek Mill (“Levels”), among many others and several originals. For the first time in years, Wayne actually sounds committed to rapping. On “Don’t Kill,” he switches up his delivery constantly, suffusing a sparse beat with energy. There are some goofy lines, e.g. “Hate a ho nigga like anchovies,” but he sounds like he’s enjoying rapping for rapping’s sake, and it’s fun to hear.
Sections of Dedication 5 have nearly as many punch lines per minute as his older material. “FuckWitMeYouKnowIGotIt” has Wayne going goofballs over a Jay-Z song like he did over “D.O.A.”, rapping “You ain’t got a shot in a gun range / These chumps ain’t even got chump change ... Fuck all y’all niggas in Swahili / Ain’t nothin’ free around here but Willy.” On “UOENO” he gets even crazier, saying “dick harder than an armadillo” before shouting out MLK. Elsewhere, he manages to rhyme “memorabilia” with “artillery” and “equivalent”, and on “Pure Colombia” he gets downright aggressive, snarling threats about euthanizing dogs and going hard on a former rap icon’s plastic surgery: “Changed the face of my rollie / Shout out Lil’ Kim.” It’s a return to form, just not top form, and many of Dedication 5’s tracks deserve repeated listens.
The highlight of the bunch is “You Song,” on which Wayne puts together a surprisingly coherent verse around the subject of him being a complete bastard to women. It’s a pleasant reminder that he does have an eye for narrative when he gets off his spaceship and focuses for a few minutes. Chance the Rapper is the clear MVP of that track, though, with a mind-bending verse: “You’re the best bride and I’m the best groom / Wedding presents got my best man at the Best Buy buying the Best of Fresh Prince for the bedroom.” His delivery is bafflingly smooth, and he drops what should be the hip-hop quotable of the year: “You feel like Kool-Aid in a wine glass.” Don’t try to figure out what that means; just enjoy the image.
Dedication 5 has other memorable guest spots: T.I. kills all three of his verses, newcomer Euro holds his own, and the Weeknd offers the kind of gritty vocal on “I’m Good” that would have fit on House of Balloons. On the other side of that coin are Mack Maine, Birdman, and Lil Chuckee, all of whom do their best to ruin the tracks that they appear on. Guests excluded, not every song is a winner. The most onerous, even worse than the Auto-Tuned R&B tracks, is Wayne’s eye-rolling take on Kanye’s “New Slaves” with its lazy refrain of “shake that ass, ho.” In his prime, Mixtape Weezy rendered the original versions of songs obsolete, but “New Slaves” does the exact opposite. It’s a reminder of how much better the original is. There are also half a dozen interludes, but these, at least, offer a glimpse of a newly energized Wayne. He’s joking and playful. He actually howls with laughter.
Brevity was never the soul of Wayne’s mixtape wit, but at 29 tracks and more than 95 minutes, this is long by long’s standards. It takes some dedication (no pun intended) to find the meat of this mixtape, but at its heart is 45-ish minutes of competitive material. At the very least, it far outstrips both Dedication 3 and 4.
Medical troubles, legal troubles, self-doubt, the crushing weight of expectation – any one of those on its own could cripple an artist. Wayne has stumbled hard in recent years, but with Dedication 5 he seems to have temporarily caught himself. He even apologized to fans on Twitter recently and promised to work harder. Dedication 5 is not the best Lil Wayne mixtape ever. It’s not even in the Top 5, but it is the best that he’s released in four years. More importantly, it’s evidence that Mixtape Weezy still exists in some form, if Wayne can stop cashing checks and doing skateboard tricks long enough to let him out.