Lil Wayne is tragically aware of how much we love him. He cackles at the end of every punchline. He flashes cutesy smiles in every video. He grants incoherent interviews and tosses off lethargic guest verses because why not — we’ll extol him unwaveringly even if he’s too high to complete a sentence. That cup full of lean has become synonymous with Wayne, every bit as familiar as his elated delivery or left-field sense of humor. If anything, we’d adore the New Orleans icon less if he went the Whitney Houston route and became a staunch advocate of sober living; the cough syrup and prescription pills are integral parts of the package that makes him the most surreally, dementedly charismatic hip-hop star in years.
At a time when Nas, Black Thought, and Slug were combating serious economic woes with serious, contemplative rhymes, Wayne did the opposite, injecting our 2008 with a jolt of goofy energy. On Tha Carter III, he rapped about goose erections and Orville Redenbacher, upstaging Jay-Z and Busta Rhymes and supplying his equivalent to a slapdash comedy movie — it was the hip-hop Anchorman. It also achieved an unspeakable combination of critical worship and chart domination: if The Carter III and Kanye West’s equally strange juggernaut 808s & Heartbreak proved anything, it’s that consumers in recession-burdened America were never interested in grave tales of the downtrodden everyman. We want energy, originality, absurdity.
Soon after C3 turned Wayne into the world’s most recognized eccentric, his deterioration began to take hold. The turning point was his inaudible, worthless cameo on T-Pain’s “Can’t Believe It”. An influx of excruciatingly languid verses, presumably sizzurp-induced, ensued, a problem that wasn’t helped by his notorious legal woes (Wayne will start a one-year prison sentence for gun possession next week). He was dismissed as “overrated” about as often as Nirvana’s Nevermind or U2’s The Joshua Tree. He was every anonymous YouTube user’s favorite punching bag. That won’t change after Rebirth, his dreaded foray into rock. It’s an unimaginative, obnoxious record, one that will surely spark a massive wave of spiteful message-board comments.
Justifiably so. In an interview with MTV last year, the Miami production duo Cool & Dre compared Rebirth to OutKast’s 1998 landmark Aquemini, the best album from the best group Southern rap has ever known. Like Aquemini, Wayne’s latest opus strives to exude unconventionality, but that’s where the similarities end. Here, there are no sultry Organized Noize beats, no effortless Sleepy Brown hooks, no ferocious Raekwon verses — just an endless stream of abysmally written, Auto Tune-drenched nothings. Wayne is still one hell of an MC when he puts forth a morsel of effort, but the harebrained virtuoso who’s embarrassed everyone from Drake to David Banner to Fabolous to Mary J. Blige rarely surfaces here.
On the sweltering country-rock number “American Star”, he boasts haughtily about “listening to my own voice in my black Rolls Royce”. It’s a nice line and also a frustrating rarity, since Rebirth’s other 11 tracks come stocked with clichés that belie Wayne’s lyrical chops. On “Ground Zero”, he tries his damnest to emulate a coked-up, hotel-trashing metal star with terribly trite declarations of craziness: “Let’s just jump out the window / Let’s jump off a building, baby.” The grunge-inspired “Paradice” finds Wayne gushing insufferably about how “the sun don’t shine forever” and “love don’t love forever”, mistaking these lines for brooding eloquence. And “The Price Is Wrong” sounds tailor made for a skateboarding video game, with a generic rush of guitars and angsty threats aimed at a girlfriend from high school; he also points out that he was “the baddest motherfucker in the lunchroom”.
It isn’t difficult to overestimate Wayne’s ear for rock-rap, especially since “Shoot Me Down”, with its bleak, rumbling riffs, was perhaps the most mesmerizing moment on Tha Carter III. Critics (artsy, snobby folk who’ve digested a little too much Vampire Weekend) have noted that Rebirth borrows much more heavily from tacky early-millennium nu-metal than any of the bands currently generating attention, but a few songs work as more than just ridiculous caricatures. The best example is “Drop the World”, a shivery electro track featuring a fiery, speed-rapping Eminem. Even “Prom Queen”, the single that people harshly lambasted upon its release in early 2009, benefits from a chugging guitar line and distorted hook that beautifully mask Wayne’s garbled, nasal vocals.
Nonetheless, Wayne humiliates himself the least when he straight spits. His flow, one of the strongest and quirkiest around, is still intact, but his few rapped verses are maddeningly overshadowed by bargain-priced instrumentals (particularly the plinky keyboards of “One Way Trip”). Oftentimes, the problem is reversed: the somber, swaying beat on “Da Da Da” can’t conceal Wayne’s muddled incoherence. But that summarizes Rebirth — hackneyed writing, hackneyed pop-rock beats, usually both. Best Rapper Alive is one thing, but Next Hendrix might be too lofty a goal for even Wayne.