Why was Lil' Wayne the single biggest musical phenomenon of 2008?
Lil’ Wayne’s success has reached such a phenomenal peak that at one point, as I was about to turn the radio to a hip-hop station coming out of Boston, my friend could say “How about some Lil’ Wayne?” and be absolutely right. I can’t remember if the station was playing one of his songs or if it was a guest spot, and it doesn’t matter. Between guesting for everyone who makes anything even related to hip-hop or R&B and making a huge score with Tha Carter III, Wayne’s voice is everywhere, and it’s so distinctively hoarse that it seizes for itself -- and also flattens -- whatever sound is behind it.
That flattening effect is part of the reason Wayne has so completely overshadowed every other rapper around him. He doesn’t sing on top of beats. He eats them, makes them irrelevant. On Tha Carter II, his previous non-mixtape album, the production by T-Mix was focused on distorted soul samples. T-Mix gave soul choruses the rough, dissonant sound of music played too loud on cheap speakers. Wayne took it too easy on the vocals, particularly during the verses, but he still sounded great. On this new album, the soul samples are mostly gone in favor of crunked-up electro, but when they do make an appearance (like on the Jay-Z duet “Mr. Carter”), the switch is barely noticeable.
Wayne demolishes these beats by singing so hoarsely that the noise of his voice, like a blue shirt on a blue-eyed person, pushes forward whatever noise is latent in the music, making it sound dirty and messy. Then he sings all around the beats, basically ignoring where the stresses ought to go, in such a random way that the song’s meter melts down. Sympathetic producers on Tha Carter III build this into the very structure of the songs, so that when Wayne suddenly announces “Bitch I’m the bomb like tick...tick” on “Got Money,” Play-n-Skillz stops the music. Wayne is singing in his own post-detonation vacuum. The point here is that Wayne doesn’t care what he sings over, because he’s just plain hungry to rap. In his and our world, a radio station like Power 105.9 in Los Angeles will reduce everything to equivalent “hip-hop” anyway.
So Wayne’s not playing with the samples and beats, as Jay-Z has done on numerous songs and as Ghostface Killah did on “One". That’s about a voice letting itself be supplanted by the beat; with Wayne it’s the other way around. Wayne pushes this so far on “A Milli” that the clashing of one overdubbed voice on top of another almost produces sheer unsortable noise. But most the time his singing, that undisciplined blade, is cutting against something familiar in the song. Either he’s stolen a familiar tune (as he did with “Upgrade U” and “We Takin’ Over”) or other singers or rappers are there with him. In these moments Wayne becomes the voice of Everyman reaching the American dream so damn fast that it hasn’t rubbed off on him yet. He’s hoarse and noisy because he hasn’t gotten used to the smooth life. We sing karaoke unfamously in bars; every song Wayne sings sounds a little like a drunken karaoke of somebody else’s classic, complete with minor bouts of freestyling and jokey sounds. We get by on quotes, borrowing prefab words in the exhaustion of everyday conversation. So does Wayne. It is easy to forget that the chorus of “Lollipop” ends with a direct quote from the worst song ever written, “My Humps", including rhyming “hump” with “lump". In other songs, he steals with better taste, but it’s essential for him to also quote the Black Eyed Peas because he’s finally too colossal a Frankenstein to have taste.
The first part of the chorus, while not a quote, dehydrates a “club scene” to the point of absurdity: “Shorty wants a thug / Bottles in the club.” This might, of course, indicate that Wayne simply doesn’t care what he’s saying – and in an important sense, one more familiar from avant-garde rock ‘n' roll, he truly doesn’t – but there’s more to the metonymic reduction than that. The poverty of the lines evokes how somebody completely overwhelmed by a glamorous party would remember it the next day. It is also how vaguely one might imagine a really hot club if most of your experience of them came from music videos, advertisements, and TV shows. It makes Wayne sound like a greenhorn, an impression magnified by his slurred and (again) off-beat announcement on “Got Money” that he needs “a Winn-Dixie grocery bag full of money right now to the VIP section.” He is “Young Money", among other things, and this is infinitely better than being “money so old its growin’ white hair". For Wayne’s that intuitively so, but for his audience it’s better because you can still see the road leading back to the streets, and it’s part of his mythos that (unlike Slim Thug or Young Jeezy) he wasn’t infinitely rich back there.
Obviously, Wayne isn’t naïve; he just sounds that way. The centerpiece of his whole persona is his giggle, which he lets loose on most of his songs, and which fit in perfectly last summer alongside of Heath Ledger’s near-hero Joker. It’s another piece of anarchic, disruptive noise, and another instance of disbelief: how funny is it, really, that Wayne’s on top of the world? Eminem had the same reaction to his fame, but he took it seriously and it blew out his creative fuses. Eminem made didactic points about the schizophrenic existence of public figures, yearning to be authentic or at least smart enough to hold the strings, whereas Wayne glorifies the moment of looking in the mirror and wondering who he’ll be today. On Bun B’s song “Damn I’m Cold", he sings:
Woke up this morning
Looked into the mirror and said
Damn I’m cold
The “Lollipop” music video begins with him looking into a mirror, and then develops into a scenes of him rapping and playing guitar on the top of a moving limousine, surrounded by billboards and flashing casino lights, in distinct postmodern contrast to the heavy thud of poker chips and cash hitting the table at his Vegas party. He’s no longer on the hustle; much to his amazement, he’s become weightless, making money as long as he continues to speak his stream-of-consciousness because he’ll be “in yo’ neighborhood area CD thing tape deck iPod” -- as well as, and it’s basically all the same to him, “your girlfriend".
On “Dr. Carter", Wayne instructs several rappers on how to shine, as well as his audience of a zillion amateur hopefuls. He tells them to sing “You can get through anything if Magic made it,” and then notes, “that was called recycling.” Karaoke can be better than the real thing because it captures the exhilarating rush of the first time hearing a song, or making a record, or giving a concert. You don’t have to be new, you have to sound it, and if you do it’s alright to lift from Kanye. It’s all there in the way Wayne jubilantly shouts “Remix, baby!” because he’s caught up in the rapture.
On that remix of “Lollipop", Kanye himself raps the first verse, and it’s undeniable that he’s one of the best interpreters of Wayne around. Kanye sees where the song’s double entendres are going and begins furiously blending advertising slogans, brand names, and old raps into a ambivalent come-on that takes an entire stanza. He slurs Tootsie Pops (“How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?”) into Doritos into Frito-Lay into the Lays slogan (“You can’t have just one”) into Snickers (“Hungry? Why wait?”) in a total of five lines. His unstoppable desire lapses into nonsense: “We need four more ho’s we need oh-whoa-oh-oh.” When he hands the mic back over to Wayne, the place where all the seller’s brands and the consumer’s hunger become the same thing, Wayne is ready to once again sell our hunger back to us, processed by him, the computer and digestive system that can assimilate anything:
I got so much chips I swear they call me Hewlett-Packard
I got so much chips you can have a bag if you're a snacker
greedy mother fudge cake
now tell me how that fudge taste
He tells the absolute truth, on a symbolic level, and as disgustingly scatological as it is he gets away with it. That defines his reign. Wayne’s everywhere. He’s it.