I have always maintained that there are essentially two kinds of rap music in the world. There is pro-society, socially conscious, and politically aware hip-hop. This could be anything from Common to De La Soul to Dead Prez to any of the backpack crew. They often have the skills, but there's just something about it that feels like eating a bowl of granola with wheat germ on top.
Then there's the fun stuff. You know what I'm talking about -- the stuff with no redeeming social value. The stuff you hide from your parents. The stuff with lots of yelling and drinking and bragging. The stuff that gets played on the radio and BET, and the stuff you hear bangin' in the clubs.
Lil' Wayne and his pals over at Cash Money Records have always stood unrepentantly for the pleasures of hedonistic excess, with perhaps a side order of misogyny and violence. But -- its worth noting -- the Cash Money Millionaires have never been as preoccupied with the endless cycles of ghetto warfare as, say, DMX's completely misanthropic Ruff Ryders, to say nothing of Master P and his No Limit Soldiers' near-autistic focus on play-acting out their favorite gangster movie clichés ad nauseum. They can talk the talk, but when push comes to shove, the Cash Money Crew are much more preoccupied with spinning 20s and the hot ice hanging from their necks than with cocked .9 millies in dark alleyways.
Ultimately, Lil' Wayne and his compatriots are about as pop as you can get in the realm of hardcore rap. They're all about the snap of a crisp drum-machine snare and the hook of a sweet chorus. While they may not currently be the highest-profile crew in the rap game, their approachable and readily replicated sound has proven consistently successful. While Master P's No Limit records was recently dropped by Priority and picked up by indie omnivore Koch, Cash Money is still representin' with Universal. Master P's brother -- not to mention No Limit's best rapper -- C-Murder is sitting in jail for murder, but Cash Money's most charismatic performer, Juvenile, returned to the Millionaires last year after an unsuccessful solo bid.
One of the best examples of their cleverly accessible approach can be found on "Earthquake", one of The Carter's requisite slow jams. Few would have the cajones to build an entire track atop an Al Green hook, let alone such a famous one as "Let's Stay Together". They've done a remarkable job of replicating the original, complete with the lilting funk guitar and faux-falsetto chorus . . . only the lyrics this time happen to be "I / I'm way more fly than you / I'll take your dime from you / Now she'll wanna spend all night with me". Subtle its not, but I've certainly heard worse. You just can't really resent it, because it's so endearingly empty-headed.
The album's best track is also the first single, "This is the Carter". It's built atop a sparse Spanish guitar hook and a bouncy mellow-crunk undercarriage, with Mannie Fresh intoning "Ladies and gentlemen, pimps and playas / Half-ass rappers and true rhyme sayers / This is the Carter / So hold on to your teenage daughter". It's simply adorable. It doesn't seem as if they have a thought in their brains above crafting instantly forgettable pop-rap gems, and I can live with that.
I haven't mentioned Lil' Wayne's rhyme skills because, honestly, there's not a lot to discuss. His "flow is sicker than the third floor of a hospital", and he's "flyer than a motherfucking pelican", and "his hoes got hoes". Seriously, what more do you need to know?
The secret weapons on any Cash Money record are Mannie Fresh's instantly recognizable and endlessly copied beats. I was taken aback once to hear that Mannie Fresh was one of DJ Shadow's very favorite hip-hop producers. It didn't make any sense at first, but the more I've been exposed to Fresh's style the more I appreciate it. There's an extremely sophisticated sense of internally consistent artificiality here that makes even the most minimal hooks eminently crunk. To put it another way, he makes a virtue of synthesized textures in a way that Fischerspooner would envy.
Even the casual homophobia and misogyny hardly seem important, because their hearts just aren't in it. They're here to party, and they aren't really here to hate anyone except, of course, the omnipresent haters. This is the same generally inoffensive philosophy that has kept them near the top of the heap while their peers have crumbled. You can't argue with success.