Not a Saint (Just a Living Legend)

In April 2006, with much of the Southeastern Gulf Coast and especially New Orleans still attempting to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, a small miracle happened in the Crescent City. Or, technically speaking, maybe it happened in New York, or perhaps in Houston — either way, New Orleans was its chief benefactor. The Houston Texans shocked the sports world by selecting North Carolina State defensive end Mario Williams as the first pick in that spring’s NFL draft. What this meant was that they’d passed on the most heavily hyped football talent of his generation, University of Southern California running back Reggie Bush, who consequently landed happily in the lap of the New Orleans Saints, a team and city decidedly in need of good news.

After an awful 2005 season, in which the Saints went 3-13 while splitting up “home” games between Baton Rouge and San Antonio, the ‘06 Saints went 10-6 and finished first in their division. They eventually lost, rather badly, in the NFC championship game to the Super Bowl-bound Chicago Bears, an outcome that mattered less than the fact that New Orleans residents finally had something be excited about. But Reggie Bush & Co. aren’t the only hometown heroes proudly representing the Big Easy at the national level.

It’s almost a given, at this point, that a disproportionate majority of the best hip-hop released over the past decade or so has come not out of New York or Los Angeles, but the South. Atlanta is the obvious Mecca for Southern rap, with T.I., Ludacris, Young Jeezy, OutKast, Lil Jon, and the Ying Yang Twins, among other notables, all hailing from Georgia’s rapidly growing capital city. But then there’s also Houston (Slim Thug, Chamillionaire), Memphis (Three 6 Mafia, 8Ball and MJG), Virginia Beach (Clipse, the Neptunes), and Miami (Trick Daddy, Pitbull) to contend with. Best of all, though, is New Orleans product Lil Wayne, who might just be current rap’s fiercest talent on either side of the Mason-Dixon.

This past summer, my wife and I took a Greyhound from Southern Illinois to Seattle, en route to her hometown (and my new home) of Victoria, British Columbia. Why? Well, it was dirt cheap and (listen up, kids) writing about music rarely pays for business-class flights, but it was also a good excuse to see cities and towns that too often fall under the umbrella of “flyover country”. We’ve since discussed further exploring states like Utah and Wyoming on future vacations, and I hope we do. That same uncertainty and eagerness to arrive fuels the wait for Lil Wayne’s next album. The level of anticipation for the official (February?) release of The Carter III is, needless to say, feverish, yet as is often the case in art as in life, the journey counts for as much as the destination.

Over the past two years, Wayne has put out literally dozens of mixtapes, most of them first-rate. Earlier this year, MTV’s so-called “hip-hop brain trust” voted him the hottest MC in the game, ahead of names like Jay-Z, Kanye West, The Game, and 50 Cent. No panelist slotted Wayne lower than fourth on their individual top 10 list, and five of the nine ranked him first. In the televised discussion, “brain trust” member Shaheem Reid observed, “We have not a seen a run [like what] Wayne is doing in years… we haven’t seen an MC put out this high an amount of quality material. He put out a double-mixtape where every song was hot.” Panelist Andrea Duncan-Mao made the case for Wayne over the group‘s #2 vote-getter, commenting, “T.I. is safe. Wayne takes chances and he’s kinda scary… but we like it!”

Another MTV talking head contended that Wayne’s studio albums aren’t as good as his mixtapes — and they’re right. The finished product we’re impatiently awaiting might not hold up to the brilliance of the mammoth Da Drought 3 or my personal favorite, The Carter III Mixtape, both of which are superior to Wayne’s last proper LP, the still-very-good Carter II. Like the often overlooked gems of towns and vistas between the coasts, like New Orleans itself, these mixtapes are worth visiting for their own sake. And the journey-destination truism doesn’t just apply to Wayne’s staggering between-albums output. It goes, too, for many of his individual tracks in a microcosmic sort of way.

At his best, Wayne’s songs are nimble nuggets of a singular stream-of-consciousness and genuinely labyrinthine. It’s not that they’re necessarily any more or less intellectually rigorous than those of his peers, but rather that Wayne’s flow is so syrupy-thick and inclined toward oddball tangents and asides that ears accustomed to more ordinary mic styles may find themselves searching for an entry point. Then, before you can even think of trying to find your way out, you’re already lost, hypnotized by words that don’t seem like they’re supposed to be strung together yet somehow are and a voice that sounds at once maniacal, mischievous, and wholly unlike anything else in music right now, or maybe ever.

“Kinda scary” is a pretty valid assessment, I guess. Wayne keeps his listener constantly in flux; you never know what he’s going to spit next, or just how far he’ll take a track from where you initially expected it to go. Which, again, calls to mind our bus trip, where out the window I’d spot the Rocky Mountains looming over the horizon, snooze for a while, then wake up to see the red-brown hills of the non-coastal Northwest; where the bright lights of Salt Lake City seemed to appear instantaneously out of pitch-black 2 AM darkness. And sometimes Wayne himself seems lost, too, or at least jittery and on-edge, as he navigates his way through unlikely sample snippets and on-the-fly beats that most rappers would simply coast through on auto-pilot.

While putting this piece together, I turned to Village Voice blogger and front-line Lil Wayne champion Tom Breihan to ask what exactly draws him to Wayne’s music. He responded, “His voice is amazing, this sort of unhinged croak, and his delivery is weirdly impeccable; he throws his voice over or under the beat, jumping on and off, really makes it sound easy. For the past couple of years, he’s just been insanely prolific, and that crazy pace actually seems to agree with him, like the constant pressure to keep coming up with new stuff has been keeping him on his toes. Lyrically, his jokes are funny, his brag-rap shit is really excitingly self-aggrandizing, his serious moments can be really touching, and he weaves all his different sides together into this ungainly, bizarre freeform, forcing us to keep up with him.”

I agree on all counts, especially with the point regarding the division of Wayne’s various working modes into “jokes”, “brag-rap shit”, and “touching serious moments”, as neat a categorization of the myriad things Wayne does well as anybody could ask for. There’s probably a hundred-plus good examples of each in Wayne’s recent oeuvre, but for the sake of reining this write-up into a digestible length, I’ll stick purely to The Carter III Mixtape in citing some of my favorite examples.

Jokes? How about “tell the cops I can buy my own bracelets”? Or, via a song called “Time for Us to Fuck”: “She wanna ride it / I let her have it / She better ride it like Danica Patrick / I get behind it and move her / Like the Heimlich Maneuver”. On another track, Wayne simply offers, “And here’s my most funniest joke /…I’m broke”. “Help” is itself a joke of sorts, as Wayne offhandedly rhymes over a Beatles loop, waiting 23 seconds before he opens with, “So sick, need a doc, yes / A creature, monster, like the Loch Ness…”.

On the brag-rap side, “I’m a Beast” finds Wayne boasting, “Rappin’ is my hobby / My house has a lobby / My bitches act snobby / Because I feed ‘em thousands / I know that didn’t rhyme, but I’m only bein’ honest”, and later adds, hilariously, “I’m trying to milk the game as if the game was a cow”. The only problem here is that we all know he’s lying. If rapping was merely a “hobby”, there wouldn’t be a brand-new Wayne set every time you refresh free mixtape website Kanye West concurred, in nominating Wayne for MTV’s hottest MC’s list, “I sat with Wayne working on his album and was like, ‘Do you go on vacations?’ He said, ‘Nah, this is what I do. I dedicate my life to this.’”

In terms of “serious songs”, “Something You Forgot” is just about the most desperate, devastating post-break-up plea I’ve ever heard, rap or otherwise. Over a perfectly worked Heart sample, Wayne begs a former lover to give him another shot, even going so far as to exclaim, “what she mean to me is what I mean to rap”, which, in context, would also qualify under the “brag-rap” heading, a prime case of that knack for “weaving all his different sides together”. “I hope you haven’t forgot about me up in the living room watching Sportscenter / You were cookin’ dinner / I was such a sinner”, Wayne confesses, “But the Lord is a forgiver / You know, they say if you pray / You can get your blessings ordered and delivered”.

Of course, relationship reconciliation isn’t the only thing that Wayne should be praying for right about now. He needs to hope real hard that that the streak of productivity he’s currently riding isn’t cut short by an extended prison sentence. In just the past several months, Wayne’s been arrested on felony gun charges in New York, and then in Boise, Idaho, (incidentally, a stop on our Greyhound voyage) on a felony fugitive charge stemming from a drug possession bust in Georgia. This is further proof that even geniuses (I think it’s acceptable to go ahead and use the g-word at this point) make stupid decisions, and that while Wayne is heads-and-tails above most of his contemporaries at the moment, he has by no means transcended the more dubious aspects of rap culture.

Well, you know, he’s only human. Unlike, say, 50 Cent, he isn’t claiming to be Superman. Blurring a line between life and art that’s already fuzzy enough in hip-hop, Wayne’s as unpredictable off-record as on. Where someone like 50 seems calculating in every public move he makes, Wayne is, for better or worse, a loose canon. A little while back, for example, he laid a big sloppy kiss on Cash Money colleague/surrogate-father Baby (aka Birdman) — a gesture that, in its way, strikes a more compelling blow against hip-hop homophobia than Kanye thoughtfully advocating tolerance in a TV interview.

That’s a big part of what’s so exhilarating about Wayne and his music. He’s like a living, breathing version of Tom Hulce’s Mozart in Amadeus — the brilliant man-child gone wild in a world with too many lucrative distractions. Warts and all, his home city should be very proud of Dwayne Michael Carter, Jr.; he’s clearly proud of them. On one of his finest recent efforts, “La La La”, Wayne announces right from the get-go, “Born in New Orleans, raised in New Orleans / I will forever remain faithful, New Orleans”. Later in the track, he proceeds to add, “”I used to have the Starter jacket with the logo / And the hat, me myself I had the N.O. / that’s the Saints, nigga”.