Woonsocket Call

Me­te­oric rise fol­lowed by one rapid tum­ble The de­cline and fall of a rap king


Lil Wayne was on a run in 2007 and 2008 un­like any­thing rap had seen be­fore.

Think Michael Jor­dan in the 1990s. Tiger Woods in the 2000s. Barry Bonds in 1994.

We now live in a world where Ken­drick La­mar owns a Pulitzer Prize and Kanye West has squan­dered his good will with a Twit­ter rant and an al­bum that ar­rived with a whim­per. A world where Pusha T and Drake have a beef so rich, it’s ba­si­cally Waygu.

But the rap world a decade ago was an en­tirely dif­fer­ent place, a world sin­gu­larly ruled by one rap­per: Lil Wayne. And it was all lead­ing to one al­bum: “Tha Carter III,” which was re­leased 10 years ago this Sun­day and coro­neted Wayne as the best in the game – a ti­tle he quickly lost. Let’s rewind.

Wayne be­gan call­ing him­self the “best rap­per alive” around 2005, the year Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina rav­aged his home­town of New Orleans. By then, he had been around for a while – when he was 11 years old, he was signed to the New Orleans la­bel Cash Money Records, home of Ju­ve­nile and Bird­man. The squeaky voice of a teenage Wayne still stands out on the Ju­ve­nile hit “Back That Thang Up.”

But he was far from a su­per­star when he be­gan dump­ing songs by the dozens on­line in mid-2000: He was the only one who con­sid­ered him­self the “best rap­per alive,” so he flooded the mar­ket­place with mu­sic. In one pro­file, Wayne es­ti­mated that he recorded and re­leased more than a thou­sand songs in the 2000s. “Record­ing is an ad­dic­tion. I can’t stop,” he told Rolling Stone.

He dropped hun­dreds of verses via mix tapes in 2007, but he only of­fi­cially re­leased five songs. Artists since him, like Chance the Rap­per, have struck gold off mix tapes, but it was a rare strat­egy at the time.

And it worked: You couldn’t es­cape Wayne’s mu­sic, the way you can’t dry off un­der a wa­ter­fall.

His bizarre lyri­cal twists – such as “I been around, I’m still around, like them Ge­ico cave men” – caught the pub­lic’s at­ten­tion. The ex­cite­ment was pal­pa­ble when he fi­nally re­leased “Tha Carter III” on June 10, 2008.

It lived up to ex­pec­ta­tions as one of the strangest rap records ever recorded – a ti­tle it ar­guably still holds. While to­day’s rap con­sists mainly of the po­lit­i­cal (La­mar), the per­sonal (Drake), or boast­ing (Pusha T), Weezy was just ... weird.

He called him­self a Mar­tian. Not in a metaphor­i­cal way, just in a weird way. In an­other song, he played a doc­tor at­tempt­ing to save hip-hop. And like many other rap­pers, Wayne boasted about hav­ing been shot with lines like “Didn’t wear bul­let­proof, so I got shot and you can see the proof.” What he omit­ted is how he re­ceived the wound: ac­ci­den­tally shoot­ing him­self in the chest with his mother’s gun when he was 12 years old.

But then, like the eye of a storm, the al­bum’s cen­ter­piece “Tie My Hands” ap­pears: a painful, beau­ti­ful ode to a suf­fer­ing New Orleans. The metaphors slip away, as he solemnly raps: “My whole city un­der­wa­ter/Some peo­ple still float­ing.”

Wayne was praised by critic after critic for his weird­ness. Rolling Stone called him “one of the most un­usual rap­pers of all time. And right now, he’s the best around.”

The al­bum sold more than 1 mil­lion copies in a week. It even­tu­ally sold nearly 4 mil­lion copies and went plat­inum three times over.

Those num­bers only tell part of the story, though. It also made Wayne a cul­tural force.

Within rap, he was crowned king. When Em­inem re­turned from his fall into drug ad­dic­tion and sub­se­quent so­bri­ety with “Re­cov­ery,” he con­fessed to his deep­est sins in verse. One of the most dire, he rapped, was that he “al­most made a song diss­ing Lil Wayne/It’s like I was jeal­ous of him ‘cause of the at­ten­tion he was get­ting.” Later he raps, “Thank God I didn’t do it.”

Out­side of rap, Wayne be­came so sought after that he be­came an on-cam­era guest an­a­lyst and blog­ger for ESPN. Sud­denly, the rap­per was ev­ery­where, in­clud­ing in a chair across from Katie Couric, ex­plain­ing that he wouldn’t ask Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush a ques­tion about the govern­ment’s re­sponse to Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina if given the chance be­cause “I’m a gangsta, and gangstas don’t ask ques­tions.”

While the al­bum high­lighted a ca­reer peak after an un­prece­dented run, Wayne’s star fell as quickly as an as­ter­oid. He went from Jor­dan win­ning six rings with the Bulls to Jor­dan batting .202 with the Birm­ing­ham Barons.

Sev­eral fac­tors con­trib­uted to his fall from grace.

Pri­mar­ily, that weird­ness, the qual­ity once so lauded for mak­ing Wayne a sin­gu­lar force, proved to be his down­fall when the rap­per de­cided he wanted to make a rock al­bum, de­spite his sub­par tal­ent (to put it nicely) when it came to gui­tar play­ing.

The al­bum, called “Re­birth,” ar­rived in 2010 – and it was a to­tal dis­as­ter. New York Times mu­sic critic Jon Cara­man­ica wrote that “the songs might have been bet­ter as par­o­dies than as im­i­ta­tions,” and that was one of the kin­der re­views. Jeff Weiss of the Los An­ge­les Times, for ex­am­ple, wrote that it “de­serves its rep­u­ta­tion as one of the worst al­bums of the year.”

While it was even­tu­ally cer­ti­fied gold, the sales of “Re­birth” paled in com­par­i­son to “Tha Carter III.”

Just after the record’s re­lease, he spent eight months in­car­cer­ated at Rik­ers Is­land for gun charges. He tried to stop a doc­u­men­tary that showed him in the depths of codeine binges from be­ing re­leased, and threat­ened a lawyer dur­ing a filmed de­po­si­tion.

Hip-hop has changed dras­ti­cally in the decade since Wayne’s dom­i­nance, and he’s never come close to climb­ing the moun­tain again. He’s re­leased a string of poor to medi­ocre al­bums (by crit­i­cal con­sen­sus). He no longer opines about sports for ESPN. His health seems ques­tion­able, as he’s suf­fered a num­ber of seizures in the past few years. He’s alien­ated fans by say­ing racism doesn’t ex­ist and an­grily dis­miss­ing Black Lives Mat­ter. Fi­nally, he grew em­broiled in two long-run­ning law­suits against a hodge­podge of his for­mer sup­port­ers, in­clud­ing Bird­man, Cash Money Records and Uni­ver­sal Records.

Those law­suits were re­port­edly set­tled Thurs­day, and Uni­ver­sal said it would fi­nally re­lease an al­bum that’s been wait­ing in le­gal limbo, “Tha Carter V,” ac­cord­ing to Pitch­fork. Maybe it’ll be the spir­i­tual se­quel to his peak. But back then, we had hun­dreds of songs as lit­tle tastes and teases of what was to come.

He’s still a con­stant fix­ture on hit songs by artists such as Nicki Mi­naj and Drake, but the taste is much more sour this time around.

Maybe be­ing crowned the best by oth­ers doesn’t mat­ter to Wayne. And as Wayne once ex­plained in one of his hazy, sur­real raps in 2007: “It’s a bak­ery here, I’m just try­ing to get dough.”

 ?? Na­bil/Uni­ver­sal Mu­sic Group ?? Lil’ Wayne in 2011. Once at the top of the rap game, he fell just as rapidly as he rose.
Na­bil/Uni­ver­sal Mu­sic Group Lil’ Wayne in 2011. Once at the top of the rap game, he fell just as rapidly as he rose.

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