If you have the time, pull up a YouTube clip of Lil Wayne’s 2007 performance on BET’s Rap Nation. Skip the intro rap. Press play right after Birdman puts a red bandanna over a microphone. You’ll see Wayne slowly walk to the camera from the shadows and say, “Hello, world.” He holds a styrofoam cup. He wears sunglasses, and only removes them after rapping the lines “And you can smell what I smoke/And yep I sip that lean/You hit me with that combination it make my eyes bleed.” He laughs after many of his punchlines, and he’s undoubtedly high on at least two different substances.
Still, he totally kills it. It may not be a traditional freestyle—too much was pre-written—but it’s out-there and weird and brilliant in all the best ways Wayne was that year. There are references to dead 1950s rock stars. He calls himself a shark, the Loch Ness Monster, and Mr. Crazy Flow. He ends by saying to his haters, “Have a sweater and just chill,” then unsteadily walks back from the microphone, his left arm wobbly held out for balance like a drunk backing from a bar, as he takes a gulp from the cup. It becomes very clear that his ability to remember anything is an achievement in drug history on par with Dock Ellis’ no-hitter.
The Rap City performance would later be reused as the song “Live from the 504” on Wayne’s mixtape, Da Drought 3, in April. It was one of over 100 songs Wayne released for free on the Internet in 2007—the exact number is hard to judge thanks to unauthorized remixes and Wayne’s own carelessness in releasing them. (He was also very stoned during a Rolling Stone interview when he tried to count how many tracks he had recorded, coming up with the number of “over a thousand.”) His output made for arguably the greatest and strangest year a single rapper has ever had, and Wayne didn’t even release an album for profit, or put a solo song on iTunes until Dec. 25. Instead, the rapper released everything for free. Everything.
This year hasn’t been fully appreciated. Because, in doing what Wayne did, he unquestionably helped create the online mixtape culture we enjoy today. As Matthew Thibeault, music professor at the University of Illinois, told me in an interview last week, “I wouldn’t be surprised if that moment has a certain importance in rap history, and what Lil Wayne did is looked back as his most important moment.”
Now, two weeks after the release of his latest underwhelming mixtape, and five years after Lil Wayne burst onto the spotlight with that pivotal year, we should look back and at what exactly happened during the 12 months. What mixtapes did he actually release? What effect did they have on the music industry at the time? And how are we still dealing with its aftermath in 2012?
In September of 2007, David Ramsey began teaching public school in New Orleans. He was from out of town, white, and from a way different upbringing than his students. They found common ground in the “stoned musings” of Weezy, though, as he told me in an interview last week, and as he wrote in the Oxford American essay “I Will Forever Remain Faithful” in 2008. Over the course of the year, his students gave their teacher a steady selection of songs burned onto CDs—mixtapes downloaded from the Internet that would claim to be the “official” release of The Carter III. None were actually official, however these mixtapes, released by Lil Wayne and the DJs he worked with, carried substantial weight. (Ramsey described them as “the shared currency” of the city’s neighborhoods). The Wayne tapes were traded around like baseball cards might have been 30 years ago. And the conversations in the hallways of his school were almost solely about Lil Wayne, similar to bar talk during the Saints 2009 Super Bowl run.
“I have never been in a place where a single artist was on the radio so often,” Ramsey said. “And not, obviously, one hit song—multiple songs, some not even meant in any meaningful way to be a ‘single,’ and many technically the songs of other artists but dominated by Lil Wayne’s guest appearance.”
Replace Ramsey’s city with any other and his story is not that unusual. We all experienced Lil Wayne in 2007 through a constant stream of unannounced music. We found Lil Wayne in unofficial mixtapes, sent to us by friends, and we found the songs late at night on dodgy websites. I downloaded everything I could through Limewire, and many of my friends did the same: I remember seeing my girlfriend’s laptop in around February of ‘07, with her downloads open and over 100 Lil Wayne songs queued up. Others used Datpiff, which had the full mixtapes, but it was difficult to judge which tapes actually came from the rapper and which were being repurposed by others looking to hop on Weezy’s back.
Over the course of the year, the public’s expectation for the music was more different than it’s ever been. Normally, we eagerly wait for our favorite artists to release new music. In ‘07, we played catch-up.
All of this makes it difficult today to track what he actually did five years ago. But here it goes anyway.
There is no denying that Wayne started the year mainly with guest spots. Coming off his successful 2006 collaboration with DJ Drama, Dedication Part 2, Wayne parlayed his status into getting on tracks with DJ Khaled, Swizz Beatz, and Lloyd. His collaboration with Lloyd, “You,” charted high, his first Billboard top-10 appearance ever, but it was a rote, simple verse, sounding much like his job on Destiny Child’s 2004 hit “Soldier.” It was there primarily to add hip-hop cred to an R&B’er.
The first indicator that his rhymes could be something special came with the remixes to “It’s Me, Bitches” and “We Takin’ Over,” released Feb. 13 and Mar. 27, respectively. If you haven’t heard it in a while, listen again to “It’s Me, Bitches”: Wayne begins the song with mangled French, jacked haphazardly from “Lady Marmalade.” “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?” he says, then he affects a Jamaican accent he would later reuse for the intro of Da Drought 3, using it to play off a single phrase “jump off” and making the innocuous words sound more twisted and perverted than ever before: “Jump on jump off, the girl is a jump off/I let her snort a mountain and she just jumped off/Jump on jump off, you know she a jump off/Pull my dick out and watch her jump on jump off.”
“We Takin’ Over,” meanwhile, is more of a bid for mainstream success, featuring perhaps the best verse of Weezy’s entire career. It’s only 30 seconds, but Jesus, it should be studied by anyone who ever wants to brag over a beat. “I am the beast,” he menacingly says. “Feed me rappers or feed me beats/I am untamed, I need a leash/I am insane, I need a shrink.”
After hearing that song, I couldn’t get enough. This was the most unexpected and charismatic guy in music.
In the 2010 documentary “The Carter,” filmmaker Quincy Jones III followed Lil Wayne around as he recorded many of his 2007 songs. It’s the clearest look we have at how the rapper was so prolific that year. While on camera, Weezy essentially does only three things—smoke weed, perform live, and record. (He will tell Rolling Stone in 2008 that he could record up to five songs a day and have a rap ready for a guest appearance only 30 minutes after hearing the beat.) He doesn’t play other rappers’ songs on his tour buses or in his hotel suites, instead blasting a constant stream of material that he recorded the night before, usually high on purp or marijuana. He tells the camera at one point that he listens to the songs during the day and makes changes to them later, creating an environment where he is constantly working. He corroborates this in interviews. “What do you listen to these days?” Complex magazine asked him in December of ‘07. “Me!” he said. “All day, all me…. That’s how I do me, I gotta listen to me, critique and analyze everything, every time you hear music playing…. I don’t really listen to no rap.
This constant recording and self-critiquing created an interesting scenario. Because Wayne only listened to his own stuff and stayed away from much contemporary influence in ‘07, he created songs that were totally out of his own head, his own experiences, his own weird self-curated pop culture memory. In April, when he released the year’s first mixtape, Da Drought 3, you could start to see this subconscious brilliance. It’s a record full of obscure 80s and 90s pop culture minutiae—”Married to the Benjamins, battle all my enemies/Riding with Big Foot, Harry, and the Hendersons”—and strange metaphors—”I’m probably in the sky, flyin’ with the fishes/Or maybe in the ocean, swimmin’ with the pigeons”—pulled perhaps from Wayne watching TV on a couch in 1995 Hollygrove, or a fleeting thought that came to him while listening to a beat on a tour bus. The mixtape also sounds like it has around seven different rappers on it, with a voice over the music that seems to change with each song. On “I Can’t Feel My Face” it sounds like he can barely get the words out. “Promise” is all creepy put-ons. “Back on My Grizzy” is Southern trap.
I remember putting the DD3 on for the first time in my car and rewinding “Seat Down Low” over and over again, listening to every change in voice and trying to catch every reference. I wasn’t alone.
“I became obsessed with Weezy for the year,” said Ramsey, who was at the epicenter for the entire phenomenon. “It was a personal obsession—it was me at home listening to tracks over and over again.”
Over the year as Wayne began to release more and more, he took a publicly conflicted attitude to why he was releasing all this free music. At times, he seemed blasé, almost careless, about it. At one point in the “The Carter,” he’s asked the name of a song he’s recording (and that would later be called “Demolition Freestyle”). “It’s just a mixtape, man,” Wayne responds. “Ain’t got titles.” In June, when he released The Drought is Over 2: The Carter III Sessions, he released the largest collection yet of free music he could have potentially profited from. (The bulk of DD3, ont the other hand, were songs that used others’ beats and would have gotten Wayne resoundingly sued if he had tried it put on sale.) The Carter III Sessions contained originally produced songs, including the Kanye-crafted “Did It Before” and “La La La,” a terrific track produced by Infamous that vividly describes the pre-Katrina New Orleans of Weezy’s youth. “I come through the hood suicide doors,” he sings. “I used to come through the hood on the handle bars/’Gat in my drawers/Money in my pocket/Crack in my jaws/I hope it don’t dissolve.” Ramsey saw so much of New Orleans in that he track, he took a lyric from the track as the title of his essay. Why was “La La La” not released as a single? Was Wayne as crazy as he constantly told us in his songs?
Or, was this all a calculated move? In 2007 interviews and in “The Carter” doc, Weezy talks about a coherent philosophy of releasing music for free, seeing it as a way to both connect with fans— “This about to be disk two. Hope you got both of ‘em for free. If you didn’t you’re stupid,” he says on an intro to the Da Drought 3—and to work at being a better rapper than his competitors—“Everyone in the game got this game fucked up,” he says in an especially unhinged YouTube clip from April of the year. “Work, man. Work. Fuck you want to be on the streets talking about what you do, and you don’t do it…. Write a rap, man. Make a beat or something.” He went at releasing his tracks like an athlete who signs autographs constantly and works out daily. It was all about connecting and self-improvement
Once he began to release this tidal wave of free music, of course, Wayne may have seen what other economic benefits came out of the strategy. In our conversation, Ramsey mentioned that Wayne may have caught on to a post-reality TV public’s desire for artists to totally put themselves out there—in both good and bad forms. This was similar, in many ways, to the increasing popularity of blogs in 2007, with writers realizing they could catch others’ attention by writing a shit-ton and by being very open about themselves, creating fully formed online personas. Weezy, who put out a lot of shitty songs in 2007 to go along with his great work, created a volume of tracks that were similar, in a way, to blog entries. Consumers liked that.
Wayne also found that he was able to workshop his songs through mixtapes, finding out what worked and what didn’t, what hit and what missed. Thibeault compared it to jazz musicians playing New York nightclubs in the ‘20s. “Lil Wayne is a great exemplar and extremely noticeable example of this new economic model built on becoming famous by giving things away and trying stuff out,” he said. “He could prototype a ton of different genres to see what becomes popular.” By the time The Carter III rolled around in 2008, he was a practiced musician who knew what his fans liked, based on what free songs worked and which ones didn’t.
Wayne didn’t invent the mixtape. But he did unquestionably bring it to its current prominence. And he did set a guiding line for young artists like Lil B, Odd Future and A$AP Mob to gain fame through large amounts of free music released online. You think Lil B is releasing 10 mixtapes in 2010 without Lil Wayne’s 2007? Do you think the attention and care that Odd Future put into their own downloads, creating free full-length albums like Frank Ocean’s Nolstagia, Ultra and Tyler, the Creator’s Bastard, is happening without Lil Wayne’s 2007?
Today, Wayne’s talents are not at the level they were five years ago. The prison stay was disastrous to the career. There’s an uncomfortable case to be made this his decision to quit drugs and go sober has hurt him creatively. (Let’s face it: Half the verses from ‘07 would have been impossible without a severely drug-addled mind rapping them.) But more importantly, Wayne got away from the philosophy of constant work, constant release. He became a mogul, creating YMCMB and signing artists like Drake and Nicki Minaj. He released a clothing line, Trukfit. He has become, in many ways, like the rappers he slammed in that April YouTube clip. 2007 will be his last great moment.
Lil Wayne’s 2007 didn’t end with The Carter III Sessions. He kept releasing free music, even though by September he probably could have sh*t on a record, called it “The Carter III” and sold 1.6 million copies in its first week.
Weezy came out with New Orleans Nightmare Part 5 in September, The Drought is Over Part 4 in October, and The Leak, an EP that contained songs intended for The Carter III, in December. (Note: There is a decent chance that Wayne had little to nothing to do with the release of DJ White Owl’s New Orleans Nightmare.) Wayne was beginning to exhibit signs that he was creatively spent. Many of the songs were rightful cast-offs from the upcoming Carter III, and he showed an early tendency of abusing the auto-tune.
Still, he was capable of brilliance, especially on the Drought is Over Part 4. “Trouble” isn’t as out-there as some of his other 2007 work, but it’s a vivid look at drug dealers and crack slinging and growing up broke. Certainly well-worn territory for rappers, but with the songs sirens, rapid-fire beat, and constant examples of death in his old neighborhood, it stacks up with early Biggie. “Brand New,” meanwhile, has Wayne’s voice barely registering above the beat, but it’s still all hilarious boasting—how he’s as cold as a “Midnight in Aspen,” how he’s “the president and the assassin.” You don’t have to be the loudest guy in the room, he seems to be saying, to be the Man.
The last release of the year came as a happy accident. Five songs destined for the Carter III were leaked early onto the Internet, and Wayne just released them on Christmas as an extended play, “The Leak.” By that tape, I, and everyone I knew, looked more forward to The Carter III than any other 2008 pop culture event. It was unprecendented—the guy hadn’t relased an album in almost three years. But his famous boast that he had repeated on The Carter II and on the Dedication Part 2 wasn’t so ridiculous. He was the best rapper alive.
“You should get like me. Get like you? No. Get like me,” Wayne told a hapless interviewer in December of ‘07. “Ya understand me? I’m not hot. Hot dies out. Baby, I’m me. Who the f*ck done this? Nobody. Compare me to people that’s not even living, baby. And they didn’t even do it—what they comparing me to. No disrespect to them. You found songs on those people after they died. I’m still living.”
Let’s remember that.
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