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, say, “Hello, world,” and deliver a two-minute freestyle over the beat from Young Dro’s “Shoulder Lean.” 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.”