What is Wayne? The Artist Lives

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Our friends at Complex recently posed the question on Weezy’s swag, wondering if the rapper has finally left the peak of his career. After the relative flops in recent years, ignoring inflated record sales and focusing on response, it is easily argued that Wayne has lost the gift that made him an actual contender for the “best rapper alive.” This awkward situation poses a question that is full of bias, nostalgia, and the energy of ravenous fans: what is Wayne’s “swag,” and is it gone?

Background
The obvious relation of the shift in style in Lil Wayne’s music is the difference between 2008’s Tha Carter III and and 2011’s Tha Carter IV. The former was a study in well executed production, wordplay, and Wayne-level insanity, proved in the monstrous reception and acclaim. The latter was distinctly different, adding in more features, artificial production, and ever-present hashtag raps. While equally successful in sales, the reception to Tha Carter IV was generally poor and lacked the same intense response of the earlier effort.

The differences do not stop at full albums, also found in Wayne’s many, many guest verses. Comparing the classic “Stuntin' Like My Daddy” to the similarly successful “The Motto,” the distinction is the same. Wayne has objectively moved to a different style, very distant from the freestyle-oriented frame of the early 2000s and angled more toward the “commercial,” DJ Khaled-styled sound.

With the background firmly rooted, the real question of Wayne’s current role is in actuality caught viciously between fan bias and hiphop heads seeking another holy grail of mixtape to mainstream success. Clearly, approaching the material from this angle fails. The answer actually hides behind the hype, behind the lyrics, and rests exactly where Wayne indicated so long ago: I am the best rapper alive.

The “Wave”
Art is not stagnant, constantly shifting styles and bouncing from dissent to acceptance and back again. Any movement, from music to architecture, is rife with the cycles of love and hate, where one style replaces another and sends the fringe ideas to the forefront. Wayne is an artist, riding the cycle that pushed street-born music to platinum album. While assuredly one of the primary drivers of this cycle, Wayne is as much a victim of its movements as anyone else. When the wave collapses, the artists who ride it must jump off or perish.

Wayne chose the oft-ignored third option, called “selling out,” “falling off,” or any other usually derogatory term for an artist who no longer subscribes absolutely to the material they once created. When the street-movement collapsed in 2010, roughly paralleling the rise in trap music and more wealth-oriented rhymes, Wayne did not choose to ride into obscurity nor keep producing music destined to fail. Instead, he chose to alter his style, while keeping his Weezy nature, producing content unlike his first efforts, but still uniquely his own. In fact, this movement from the best rapper started years before, on the very album that critics suggest was his peak.

Still the best picture of Mr. Carter

Looking back to Tha Carter III now is expected to be like opening a time capsule, but the reality is starkly different. Many of the sounds on the album were revolutionary, from the sexual themes of “Lollipop” to the bizarrely lyrical and self-referential “Let The Beat Build.” Tha Carter III is amazingly different from Wayne’s back catalog, an evolutionary step, but not at all the culmination of his former style. Instead, Wayne realized the decline ahead and acted accordingly, choosing to drive the style of the next big thing instead of focusing on a Detox, a style-specific, pinnacle effort that would be an extreme gamble and out-of-character approach. Wayne is distinctly himself, always betting on his own style and foresight before anyone else’s input. This same logic applies to his music, but the realization is lost to the criticism of the change in sound.

The reality of the post-Tha Carter III era is that there is no post-Tha Carter III era. Every step in Weezy’s production, like most artists, was one that evolved rather than continued. Wayne choose to embrace the guitar, the same that B.o.B. successfully used and Cool & Dre mastered. Wayne popularized the hype-rap style of 2012 on “Lollipop,” “Ms. Officer,” and “Got Money.” The same man made Busta Rhymes' manic lyricism relevant again with “A Milli” and woke Jay-Z for a different attack on “Mr. Carter.” The album was constructed to seem so Wayne, but was actually a distinct shift that governed what was to come after.

This constant evolution is exactly what makes the best rapper. Despite the level of success, the depth, or the overall appeal, the rapper/artist makes their mark, then moves to the next thing. Whether “living fast” or “dying young,” the wisdom is part of the same thought: to remain on the same grind will wear you out. Wayne understood this early and proactively approached being the best by shifting. The evidence can be found in every step from “wobbity wobbity” to “you can’t get on my level.” Unfortunately, this approach makes Wayne an obvious target for ridicule, something that he has weathered remarkably well even with the moonboot idea and the skinny jeans.

The Future
How does this apply today? The answer is to back off of Wanye’s choices. His swag never left; he is riding a new wave, no matter how high nor how far. The shift this time places him two eras away from his “roots,” but the man knows from where he came. Haters will, as it goes, hate, but critics need not ride the man for his life choices. His rhymes may not be as “sharp” or “fluid” as what he produced five years ago, but what he produced them also matched what sold at the time. The same applies now and will continue to apply with every artist into the future. Wayne is objectively one of the best rappers alive for what he does: extreme flexibility.

Despite his talents or faults, Lil Wayne follows a self determined path that responds perfectly to the whims of core fans and Wayne’s own instinct for rhyme or exploration. Tha Carter IV may seem corny and distant, but it was expected and right on cue. The key is to recognize that mass appeal and success in the underground or mainstream actually mean nothing, that the purity of the art is the key to someone, like Wayne, who considers themselves to be the artist. Whether in skating, rapping, or making money, Wayne is clearly focused on the presentation and self-determined reality of the idea rather than his past or expected future. The motto, as it seems, is to not look for a 2008-era Wayne, but to guess where the man will go in 2013.

Take the first step and admit that you, not Wayne, predicted how the albums and style would evolve and forgive Wayne. He did what he does best: create. We all want a superior, classic album, but that is exactly what Wayne’s style is not geared toward.

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