Rap's 2008, Beyond Lil Wayne

Praising outstanding new hip-hop records sadly subsumed by Weezymania

OK, let's get this straight: Fergie says "lady lumps" five times in a hit single and she's America's easiest water-cooler joke; Lil Wayne says it seven times and he's the best rapper alive? It's hard to swallow that rap's milli-certified critics' darling is the same MC who so confidently drops cringe-worthy puns every fifth bar ("I will never one, two, three, forget"); who rhymes words with themselves when he gets stuck (remember when we nailed Jeezy to the wall for this?); who raps in tautologies, inventing phrases that just sound like good punchlines because of his irresistible swagger ("Fly, go hard like geese erection"); who makes two "Macho Man" Randy Savage jokes on one album; who can't even score one of the top-five best T-Pain songs in a short year (see Rick Ross, Ace Hood, Lil Mama, 2 Pistols, and Ukrainian pop star Ruslana). For all its brilliant moments, Wayne's Tha Carter III is a schizophrenic mess. Granted, that's part of its unique appeal, but in the two-and-a-half-year feeding frenzy to anoint Weezy the new king, critics are throwing out the baby with the purple drink, ignoring more conceptually sound—not to mention better—rap albums that dropped in 2008.

Most egregious is the silence surrounding the Roots' eighth album. Still shedding their reputation as the go-to free campus show, the veteran upstream swimmers angrily hit a creative peak on Rising Down (Def Jam): distorted, ugly, teeth-bearing, quasi-industrial, uncompromising, apocalyptic, granola-free. Bashing around like a heavy-metal Slum Village, it's a dark cloud of music-industry fuckery, global warming, criminal injustice, war atrocity, school shooters, suicide bombers, anxiety, paranoia, and taxes. Rising Down is laser-guided pissed-offedness, never losing its cohesive end-times energy despite boasting nearly 20 guest verses from conscientious objectors ranging from Talib Kweli to Styles P. It's no shocker that this album can't touch Weezy's sales, saddled as it was by a false start (the wack Fall Out Boy collabo track, ultimately deleted) and a weak single (the unrepresentative sad-B-girl/radio-sucks anthem "Rising Up"). But the tepid critical response might come down to the fact that politics just ain't sexy. Rated lower than Wayne in everything from Rolling Stone to Pitchfork, it's an example of how quick critics are to champion rappers who are "weird," "Dadaist," and "codeine-addled," as opposed to, say, "firebrands." Perhaps the Roots will have a song about it next year.

Critics love performing backseat psychology exams on Wayne, because his rhymes are living word-association tests: Every line seems to be supported only by the one preceding it. It's a uni- directional flow that doesn't exactly count as "freestyling," but certainly has a gonzo- journalism feel: freeballing sentences that bleed into each other like surfing through the nerve net, no editing, no regrets. So Lil Wayne is rap's Hunter S. Thompson; Guilty Simpson should be Hemingway. The Detroit rhymer spits slow and heavy, favoring economic word choice and athletic prose, his threats sinister and unflinching. On his debut, Ode to the Ghetto (Stones Throw), vivid tales of dealing and stealing are not so much glamorized, but portrayed stark and uncensored, a grindhouse documentary made even more scratchy and raw by the crew of lo-fi heavy-hitters manning the beats: Madlib, Oh No, Black Milk, J Dilla. Though a razor-sharp bite—far removed from Stones Throw's usual midday-munchie music—doesn't mean Simpson isn't just as good as Wayne with a droll punchline: "I'm feeling like I must be on parole/I told her I was Guilty, she put me in the hole."

On the other hand, fellow Midwestern rap group Kidz in the Hall come rapid-fire, high-energy, and dressed to impress on their second album. The 13 tracks on The In Crowd (Major League/Duck Down) come like nonstop Jell-O shots of wordplay, wry observations, and breezy attitudes. (Need a summer jam? Their album has two songs about driving around and listening to music.) Such lightheartedness has earned them the tag "hipster-hop," which is pretty unfair considering the whole "in crowd" thing is mostly facetious. "Geek-hop" is a little more accurate due to the "Know the Ledge" fast-rap remake, the line about "genius in my deoxyribo," the producer battle where Double O and Black Milk tug-of-war on the same sample, and the self-effacing Camp Lo cameo on (wait for it . . .) "Snob Hop." They've somehow found the Jurassic 6 missing link between message-board heads and TRL viewers, so don't be shocked if the Estelle cameo has them both doing victory laps by the autumnal equinox. The final three songs are the emotional gambit, showing "the ugly side of the in crowd"—the bad decisions people make to be accepted, the stress and exhaustion of building a career, the obsession and depression involved with trying to fit in. Although the Kidz sport no fewer neuroses than Wayne, they're all certainly ones we can more easily relate to. Slowly, the album transforms from funny-drunk to sad-drunk—a naked look into a rapper's psyche, and one not buried in Auto-Tune and screw effects.

And if that all seems too backpacky, Louisiana-bred mic-roaster Webbie not only shares Wayne's home state, but his second album, Savage Life 2 (Trill/ Atlantic/Asylum), owes everything to Wayne's hot work with Cash Money at the turn of the decade. His flow is like an ecstatic Juvenile (Savage's "I'm Ready" is like a bizarro, caffeinated, motormouth version of "Back That Azz Up"), and he finds his comfort zone atop rat-a-tat Mannie Fresh snares (mostly swagger-jacked, but Fresh donates the juicy top-down jam "I Know"). This is assuredly no-frills Dirty South rap: guns, girls, glory. But Webbie is just a rhyming machine, coming as hard and unrelenting on his full-length as Wayne does on his beloved mix tapes. Eager and joyous, Webbie packs more words into his choruses than most rappers do in their verses, complete with the infectious glee of someone who's just happy to be here (an emotion confronted head-on during "A Miracle," featuring none other than Wayne's daddy, Birdman). Savage never comes up for air, so even though Webbie's not nearly as expressive or tortured or entertaining as Wayne, he's certainly more dependable. There's not as many mysteries to parse, but who needs rhyming for the sake of riddlin' when you can just suffocate yourself in glorious 808s?

 
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