Lil Wayne: Best Rapper Ever?

lil wayne.jpgLil Wayne's shorts are kind of too big for him to be playing basketball

In 1997, the Hot Boys were a group of four young no-name Cash Money solo artists loosely and uncomfortably grouped into a unit. Even though Get It How U Live, their first album, came close to going gold independently, the group was a strictly regional thing. The four rappers in the group mostly served as foils to Mannie Fresh's amazing jittery future-bounce beats. So it's amazing that every member of the group has managed to carve out a strong identity for himself eight years later. Juvenile has become a Southern-rap elder, and his slippery groan has gained a sort of bluesy weight. B.G.'s slurry whine has become an edgy hiss, and he's on his way to becoming a Bun B figure, no Southern rap album complete without a guest appearance from him. Young Turk hasn't been putting out any music since he's been in jail for shooting a cop, but, um, he shot a cop. But of the group's four members, it's Lil Wayne who's gone through the most head-spinning transformation.

Lil Wayne started out as the baby of the group, a 16-year-old kid who talked about dealing drugs just like the other three but who didn't cuss because his mother might get upset. These days, he's a towering figure in Southern rap, an unpredictable master of ugly croaks and stunningly bizarre word-choices, the only guy in rap who seems to be improving with every verse. Last year, he made a lot of people very, very confused when, at the end of his single "Bring It Back," he made a clear reference to Jay-Z by repeating the line "best rapper alive / since the best rapper retired" a few times. It was a shockingly ballsy claim, but it was enough to get Jay's attention. When he became Def Jam president, Jay is rumored to have tried hard to get Wayne a deal at the label; he was probably also responsible for putting Wayne in a position to make his scene-stealing cameo on Destiny's Child's "Soldier," the song that gave this blog its name. But Wayne didn't sign with Def Jam; Cash Money CEO Baby Williams wasn't about to let his last remaining commercially viable rapper go without a fight. And now Wayne has a position as president of Cash Money Records (whatever that means), and he's making Southern-rap power moves. Rumors say he's dating Trina, he's on the cover of the Southern edition of the new XXL, and, weirdly, he's been announced as the newest member of the Atlanta rap supergroup Boyz N Da Hood, replacing the departing Young Jeezy. It's hard to even picture him in that group, but he's been in a rap supergroup before, and that seemed to work out for him.

Now, it would take a global apocalypse at the very least to make Lil Wayne the best rapper alive. But I've been finding myself looking forward to his guest verses more and more, especially after he annihilated Paul Wall with his insanely cold verse on the latter's "March Now Step" ("I'm so New Orleans that I can't hide / You know I'm cutting something; I'm spitting pe-rox-ide"). The Diplomats get a lot of credit for their thrillingly bizarre metaphors, but now Wayne matches them gibberish line for gibberish line ("Straight down ya chimney in ya living room, it's I / Weezy, allergic to wintertime, hot!"). But unlike the Dipset, Wayne matches his lyrical eccentricities with an equally eccentric delivery. His flow reminds me of a smarmy kindergarten teacher leading a classroom singalong of "Old McDonald"; it has a condescendingly patient smarminess, like he doesn't mind taking the time explaining things that you're too dumb to figure out yourself but he's going to have some fun with you while he does this. His voice was always a naturally croaky high-pitched moan, but he's learned how to toy around with it. I love this guy.

Voice review: Keith Harris on Lil Wayne's 500 Degreez

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