Our nation’s MCs are shrinking at an alarming rate. Not the number of MCs—I mean their actual stature. Check out the astounding quantity of miniature-monikered rappers that a quick search of the All Music Guide turns up—14 “Little,” 52 “Lil’,” and, the overall cham-peen, a whopping 65 “Lil” (i.e., without the apostrophe). And no, that’s not counting the recently matured Bow Wow. Even allowing for the inevitable overlap caused by the site’s fact-checking lapses (Lil John and Lil’ Jon must be the same guy, right?) that makes for more than a hundred tiny-titled rhymers. Suddenly, hip hop seems less like Oz the HBO prison drama and more like Oz the Technicolor realm of the munchkins.
Foes of production-line hip hop will no doubt consider this proliferation of diminutives one more indication of the genre’s dearth of originality, another case of the bling leading the bling. Very little on the newest joint from Cash Money’s Lil Wayne will persuade them otherwise. On 500 Degreez, Wayne’s clipped, slightly nasal chatter shares heartfelt but commonplace observations about the street hustle atop standard-issue Mannie Fresh bump-and-twitch. (Wayne’s between-track ad libs are more entertaining than his actual rhymes. “This gotta be the last song on the album, ’cause once niggas hear this they gonna wanna hear no fuckin’ more,” he declares less than halfway into the record.)
Which brings us to the Mannie Fresh perplex: The same consistency that ensures that no Cash Money album will be a flat-out disappointment also numbs your critical faculties. “Way of Life” may be the best track here, or its melodic cop (Dennis Edwards’s “Don’t Look Any Further”) may just make it the most memorable track here. In fact, the most accurate tribute I could pay to the spirit of Cash Money Enterprises would be to haul out my old Minneapolis City Pages review of Wayne’s 2001 Light’s Out, change a few of the song titles, and cash my check. That I’m pecking away instead may mean I’m more principled than Fresh, but it probably just means I’m dumber.
More than any of his production rivals, Fresh earns the lofty title “auteur”—a handy euphemism for a repetitive hack whose few ideas actually get you off. But auteurism is a rarely celebrated concept among smart people these days. Now more than ever, originality seems to be the conceptual club with which critics beat their adversaries into submission. Sonic Youth, Moby, Eminem—I keep reading how these artists are all doing the same thing over and over. Jeez, can’t folks come up with a more original complaint? That’s what they said about Warhol, about doo-wop, about Three’s Company. I mean, who died and made y’all Ted Adorno?
No doubt, repetition is a handy capitalist tool—you can sell Big Macs or Four Tops 45s in perpetuity. But so is originality: The Romantics and Modernists both may have raged against the machine, but “Make It New” soon evolves into novelty fetishism. Cash Money’s success encapsulates capitalism as ritual, with the reassurance of repetition referring back to an older, more stable tradition. In which case lamenting Fresh’s lack of ideas is like complaining that you have to hear about Jesus every damn week in church.
Surprisingly, then, Big Tymers’ Hood Rich is the first Cash Money album to make the same old song sound different. While Lil Wayne is a (reformed?) hustler, the Tymers (a/k/a label honchos Fresh and Brian “Baby” Williams) are unrepentant slobs, spouting off about their new money in an indolent drawl. With a laggardly melody that transposes the Gilligan’s Island theme into a minor key, “Still Fly” is a long, cool yawn of a summer anthem, a slow-rolling inventory of crocodile seats and Armani dashboards. It may also be a rare case of true sloth reaching the marketplace.
By their very nature, true slackers are always underrepresented by pop culture—they don’t record music, or make movies, or sling crack, after all; they just sit on your couch. When laziness is praised, the celebrants are usually overachievers singing in slackface. But Fresh, who brags of producing tracks in under 30 minutes, strikes the ideal balance between thriving entrepreneur and layabout. If he’s being honest, these two albums, 21 and 19 songs each, make up less than a week’s work, once you factor in time for smoking and bullshitting. You could say that Fresh walks it like he talks it—slowly, lazily, defiantly.
There’s bitch-slinging on Hood Rich, sure, but there’s also a real class solidarity, an actual urban community evoked. “Oh Yeah!” explores monogamy over a chirpily descending keyboard riff. “I’m your one and only lover,” Fresh coos to his boo. “And we don’t have to use a rubber.” (Unsurprisingly, Fresh has become a daddy by the next line.) These ass men have less right to the avuncular advice of “Lil Mama,” which cautions an underage hoochie to keep her legs crossed, than Eminem does to record a stay-in-school anthem. But mostly, they fritter away their royalties with the tape running. They brag about buying NFL teams; they describe the latest absurd customization of their whips in detail; they “Fuck cousins/And even nieces.”
Bragging about the speed with which your cash-flow hemorrhages is another established African American entertainment trope, stretching back before Little Richard’s “Fool about my money/Don’t try to save” and well beyond Nelly’s boast that he can “blow 30 mill like I’m Hammer.” But an otherwise lame skit on Hood Rich, which advertises for 2040’s “I Can Still Get It Up Tour” (featuring the Hot Men, Big Bow Wow, Old Elderly Bastard), hints at the underside of profligacy as rebellion: The tour’s proceeds go to the OGWIF—the Original Gangstas Without Insurance Fund. Maybe the Millionaires will learn that your life expectancy increases drastically when you stop working the corner, and there are better long-term investments than gold-and-diamond dental work. After all, you can’t stay lil forever.