Don’t bother Lil Wayne. He’s sleeping.
Both Riff Raff and I have written pieces in the last couple of months about the improbable rise of Lil Wayne to a rarefied realm of rap greatness, so I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but I’m going to do it anyway. Wayne has reached this weird zenith where everything he does is worth a listen, where he’s on full effortless-murder stride-mode, where I could listen to him doing the “uh uh I got it” adlibs at the end of “Fireman” for an hour, where I might buy a fucking Stack Bundles mixtape if Wayne had a verse on it. I’m not entirely sure how this happened, but he’s learned exactly how to deploy his breathlessly fierce whine, wrapping it around beats with a ridiculously calm self-assurance and a sly joy: “Pistol lay inside of the armrest / Um, yes / Lay a nigga down in his own mess / Don’t mess.” Wayne has a new album out; it’s called Tha Carter II, and it came out on Tuesday. It’s not going to end up on many critics’ end-of-year lists, partly because most of us already had our lists handed in before the album dropped. But trust: it’s the second-best rap album of the year, behind only Late Registration. Wayne doesn’t have Mannie Fresh on his team anymore, so he’s recruited a roster of mostly-unknown producers, and these guys have chewed up reggae and blues and metal and spit them back out as diamond-hard unforgiving Southern smash-rock or as gorgeous glistening East Coast cinematic soul-rap. And Wayne takes these beats, tracks that few rappers would know what to do with, and he toys with them like a bored cat with a mouse. It’s really something.
But Wayne doesn’t seem to realize what he has on his hands. He got a decent amount of airplay with “Fireman,” the insanely vicious siren-call club banger that he released as the album’s first single. It was a good look. But Kelefa Sanneh’s Times profile says that Wayne has already shot a video for his second single: “Grown Man.” “Grown Man” is the only weak song on Tha Carter II, a fizzley, painfully lame love-rap with session-musician bass-popping and quiet-storm synths, Wayne and new Cash Money guy Currency rapping in their phone-voices about “You should throw that ass back to me right now.” Compared to baroquely horrible aw-girl abortions like Lil Flip’s “Sunshine” or Lil Jon’s “Lovers and Friends,” it’s not that bad, but it is a black hole of calculated pandering right in the middle of an otherwise astounding and uncompromising record. And so of course it’s single number two; songs like this exist to be singles.
Songs like “Grown Man” work. They end up on 106 & Park and sometimes TRL, they get radio play during the daytime, they probably make people buy albums who wouldn’t otherwise. I’m strongly in favor of anything that’ll help Tha Carter II sell, but I’m disappointed. There’s another song on Tha Carter II which could become a monstrously huge crossover jam, which could catapult Wayne to major stardom and introduce him to, like, Black Crowes fans and white frat-kids and people who work in dentists’ offices, people who would never listen to a Southern rapper talk about killing people and saying fuck the radio under virtually any circumstances. The song is called “Shooter.” It’s produced by a white soul singer named Robin Thicke (Alan’s son, yeah), a guy who dropped an album a couple of years ago. I consciously avoided the album because he made a soda commercial that I hated, but apparently “Shooter” is based on a song from the record, so I need to hear it. It starts out with Thicke singing in a resigned, bluesy gurgle over a simple walking bassline, talking in shorthand about a bank robbery: “I turned around, I was staring at chrome / Shotgun watches door, got security good.” Slowly, instruments come in: a shivering southern-rock guitar line, DJ scratches, the descending sonar-blips from Gang Starr’s “Mass Appeal,” a sweaty organ. Wayne doesn’t start rapping until almost a minute and a half into the song, and he all but abandons Thicke’s bank-robbery premise: “So many doubt cuz I come from the South / But when I open up my mouth, all bullets come out.” He’s got an easy drawl on this song, not the playful rasp from the rest of the album but a laid-back, unforced stream-of-consciousness, and it matches up perfectly with the track’s back-porch sunny-Alabama-afternoon lope. After a great little drum break, Thicke sings again while Wayne murmurs under him, and the track continues to swell. All of a sudden, everything but a heavily processed guitar and a couple of congas drops out, and Wayne talks serious: “And to the radio stations, I’m tired of being patient / Stop being rapper-racist / Region haters.” (He also calls them “behind-door dick-takers, which is problematic, but let’s let it slide.) Then the mission-statement: “This is Southern, face it / If we too simple, then y’all don’t get the basics.” Boom. There’s a swaggering piano, Thicke singing ecstatically, everything coming back. And then more: sirens, horn-stabs, machine-guns drum-fills, almost-gospel backing vocals. And then it’s over, four and a half minutes of classic-rock blissout; it’s like Wayne had wandered into “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and suddenly, improbably figured out a way to make it twice as good. If it wasn’t for all the cussing, my mom would like this.
And that’s the thing. I could be listening with blinders on, but right now I can’t imagine a single person I’ve ever met not loving this song. Sean Fennessey did a great write-up of this song on Pitchfork, and it’s a good look; not even the snobbiest Deerhoof heads could deny something this magical. This song could be Wayne’s “Hard Knock Life,” the track that finally introduces him to the world at large. “Grown Man” is fake crossover, a bald attempt to cater to certain demographics. “Shooter” is the real thing, a song that careens over genre lines and brings everyone along with it. The world needs the song, and here’s hoping it’s single number three. It’s Christmastime. We’ve been good. We deserve it.
Voice review: Keith Harris on Lil Wayne’s 500 Degreez