Even before Katrina, they aged fast and hard in New Orleans. At 12, Lil Wayne made his recording debut for then fledgling label Cash Money, a man-child in the making. Now 23, scrawny and sinewy, coated in more tattoos than a Chino lifer, he’s president of the label, a father, a veteran with five solo albums, and living proof of hip-hop as personal growth tool. n And he’s weary. “From the South, where we livin’ in mud puddles,” he declaimed on “Weezie F Baby,” from last summer’s essential mixtape Dedication. And this before the hurricane. “Good grief,” Wayne croaks on “Oh No,” from Tha Carter II, his fifth album. “This world is quite heavy on my aching back.”
Like lots of regional scenes, New Orleans hip-hop prided itself on insularity and, to a degree, stasis. Even the crossover records were rigidly committed to form. Wayne, though, is a product of, and a solution for, the city—supremely self-possessed, thanks to years of childhood fame; raps in quick bursts of ooze, if that’s possible, crisp and slurry all at once; dresses better than Pharrell (green eyeglass frames in the “Fireman” video—what?); fiercely represents a neighborhood that’s no longer there, even though he himself moved out long ago.
He’s also aspirational and upper-middle-class in a way completely removed from Kanye’s buppie flash, Common’s do-goodery, the Native Tongues’ comfortable suburbanism, or backpack rap’s highfalutin, consequence-free culture scavenging. He’s been slowly studying for a degree at the University of Houston (in, depending which article you believe, either psychology or political science). And his raps are increasingly experiments in which he chooses words and structures boasts in ways few rappers ever care to, or can.
He dismisses act-alike groupies as “synonyms.” Of the dearly departed, he laments, “Shoulda said it then/Now, I gotta talk to clouds.” On foes: “I make ’em fall back/Gotta indent/Like a paragraph.” Sometimes, it sounds like he’s channeling Anticon—”Hustle on the mountain, hustle in the tundra/Get that money at all function/Punctuation, exclamation, exclamation, period!”—and sometimes he dips into gobbledygook, just to come out unscathed: “Keep that Mary Poppins popping like a toaster/I’m supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”
Even more than Cam’ron, who sometimes seems involuntarily trapped in a rhyme scheme, Wayne has remarkable syllabic facility—in “Wayne Explains His Deal,” he scats with a logical, coherent narrative arc, a move of pure swagger. But when he builds verses, it’s with architectural grace: “Get him, get him Weezy/Hit him where you kill him easy/Sit him in a river, leave him/They find him tomorrow evening/Sinking/I’m probably drinking that syrup/Thinking I won’t slip/Even though I’m leaning like a broke hip.” It’s even noticeable when he’s not trying—the blatant radio come-on “Grown Man” has nothing on his patently gasping verse from Bobby Valentino’s “Tell Me”: “Fly boy Baby/Eyes all hazy/Izod, maybe, or the Ape is Bathing. . . .”
We’re a long way from 1999’s de rigueur Cash Money wife beater. Musically, both Carter II and Dedication are Nawlins in only nominal fashion (Cash Money beat macher Mannie Fresh left the label last year, taking much of the electrobounce with him). So Wayne stakes claim to a broader heritage, nodding to “Get Money,” “Song Cry,” “No More ?’s” “Mass Appeal”—totemic songs from elsewhere. “Receipt,” produced by Dip Set–affiliated reliables the Heatmakerz, uses a sample from the Isley Brothers’ “The Lay Away” so firmly situated at the sex-money nexus it’s a miracle Kanye didn’t get there first.
Of his past but not beholden to it. Loyal to his replacement father, CMR label head Baby, but unafraid to push buttons (shouting out the late New Orleans rapper Yella Boy, of early Cash Money group UNLV—There have been whispers about Baby’s possible involvement with the murder). Misses his biological, and wants to do better by his own—”For they sake, I’ma ball every year/I’ma pause every tear/Tattoo it on my face.” In the wake of days, weeks, months, years of devastation, Wayne just wants to go slow.