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After DJ Drama and Don Cannon got arrested for selling mixtapes earlier this year, mixtapes are probably never going to be the same again, and that might not ultimately be a bad thing. It used to be that every mixtape would be stamped “for promotional use only,” a quick little disclaimer that meant exactly nothing since everyone didn’t mind paying $20 for five of them. Actual physical mixtapes still exist, but they’re trickling out slower, and the real action has been online, especially as far as single-artist tapes go. Now that the RIAA has basically criminalized the process, rappers actually have been using tapes as promotional items, offering them up for free download and never bothering to press up physical copies. As it turns out, the results have thus far been pretty good; online-only mixtapes from Talib Kweli and Chamillionaire have held up to repeat listenings a lot better than those guys’ most recent retail albums. And something even weirder has been happening over the last couple of weeks. Lil Wayne and DJ Khaled have been working on Da Drought 3, a magnum-opus double-CD mixtape. But an early version of the first CD leaked last week, and the second one finally found its way onto the internet earlier this week. The very idea that a mixtape could leak is a bit hard to process; it’s not like these things have traditional release dates or anything. In this case, though, the early leak will almost certainly turn out to be so completely superior to the actual finished version that nobody will ever bother listening to the real thing.
In this news item, DJ Khaled explains: “The real version is hosted by me and Birdman, so with the bootleg, it doesn’t even have the same feel.” What Khaled means is that he hasn’t yet have time to throw lots of distracting cuts and rewinds into the tracks, and he and Birdman haven’t yet gotten the chance to yell their names all over everything and generally ruin the tape’s flow. That’s a shame for Khaled, but it’s a best-case scenario for the rest of us. Without Khaled’s additions, the version of Da Drought 3 that’s all over the internet this week is a surprisingly clean set of discrete tracks with no transitions or interludes or drops. Wayne mumbles a quick outro to the first disc and a quick intro to the second, and he ends the tape by spending ten minutes shouting out random people over the instrumental to Robin Thicke’s “Lost Without You,” but that still amounts to less filler than you find on the average actual retail rap album. Even the extended-outro thing has been done, and Wayne’s ten minutes of rambling have nothing on Kanye West’s thirteen on The College Dropout or Lupe Fiasco’s twelve on Food & Liquor, though I’ll probably never listen to it a second time. In any case, Da Drought 3, as it exists now, basically sounds like a retail-ready rap album except that almost all of the beats come directly from other songs. It certainly sounds a whole lot better than most of the actual rap albums that have found their way onto shelves in recent years; I’d rank it a whole lot higher than Wayne and Birdman’s Like Father Like Son. When Khaled gets done with it, it’s not going to be anywhere near as good. Khaled has one of the most irritating mixtape-DJ voices this side of DJ Clue, and he doesn’t have DJ Drama’s innate sense of how to put his sonic stamp on a mixtape without derailing its flow. The Suffix, the mixtape Khaled did with Wayne late in 2005, was pretty much the one weak link in the insane string of great mixtapes Wayne’s been releasing over the last two years. The leak of Da Drought 3 leak has effectively made Khaled obsolete.
As for the tape itself, it’s so fucking good I almost can’t talk about it. Wayne seems to hit a new plateau every couple of months, and he’s completely disappeared off into his own world by now. On track after track here, he continues with the same rhyme-scheme over entire verses, pulling out random non-sequitor pop-culture references like he was the early-90s Beastie Boys if they could actually rap consistently. And he’s funnier, too; every time he threatens to fall into a guns/girls/diamonds/drugs rut, he’ll catch himself and twist everything sideways; gunshot threats become a lot more palatable when the bullets will supposedly “make you do the Macarena.” On the first verse of “Sky’s the Limit,” he interrupts a standard and almost certainly made-up crack-dealing reminisce to offer this piece of information: “And when I was five, my favorite movie was the Gremlins / That ain’t got shit to do with this, but I just thought that I should mention.” He ends that song with some post-Katrina pathos: “They tryna make a brand new map without us / But the tourists come down and spend too many dollars / And no matter how you change it, it’ll still be ours.” It’s a powerful line, and it hits a lot harder when it comes after so much irreverence. But there’s no equivalent to “Georgia Bush” here. Wayne does three concept-songs: a mumbly love-rap over Ciara’s “Promise,” a flip of Young Jeezy’s “I Luv It” that trumpet’s Wayne’s supposed Blood affiliations, and a Weird Al take on Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” wherein Wayne sings semi-credibly and tweaks the lyrics so it becomes a song about crack. Every one of those songs is fun, but it’s more interesting to hear Wayne free-associating, which is mostly what he does here: “Yellow diamond ring look like a little Funyun / Stand on my toes, you could call me Paul Bunyan.” And Wayne’s also become more confident about using his voice; even on the fastest tracks here, he keeps talking from the back of his throat, which has the effect of making him sound like a deranged cartoon bully. A few guests show up: Juelz Santana one one track, various Young Money signings on a few others. But this is Wayne’s show, and he doesn’t seem to think anything of repurposing tracks he’s already rapped on (DJ Khaled’s “We Takin’ Over,” Jibbs’ “King Kong,” Swizz Beatz’ “It’s Me, Bitches”).
Wayne’s sheer audacity throughout the tape is something to behold. Ever since the picture of him kissing Baby hit the internet last year, he’s been at the center of the biggest gay panic in rap since I don’t even know when. Until now, he’s taken the high road, studiously refusing to address the controversy in his lyrics. When he finally gets around to it here, he’s brashly unapologetic: “Damn right I kiss my daddy / I think they pissed at how rich my daddy is,” “I walk it out like Stunna / I hope when we kiss we make you sick to your stomach.” His freestyle over Beyonce’s “Upgrade U” is notable for being Wayne’s most direct lyrical shot at Jay-Z yet: “Young Carter, darlin’ / Understand, I am Michael Jordan ballin’ / Yes, I’m a dog, I’m a Hoya, homie / I’m a boss; your man’s just an employer, mami.” At this point, he’s not biting his tongue for anyone. It’s fucking inspiring.