Barring some fourth-quarter cataclysm, Lil Wayne’s Da Drought 3 is probably going to end up as my album of the year, despite it not actually being a real album and everything. It’s tough to articulate just what’s so powerful about Da Drought 3; when I first heard it, I thought it worked so well simply because it was like two hours’ worth of Wayne rapping. Looking back now, most of the tracks on Drought 3 had a quality that’s been missing from a lot of the stuff Wayne’s done since. Drought 3 was a sort of tipping point: Wayne finally reaching his plateau, figuring out everything he could do with his weirdo croak of a voice, snatching beats away from recent tracks, forgettable and otherwise, and making them his own. On Da Drought 3, there’s a sense of purpose and excitement that had been germinating in Wayne since maybe the first Carter album but which only finally reached its apex in that double-CD. Wayne’s kept working hard since then, recording something like eight tracks a night according to some reports, and at this point the results don’t spin heads as dependably as they did a few months ago. Over at Roc-A-Fella, it’s apparently becoming a sort of bonding thing to bring Wayne in for a guest-spot on your album and then to find a way to outrap him; Kanye West, Jay-Z, and Freeway all manage the feat in different ways on their new albums, and at this point maybe Beanie and Young Chris will too. If the new Wayne mixtape The Drought is Over Part 4 is any indication, Wayne’s not exactly running out of ideas or punchlines, but the constant recording regimen has at least temporarily worn down his loony drive.
The Drought is Over (which I think is an officially sanctioned mixtape but who even knows with this guy) has plenty of great moments, but its seventy-plus minutes still feel like a slog. Part of the problem is in the beats. Rather than jerking great beats away from other rappers, Wayne mostly raps over brand-new tracks here, and most of those tracks are uninspired Southern-rap boilerplate: screwed-up hooks, jittery keyboard beeps, tinny blasting synth-horns. Wayne also includes a lot of work that he’s done on consignment for less interesting rappers, and there are few ways of signaling that a mixtape is going to be inessential than starting it off with the song you did for Cassidy. More confusingly, about halfway through the tape Wayne demolishes any momentum he’d managed to build up by half-singing through T-Pain’s Autotune vocoder over the “Ambitionz az a Ridah” beat, then repeating the trick on four straight songs. Noz already wrote about Wayne’s flirtation with Autotune here, and he’s right that Wayne is making a ballsy choice in attempting to fuck around with current pop-radio trends but that the actual songs are pretty much travesties. To be fair, the trick does work OK exactly once: on “I Like It,” where he’s smart enough to try it over one of my all-time favorite electro-pop tracks, Yes’s “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” starting after the great drum-break and everything. There’s another predictably unpredictable sample-source choice on “Burn This City,” where Wayne and Twista rap over a track made from Franz Ferdinand’s “This Fire” (not even “Take Me Out”!), and, predictably, it sounds like ass.
And that’s the problem with The Drought Is Over: the weird combination of off-the-wall adventurousness, the quality that convinces Wayne that it’s OK to rap over Yes and Franz Ferdinand tracks, and general running-on-empty laziness. There are some really interesting ideas on the mixtape, but most of them are loose, unfinished sketches. “One Night Only” is a fascinating song about obsession and isolation sung from the perspective of a female fan who had a one-night stand with Wayne, and it allows Wayne to pull off the neat trick of worshipping himself through someone else’s eyes: “I’m nothing more than memories, memories she’ll keep forever / She always dream about me, wish she could sleep forever,” a total asshole boast dressed up as an expression of humanity. With some rewriting and a better beat, “One Night Only” could’ve been a successor to “Stan”; as it is, it’s just an interesting could’ve-been mixtape track. “Trouble” is self-loathing emo-rap par excellence. A couple of songs are slowed-down versions of old-school low-tech Southern bounce, stripped down to nothing but handclaps and 808 booms, and they allow Wayne to play around with empty space in his rapping. “Big Dog Status,” where Wayne and T.I. share track-space with and pay tribute to Scarface, feels like an event unto itself; I hope it shows up on that Scarface album that may or may not be coming out this year. Even the boring tracks have moments of stunning wordplay: “I’m looking in the mirror and I seen a dollar-sign / I got a CAT scan and I had money on my mind,” “Snakes in the grass, rats, lizards / Around here, snitches don’t exist like wizards,” “Tight like sutures, righteous, ruthless.” “Breakin’ My Heart” is Wayne’s left-field collaboration with Little Brother, and it’s great for reasons that have little or nothing to do with Wayne; its melodic skipping handclap beat and warm, apologetic sentiment sound especially great after the mushy insincerity of Wayne’s garbage-ass love-rap Babyface collaboration “Comfortable.” But why did we ever need to hear “Comfortable” in the first place? Wayne’s nothing if not opportunistic, but six months ago he never would’ve resorted to such formulaic bullshit.
One track that isn’t on The Drought is Over goes a long way toward correcting the mixtape’s problems. Wayne performed “Gossip” at the BET Hip-Hop Awards a couple of weeks ago, and it’s since surfaced online as a possible first single for The Carter 3 (though that album has already had about ten possible first singles, including “Comfortable”). “Gossip” may or may not be Wayne’s response to 50 Cent’s recent barrage of lightweight insults, but more than that it’s Wayne’s latest attempt to cement his position as this age’s most important rapper. On “Gossip,” he gets really pissed over crashing strings and screaming soul soul samples, and ends it with this: “Cut the check, nigga*, fuck your props / And make it out to Mr. Hip-Hop.” Then, as the strings fade out: “I’m not dead; I’m alive.” It’s grandstanding, sure, but it’s the kind of grandstanding that raises goosebumps. Wayne can have many more moments like this one, but he might need to slow down to make them.
* I’m officially retiring the ninja thing starting right now. If I had a point to make, I figure I’ve made it by now.