It barely took Lil Wayne two years to devolve from George Clooney to Billy Bob Thornton. In 2008, coming off his platinum-in-a-week Tha Carter III, Wayne was both mainstream superstar and street hero, populist powerhouse and critics’ darling, major-label money machine and Internet-savvy mixtape monster—hip-hop’s most credible A-lister. But in 2010, he’s all, “Hey, check out my rock band!”
As universally feared from the moment it was first announced in January 2009, Rebirth, the rapper’s first attempt at a rock album, is as terrible as everyone expected, which is too bad, seeing as Wayne attacks chug-hop with a perfectly slinky, lusty, vintage rock-star energy, culled from the days when “swag” was short for “swagger.” His headbanger persona has two moods—horny and grandstanding—with an elastic voice that’s a natural fit for chest-thumping, hair-whipping, and Anthony Kiedis sex-bombing. Wayne’s flexible, prismatic pipes coat every track with throaty groans, moist exhalations, lothario lunges, adenoidal whines, and that trademark Weezy wheeze. His lyrics still walk some fascinating line between signifying unmistakable genius, curious savant, or total dick—”She’s hot as hell, let’s call her Helen/Fireman to your rescue like 9/11″—so there’s plenty of Dylanesque mystique before the guy even steps in the booth.
But Wayne’s big problem is that he seems to like the idea of rock music more than any actual rock music itself. Wishy-washy, noncommittal statements like “American Star” (more accurate title: “Dope Boy With a Guitar”) vaguely rock in the way that R. Kelly or Toby Keith or Shop Boyz “rocked” on similarly titled songs, wearing “rock star” like a badge of vague rebellion, the same way a soccer mom (or Jon Gosselin) might sport an Ed Hardy long-sleeve. None of these tracks have the taut snap of N.E.R.D. or the Rubin-era imperiousness of a Travis Barker remix—the skittery, Barker-assisted track “One Way Trip” sticks out like a sore callus.
Instead, the record relies on twice-reheated I Against I–era Bad Brains riffs, meandering solos, and arthritic caveman drumming. Wayne’s stiff, glossy glam-funk sounds like it crawled out of that long-forgotten, pre-Nirvana hole where shaggy-haired, party-ball-suckin’ Headbangers Ballers started experimenting with groove-related scamboogery and psychfunkapussery—think White Trash, Scatterbrain, Mind Funk, or Extreme’s “Get the Funk Out.” Rebirth‘s punky, three-minute kiss-off “The Price Is Wrong” might be the only Ugly Kid Joe song anyone bothered to write in the last decade.
Elsewhere, the peppy “Get a Life” and “Knockout” desperately reach for the coveted “Hey Ya”/”Crazy” new-wave crossover (mixing Nick Lowe with Flo Rida’s “Low”), but probably have too many swears for real pop ubiquity. The latter even comes with the album’s boldest statement—”Hey, Barbie, are you into black men?” But Weezy’s distorted, underdeveloped croon ‘n’ ramble never causes these songs to evolve into sexy, Dirty Mind skinny-tie bangers, since the paper-thin production is more GarageBand than garage band. Worst of the batch are the sappy, murky, vaguely angsty ballads: “Paradice” is burdened by an oppressive fake-Zep “Levee” break, and “Drop the World” is only saved when Eminem swoops in to make it sound like the ninth best song on Encore. Even through Rebirth‘s seemingly limitless missteps, Wayne is so clearly a talent—whining and convulsing through flavorless rap-rock slurry and OneRepublic mush-mersh alike. It’s heartbreaking to think this vanity project might have been saved if only he’d bought off Mastodon.