I was ready to give up on Lil Wayne in 2009. He was the greatest rapper alive during my high school years (’05 to ’08), embarking on a mixtape and guest verse run that took its inspiration from, and quickly eclipsed that of, 50 Cent. While most people thought Dedication 3 was disposable, I couldn’t fathom why Wayne rapping over Pimp C and David Banner beats wasn’t more celebrated. In a sense, my rap snobbery was born from that tape’s reception; if you couldn’t appreciate, “Starter Carter ball harder, ten girls, penthouse suite, y’all order,” I didn’t’ care if you were dead or breathing.
But when I entered college in ’09 and rushed to download Hov’s Blueprint 3 only to wish deafness upon myself after hearing it, I felt hopeless.
My rap melancholy stemmed from the fact that Wayne was set to release a rock album, signaling his ascendance to that level of stardom that artists use to indulge their own eclectic, and often awful, tastes. Footage began surfacing of him playing guitar, and the mere thought of my favorite rapper swerving into Sum 41’s sphere made me depressed beyond belief. If this was his new direction, I’d gladly hand in my fan card and stick to the Sqad Up tapes. I was happy for his newfound popularity, but not what it was bound to produce.
In addition, Wayne had announced Carter IV at the end of ’08, and excited though I was for another installment in the classic series, a voice in the back of my head told me it wasn’t going to end well. (It didn’t.) I knew genius only lasted so long. I figured Wayne’s time was up.
So when, in October of ’09, freestyles over “Swag Surfin” and “Wasted” leaked, I was overcome with euphoria. Not only did I finally have the freedom to smoke weed constantly, wherever the fuck I wanted, but I also had new Wayne raps to accompany said activities. I blasted those two songs in my dorm so loudly my foreign roommate went missing for days at a time. I’m still not sorry.
When No Ceilings dropped (prematurely, days before its official release date), it became the only thing in my rotation. When he spit, “Please don’t shoot me down, I land feet flat, then walk a million miles with New Orleans on my back,” I smiled at professors who didn’t care for my lackluster schoolwork. When he said, “Walk around like I’m 30 feet tall, Tiger Woods, all these hoes tryna birdie these balls,” I felt like a giant. I listened with the bittersweet knowledge that I was hearing the last of Wayne’s prime.
The entire tape isn’t flawless. Any track with a guest feature finds Wayne loosening his grip, but those moments are few. “Wasted,” “Watch My Shoes,” and “Oh Lets Do It” are just a couple of the freestyles that find Wayne in top form. We haven’t heard him like that since. Even when the official tape came out with bonus tracks, it included the original, 40-produced “I’m Single,” which gained so much traction on its own that they released it as a retail single months later and included it on his 2010 album I Am Not A Human Being.
No Ceilings also dropped less than a week after the verdict came that Wayne would be going to prison for gun charges in New York City. He references his pending incarceration throughout the tape (“Lock the CEO up, and I’m the CEO, fuck”), giving his rhymes an added weight of dark humor in the face of encroaching jailtime.
In addition to his impending trip to Rikers, Wayne also saw the release of So Far Gone in early February ‘09, marking the world’s official introduction to Drake. Drake has, by most measures, since superseded Wayne as the biggest rapper in the game, and back in ’09 the man who was once the center of attention at Cash Money must have seen the writing on the wall. He raps as if he has something to prove on the tape, knowing that in his absence Drake would fill the void Wayne left.
2011’s Sorry 4 The Wait saw a couple more flashes of brilliance from Wayne (for fuck’s sake, he was rapping about making rivals swallow toothpicks), but by the end of my college run I had ignored both Dedication 4 and 5. Frat kids loved the abhorrent “Right Above It” while Nicki Minaj became as big, if not bigger, than Drake, relegating Wayne to third on the roster. People say I Am Not A Human Being 2 is vastly underrated, but I don’t buy it. His punchlines were too deliberate, his weirdness, too manufactured. The clever pride of No Ceilings was gone. Wayne’s reign was over.
I’ve let myself be excited for Carter 5 in the past year after “Believe Me” and “Grindin” grew on me (not to mention “Gotti”), and Wayne has even killed a couple recent guest features (like “Truffle Butter” and Yo Gotti’s “Errbody” remix). But since ’09 nothing has touched No Ceilings, and after hearing FWA I can’t keep straining to hear greatness when it isn’t there. Maybe he’ll surprise me. I’m not betting on it.