VIDEO: Lil Wayne freestyles (from The Drought 3)
On his 2006 mixtape Lil Weezyana Vol. 1, Lil Wayne included a freestyled cover of Jay-Z’s “Show Me What You Got.” A huge radio hit, Jay-Z’s comeback single had featured a celebratory beat from producer Just Blaze. But Jigga’s own rhymes, which had trouble riding Blaze’s ocean-like groove, didn’t live up to the instrumental hype. When Wayne took his crack at it, he imitated Jay-Z’s rhymes while dramatically improving on them, responding to the original “I am the Mike Jordan of recordin’/You might want to fall back from recordin’ ” with “When it comes down to this recordin’/I must be LeBron James if he’s Jordan.” And whereas Jay-Z leaves basketball behind after a single line, Wayne keeps going — “No, I want rings for my performance . . . ” — for another six. By the time he finally switches gears and taunts, “I have no brain/I’m retarded,” he’s traded in imitation for invention. And remember, this is a freestyle.
It’s been two years since Wayne’s last studio release, and his eagerly awaited Tha Carter III album probably won’t be out till 2008. But he’s released three mixtapes over the past year, and now he has a fourth, The Drought 3. On these mixtapes, Wayne is the most playful, experimental artist in mainstream hip-hop, swapping one persona for another as he raps over beats made for him as well as those made for other stars. He has his own versions of Jay-Z & Nas’s “Black Republican,” Mims’s “This Is Why I’m Hot,” and Beyoncé’s “Upgrade U,” reinventing each song even as he adheres to the broad strokes of the original.
It’s when he raps over new beats that you get the full effect of Wayne’s thrilling weirdness. The beat to “Sports Center” is built on the soundtrack from a tennis match, complete with the thwack of serves and the high-pitched grunts of the players. Wayne’s first verse starts off a little vague: “Cover my tracks with butter, so where the bread be?” But the next line, “I see beef, it’s dead meat,” needs no explanation. The best thing about the track is how bored he sounds, especially when he raps “Catch up, bitch, I’m in gear three/Zoom/Gone/See ya/Peace!” in a deadpan monotone. It’s not just that it sounds easy for Wayne; he takes the conceit of “This sounds easy” as far as it can go. Like bravado, uneasiness, or psychosis, a rapper’s “effortless” sound is ultimately another conceit. On his mixtapes, Wayne wears each new conceit like a second skin.
He’s also used mixtapes to respond to criticism in real time, and he does so on The Drought 3’s “My Daddy.” Last year, hip-hop sites went crazy when a photo surfaced of Wayne kissing his mentor, the rapper Baby. (The two claim it’s an expression of mafia love, not homosexual lust.) It wasn’t long before sites popped up featuring the photo and a recording of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” but Wayne’s response was as unexpected as it was brilliantly delivered: “Damn right, I kissed my daddy/I think they pissed at how rich my daddy is. . . . Who said that I’ll be the one?/Just my daddy/Hello, hip-hop, I’m home/It’s your daddy.” Kanye has attacked hip-hop’s homophobia in interviews, but Wayne must be the only hip-hopper ever to flaunt a man-on-man kiss in a rap. He’s incendiary, riding the mid-paced beat with “Like a scary movie they screamin’ when I rhyme/I’m a king, you can ask Stephen if I’m lyin’/I’m a prince, too demanding, just like my mom.”