Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Lil Wayne wants to be james brown

For someone who made ubiquity his art form, Lil Wayne has done a stupendous job of disappearing this year. Sure, he was on tour and at the Grammys, but the stream of mixtapes and freestyles on which he built his reputation slowed to a drip. While he was taking a breather, others — in particular, Gucci Mane, and Lil Wayne’s protégé Drake — took his template and ran with it.
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Lil Wayne (in glasses) at a New York City court in December. On Feb. 9 he will be sentenced in connection with a 2007 arrest for gun possession.

On Feb. 9 Lil Wayne will appear in State Supreme Court in Manhattan to be sentenced in connection with a 2007 charge for gun possession. He is expected to begin serving his sentence that same day: an enforced absence instead of the voluntary break he has been taking.

But as the days count down, Lil Wayne is re-emerging. On Tuesday his extended crew Young Money released its debut album, “We Are Young Money” (Young Money/Cash Money/Universal Motown). And this month his rock album, “Rebirth” (Cash Money/Universal Motown), leaked to the Internet after accidentally shipped some 500 copies to customers who had preordered it. Just like that, Lil Wayne is omnipresent again.

In a character-softening appearance last week on “The Mo’Nique Show” on BET, Mo’Nique asked him what he looks for in the artists he signs. “First of all, work ethic,” he replied. It was a reminder that behind Lil Wayne’s seeming effortlessness is a huge machine of carefully calibrated moving parts, and that this deluge of new material is no accident.

Lil Wayne has been piecing together Young Money for a couple of years. The crew features Drake, the former child actor from Toronto who stands on his own as a rap star; Nicki Minaj, the most invigorating female rapper currently working; and a host of lesser characters, from thugs (Jae Millz, Gudda Gudda) to semi-hipsters (Tyga) to kids (Lil Chuckee, Lil Twist).

Collecting a competent crew has been all but impossible in hip-hop in recent years; since 50 Cent spawned G-Unit, no one has been famous enough to try. And though “We Are Young Money” is spotty, especially on the part of Lil Wayne, there are strong indications that he’s a keen observer of talent. (And not just of rappers: this album is a showcase for the up-and-coming producers Kane Beatz and Chase N. Cashe.)

So far, “We Are Young Money” has produced two hits: “Every Girl in the World,” which was dominant this summer, and “Bedrock,” a current smash. It’s no coincidence that both feature Drake, as assured as any rapper when it comes to the topic of seduction.

The album’s unexpected star is Nicki Minaj, who raps with a comically nasal chirp that half the time sounds like the accent of a privileged, gum-snapping teenager from Long Island. (She is from Queens, after all.) More than anyone here, even Lil Wayne, she fights against the strictures of the beat, her flow pattern varying from stutter to fusillade, spitting out bizarre, color-theme rhymes (“Roger That,” “Finale”) and oddball metaphors (“About to get a mani-ped/I’m the big bad wolf, and your granny dead”).

On many songs Lil Wayne is present primarily in the form of an Auto-Tuned hook, leaving room for his squad but also implicitly removing himself from direct competition. It’s a benevolent form of arrogance.

Neither the crew album nor the experimental passion project has a proud commercial legacy in hip-hop. But for “Rebirth,” at least, Lil Wayne’s label had sizable expectations. According to Billboard, around one million copies were printed, one-third of which were distributed to retailers. (Lil Wayne’s last album, “Tha Carter III,” has been certified triple platinum, meaning three million copies were shipped.) After months of delays, “Rebirth” had been scheduled for release on Feb. 1, seemingly pegged to Lil Wayne’s impending incarceration.

That release has now been canceled, but what an odd note to depart on it would have been. By Lil Wayne standards, “Rebirth,” clunky and confusing, approaches catastrophe. By the standards of rappers reaching outside their comfort zones, it’s admirable but not effective, lacking the tonal consistency and emotional ambition of its most obvious predecessor, Kanye West’s “808s & Heartbreak.” By the standards of contemporary radio rock, it’s passable, possibly even good.

At minimum, it shows a sense of adventure. Mostly, Lil Wayne hews close to power ballads and classic rock, a predictable entry point for a guy who sent out tie-dye promotional T-shirts for “Tha Carter III.” Those kinds of songs here (“Prom Queen,” “Paradise”) are among the most ponderous. Lil Wayne’s lyrics on “Paradise” — “Sometimes we try to find a road to the riches, need roadside assistance/Blisters on my knees, from begging for forgiveness” — could just as easily come out of the mouth of Chad Kroeger of Nickelback.

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