As long as Soundscan has been keeping track of these things, only 20 albums have sold more than a million copies in the first week that they were on sale. ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys have two apiece. Taylor Swift has three. Some of them are cheats: A Garth Brooks double-live album in which every album sale counted as two, a Lady Gaga album that sold for 99 cents on Amazon. Only a few of them are rap albums: Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP, 50 Cent’s The Massacre, Limp Bizkit’s Chocolate Starfish if you want to be extremely charitable and call that one a rap album. Jay-Z never sold a million albums in a week. Neither did Drake or OutKast or Dr. Dre or Nelly or Master P or Kanye West or Snoop Doggy Dogg or almost any other rap commercial juggernaut throughout history. But Lil Wayne did. In 2008, Tha Carter III only just barely skated across that million-sold mark; it’s the lowest-selling of all those highest-selling first weeks. But it still made the list, and that was a staggering achievement.
In the three years before Wayne released Tha Carter III, nobody else, in any genre, pulled that one off. And nobody else in history did it the way that Wayne did it. Tha Carter III had hit singles and big-name guests and hot producers, but all those things have less to do with the album’s success than Wayne himself did. In the years before the album, Wayne broke the mold. He cranked out mixtape after mixtape, his words and his delivery getting weirder and more zooted all the time. He seemed to rap constantly, new music showing up all the time, every new verse stronger and stranger than the one that came before it. Tha Carter III represented the moment where the excitement around all that crested. Back then, Wayne made it seem like anything was possible. Now, he can’t even get a damn album out, and he’s gone back to cranking out mixtapes, sounding confused and defeated and dejected.
Wayne’s woes with Cash Money, his old label, have been documented to death, but they more or less amount to this: Birdman, the man signed Wayne at 12 and who he’s made music with for decades, has possibly/probably also been fucking him out of money for this entire time. Wayne finally had enough, and now everyone is suing everyone else. Wayne’s album Tha Carter V will probably be on the shelf for years, until Birdman dies or has some tremendous change of heart. (We could get a Smile-style decades-late release in like 2045. Everything is on the table at this point.) Wayne can’t release any music; when he tried, with the Tidal-only FWA album this summer, more lawsuits were filed. And this goes deeper than music. Wayne started calling Birdman his father when his actual father died. And Birdman may have had some connection to Jimmy Winfrey, the man who shot up Wayne’s tour bus in April and who was just sentenced to 20 years in prison for it.
“I ain’t talking no more Cash Money shit,” Wayne grumbles on No Ceilings 2, the new mixtape he just released. But of course, the most interesting moments on the tape come when he does talk more Cash Money shit. Those moments are loaded down with almost unbelievable pathos — a born rap star stuck spinning his wheels, wondering how he got to this point. He ends one song like this: “All my ceiling fans, I’m back / They pushed the album back / Fuck.” That “fuck” is just a barely-audible side-of-the-mouth mutter, the sort of sound you might make when you step on a loose Lego. And it’s the sound Wayne makes when, yet again, he’s forced to confront the shitty situation he’s in. Another song ends like this: “I ain’t got no feelings for them niggas / No, no, no dealings with them niggas / Ungrateful.” Again, “ungrateful” is a half-conscious aside, not a lyric. It’s just in there, an instinctive verbalization of a whole lot of feelings.
The tape itself is fine, nothing special. It’s another case of Wayne rapping over all the day’s most crucial beats, something he was doing a full decade ago and that almost nobody does anymore. It’s fun to hear him take over Drake’s “Hotline Bling” or the Weeknd’s “The Hills,” sliding his slithery croak into those songs’ singsong cadences and making them about, like, what it’s been like since you got new titties. And Wayne is still a compulsively listenable rapper. I’ve had the tape on repeat all day, and there’s a soothing quality to his cartoon-rasp voice. He finds strange little melodies and stretches out his vowels in ways that, despite a whole generation of imitators, nobody has managed to recreate yet. I’d say he’s rapping at something like 65% of the capacity he displayed on his demonic, legendary 2005-2008 run, and that’s better than what most rappers can do. But there’s no urgency here, no drive to establish himself at rap’s top tier. He’s been there. He’s defined it. And now he’s just killing time until some miracle happens and he escapes Cash Money’s legal wranglings.
And here’s something weird: For a huge percentage of the No Ceilings 2 running time, Wayne is rapping over beats from Drake songs. Sometimes they’re not even the real beats; they’re just cut-rate approximations. Now: As recently as last year, Wayne and Drake were able to go on a co-headlining “Wayne Vs. Drake” tour, the idea being that every night was a staged battle between equal talents. It’s not like that anymore. Drake has come to eclipse Wayne completely.
That’s true of Drake and most rappers, but it matters here because Wayne is directly responsible for Drake’s career. He’s also directly responsible for Nicki Minaj’s career. And even when you get beyond the Young Money family, there’s barely any corner of rap right now that doesn’t owe everything to Wayne. Future’s crackly, Auto-Tuned, drug-ruined, dead-inside gurgle? That comes from Wayne. Kendrick Lamar’s frantic weirdness, his willingness to switch up flows and voices with fevered urgency? That’s at least partially influenced by Wayne. Young Thug is Wayne’s greatest public foe right now, but he’s also his closest stylistic disciple. Indeed, it’s easier to trace Wayne’s influence than it is to imagine who in rap right now is not influenced by Wayne. Who’s the most important rapper right now without a heavy Wayne influence? J. Cole? Meek Mill? Macklemore? Everyone else learned everything from Wayne. And now we have to hear Wayne wandering, friendless, in a world that he created. It’s fucked up.
1. Ty Money – “United Center”
Ty Money is a hard-as-fuck Chicago rapper, not a Ty Dolla $ign alias; sorry if that’s confusing. But if you listen to this song, you won’t get confused about that anymore. This is an intense, bracing, heartfelt song about how hard it is to grow up in Chicago. Its video is the much-discussed footage of Laquan McDonald’s murder, so trigger warning on that.
2. Young Thug – “Relax” (Feat. YL Vision)
The version of Young Thug who sounds like he’s rapping from the bottom of a well is one of my favorite versions of Young Thug. This is Thug at his most understated and instinctive, and it’s a blast just to hear the way his voice glides along this slow-blooming track.
3. Aesop Rock & Homeboy Sandman – “Katz”
I love when Aesop Rock does his version of standard rap shit-talk and it comes out sounding weirder than his most inward journeys: “Cats had better drink up all they Ovaltine and recognize the flow is more important than a smoke machine / Cats had better learn a thing or two about diplomacy / Cats had better cool it with the holy-Moses ‘woe is me.'” And Homeboy Sandman sounds freer and looser next to Aesop than he ever does on his own.
4. Joseph McFashion – “Alright” (Feat. Payroll Giovanni, Bandgang, & StuntHard HotBoyz)
Can’t decide whether Joseph McFashion is a terrible rap name or a great one, but I’m leaning toward great. Either way, here’s a bunch of Detroit unknowns making slick, professional street-rap that glides beautifully and offers some great, concrete specificity: “Summer 2012, y’all remember that / We the reason CVS don’t sell MonkeyPak.”
5. Montana Of 300 & Talley Of 300 – “New Storm”
Rappers going in over “O Fortuna” remains one of my favorite things.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
"Where ya ass was at when I recorded in the stock room?" pic.twitter.com/AINse6lqYt
— Kenny (@PhillyCustoms) November 27, 2015