While he was still a child, Lil Wayne watched his father leave and his stepfather die. He attempted suicide, shooting himself in the chest. He became a father. He achieved regional bounce-rap stardom, linking up with the ascendant New Orleans indie Cash Money records. He joined a rap supergroup. He turned in probably the catchiest part of Cash Money’s breakout national single, ad-libbing “wobbledy wobbledy” over the outro of Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up” and unwittingly coining a catchphrase. And a month after he turned 17, Wayne released an album that would be Platinum within two months.
That album, Tha Block Is Hot, turns 20 tomorrow. Tha Block Is Hot does not offer too much indication that Wayne would eventually become the greatest, most popular, most influential rapper of his generation — not unless you listen hard, and with the benefit of hindsight.
When Lil Wayne first showed up on the national scene, he was a curio. Cash Money Records, Wayne’s label, had suddenly become a powerhouse. A year or two earlier, Master P’s No Limit label, the crosstown rivals of Cash Money, had crossed over in an enormous way. They were loud and flashy and visually dazzling, and they seemed to release a lavishly packaged new album every week. Cash Money, on the other hand, was small and controlled. They had a whole aesthetic — enormous white T-shirts, bandannas, diamonds on their teeth. They had their own kind of glitz, but they rejected the theatrical flair of No Limit. (On “Tha Block Is Hot,” Wayne mentions that they “ain’t got on no suits cuz we ain’t tryna be presidents.” I’ve always understood that as a shot at No Limit.)
Cash Money, as a crew, only had six rappers, which meant you could keep them all straight. One of those rappers was Juvenile, who’d just released the generational landmark 400 Degreez. Of the crew, Juvenile was the clear star — the guy with the seen-it-all eyes and the rumbling singsong drawl and the hits. Wayne was more of a novelty. As in: The guy who says “wobbledy wobbledy” is 16 years old? And he doesn’t cuss on records? Because his mom won’t let him? He seemed like a gimmick. But gimmicks can work.
It was true: Wayne, out of respect for his mother, did not cuss on records until he made his debut album. Wayne had a loose definition of what constituted a cussword; he still threw around N-words and offered to kill people. And on Tha Block Is Hot, he made his transition to cussing-rapper status into an event: “Look, I don’t curse / But in this verse, man, fuck the world.” By the time he spoke that line, Wayne might have been the world’s youngest rap veteran.
At eight, Wayne had freestyled a verse into the answering machine of Cash Money boss Bryan “Birdman” Williams and gotten himself signed to the label. Birdman had paired him up with BG, another young rap prospect, turning the two of them into the duo BG’z. BG’z put out their first album, 1994’s True Story, when Wayne was 11. In 1997, Cash Money put Wayne and BG together with Juvenile and Turk, turning them into the Cash Money supergroup known as the Hot Boys. A year later, Birdman signed Cash Money to a massive distribution deal with Universal, and all those Cash Money rappers went national.
In those early days, Cash Money presented itself as a unified front. Everyone rapped on everyone else’s records and showed up in everyone else’s videos. The irrepressibly silly Mannie Fresh produced every song on every album, and his style — ratatat drum-machine snares, urgent sonar bleeps, second-line horn blats — gave them a sonic identity. Other than the disastrous Jay-Z guest turn on Juvenile’s “Ha” remix, Cash Money didn’t bring in outside rappers, and they didn’t often guest on other rappers’ songs. They were their own universe.
That universe is probably the best way to understand Tha Block Is Hot, a successful and pretty good rap album that, in the wake of everything Wayne has done in the last 20 years, is now a historical curiosity. Wayne, not yet fully formed, isn’t the star of his own debut album. Instead, the star is Cash Money itself. Those Mannie Fresh beats, cheap and busy and explosive, have a way of swallowing up everything around them. The other Cash Money rappers project personality all over the place. Sometimes, Wayne himself gets lost.
Still, we can hear distant echoes of the rapper that Wayne would become. His voice, for one thing, is already a natural wonder — a rascally, high-pitched croak that hasn’t really changed in the years since. Wayne’s also got a firm grasp of rhythm, something that you needed if you were even going to survive on a Mannie Fresh beat. (Jay-Z figured that out for himself on that “Ha” remix.) And he instinctively understands how to use that voice to create drama. The way Wayne pants on the “Block Is Hot” hook says more than the actual words.
And if you could even understand him through his accent and all those snares — which wasn’t always easy, especially to those of us who were still getting used to that Cash Money sound — Wayne was already capable of crafting a great rap line. Given that he was an actual child, Wayne shouldn’t have been so good at making up gun-talk threats, promises to pull up in that Eddie Bauer and blocka on every hour. He’s anatomically specific: “You be surprised how niggas scatter when the M-1 shatter / And everybody on the block, they get ’bout 10 in they bladder.” And he’s got a writerly command of irony: “Niggas choose to test the water, they get hit and die / Some of them scared of manslaughter, so they stay inside / And watch they partners get lit up and then they ask why.”
But Wayne is still a kid, too. He’s goofy. He wants to pull up at the Grammy Awards in six Hummers and leave with six womans. (He doesn’t say anything about winning any Grammys. I don’t think he cares. He how has five Grammys, anyway.) And the knowledge of his age hangs over the entire album, especially over the visceral lament “Fuck Tha World.” That’s the song where Wayne vents over the loss of his stepfather, the struggle to keep his daughter fed, and the constant paranoia of feeling like a criminal: “Give me a cigarette, my nerves bad / The Feds said they heard that I know where them birds at.” There’s something so sad about a line like this: “My little girl whole family tryna lie in court / Tryna put me, a child, on child support.”
Wayne turned out OK, though. I laughed out loud the first time I heard Wayne refer to himself as the best rapper alive. (That was on “Bring It Back” in 2004, and it came with a caveat: “Best rapper alive since the best rapper retired.”) And then Wayne spent the next few years proving that, no shit, he really was the best rapper alive, retired or not. His ravenous, free-associative flow has been a formative influence on entire generations of rappers. He seems to live a good life, skateboarding a whole lot and playing festivals whenever he feels like it. His daughter turns 21 later this week. She has 4.6 million Instagram followers. Tha Block Is Hot is not a canonical rap album, and it’s not the beginning of Wayne’s story. But it’s a fascinating snapshot. It’s the moment we met the kid who would never stop surprising us.