On March 8, 2010, Lil Wayne reported to Rikers Island to begin serving a one-year sentence stemming from a gun charge. Then 27, Wayne was ramping down a creative run that had cemented him as the best, most inventive, and most imitated rapper of the 2000s. His hybrid-rock album Rebirth, which dropped a month before he entered prison, was panned, but was an allowable indulgence after the deluge of brain-breaking album and mixtape songs that spilled from the smoke-choked hotel rooms where he recorded directly into car stereos and file-sharing services and Billboard charts. He was both more locked in and freer than his peers, furious at the American government that let his city drown after Katrina and cackling at the idea it would ever be able to have him extradited. He was peerless.
When he left Rikers in November 2010, Wayne returned to a genre in flux, and one defined in many ways by his influence. Kendrick Lamar, the Compton rapper who has been hailed by critics up to and including the Pulitzer Prize committee, once recorded an entire mixtape dedicated to Wayne, and retains many of his outre vocal tics. Future, an Atlantan who grew up on the fringes of the Outkast- and Goodie Mob-led Dungeon Family, wrings Autotune technology for all its pathos, the way Wayne began to at the end of the 2000s. Chicago’s Chance the Rapper is Wayne as Saturday morning cartoon character. And Young Thug, the new generation’s most daring stylist, modeled himself closely after his favorite rapper, going so far as to title his debut album Barter 6, a play on Wayne’s Carter series. (While he was never charged with a crime, Thug would later be named in the indictment of another man after Wayne’s tour bus was shot up in Georgia; in a recent interview, Wayne said that Thug has always been friendly and respectful in person, and that they may collaborate in the future.) This is all to say nothing of Drake, the Toronto native who Wayne signed, mentored, then set loose to become perhaps the biggest pop star of the century.
But the 2010s were not always kind to Wayne—creatively, legally, or even medically. The albums released during and shortly after his incarceration were the weakest of his career, suggesting the kind of creative burnout from which few rappers recover. A protracted court battle with his former mentor and label boss, Bryan “Baby” Williams, led to a series of embarrassing revelations about Wayne’s financial situation and held his long-awaited Tha Carter V in limbo. And in 2013 and 2017, he was hospitalized after suffering strings of seizures, leading both times to panic and impromptu online eulogies by fans and fellow artists.
There were, encouragingly, lapses into the sort of freeform ingenuity that characterized his output in the 2000s. His guest turns on songs as disparate as Solange’s “Mad” and Curren$y’s “Fat Albert” illustrated this, and leaked tracks like “D’usse” hinted at a renewed vigor. When Carter V was eventually released, it suffered from some of the bloat that had long marked the franchise, but found Wayne significantly more engaged than he had sounded on IV.
Funeral, released on short warning last week, is Lil Wayne’s strongest retail album since 2008’s blockbuster Tha Carter III, and his best record of any kind since the 2009 mixtape No Ceilings. His great strength, true now as it was in his prime, is an ability to disappear down hyper-technical rabbit holes and re-emerge, preening. As soon as Jay-Z announced his retirement in 2003, Wayne started calling himself the best rapper alive, where the term was meant literally but also as something more: not just the best rapper, but a black hole at the center of rap, pulling everything toward him until it was close enough to swallow, which he inevitably would. Funeral does not have the same extratextual gravity or villainous edge that made Carter II or Da Drought 3 so irresistible. Instead, it succeeds as a supremely confident series of exercises that prove Wayne is still nearly peerless in the corner of the genre that he carved out—and now, it seems, wants to guard as viciously as he once guarded the throne.
The story, maybe apocryphal, is that Wayne got sick of his notebooks and decided to purge them all at once. A marathon recording session, released in 2003 as the seventh Sqad Up mixtape but usually referred to by fans as the “10,000 bars” tape, is cited by Wayne and those close to him as the last time he wrote down his rhymes. Over more than 35 minutes and nearly as many different beats, he lurches from verse to written verse—some finished, some just sketches—flipping between notebook pages and occasionally reacting with surprise to whatever new instrumental the engineer has looped up. It is, in a word, staggering: the bars themselves are among the most arresting he’d written to that point in his career, but the project’s cumulative effect is to unmoor Wayne from everything: lined paper, Mannie Fresh, three-verse structure.
By the time of that session, Wayne had already recorded three solo albums for Cash Money and two as a member of the Hot Boys. He had been a quasi-child star and was obsessed with the craft; his debut album, 1999’s Tha Block Is Hot, already included strange passages where he broke from conventional flows. But it was during that run in the mid-2000s—from that last Sqad Up tape through the first two Carter installments, Dedication 2, Da Drought 3, an endless slew of unorganizable freestyles, and the leaked sessions for Carter III –– that he explored a transcendent new style that was at turns dense, goofy, maniacal, free-associative. This was the maxim about knowing the rules before you can break them being stress-tested in real time: Wayne had spent nearly a decade producing more conventional rap songs and verses, and so even his most radical experiments were built on a bedrock of formal competency. During that early-2010s nadir, it often felt as if he was squeezing the bat too tightly, so to speak, while trying to recreate the unhinged spontaneity of his best work. Carter IV in particular finds him sounding labored and predictable, as if he were trying to meticulously re-engineer what had once been produced entirely on instinct.
Funeral succeeds because it refocuses Wayne’s energy on the basic elements of rap, before building back in that delirious extra layer. See the record’s second song, the Mannie Fresh-produced “Mahogany.” Wayne begins by rapping on the front half of each measure, and then—around the 1:50 mark—slides into a deeper pocket, letting the drums catch up and nearly entomb him. There’s the first verse of “Not Me,” where he throws himself into different cadences and vocal tones long enough to make each one register but never long enough to linger; there’s “Know You Know,” where he raps metronomically in a slightly warbled Autotune; there’s “Mama Mia,” where he circles a truly bizarre beat like a vulture, lunging down whenever he senses an opening.
Throughout the album, Wayne writes with a refreshing clarity about characters from his past (a mostly absent father, a sorely missed late stepfather) and nagging troubles in the present, including the drugs that still linger just outside the frame like ghouls; this is all used smartly as a counterweight for the record’s showier, more athletic qualities. Contrast this with recent late-career efforts by similarly veteran superstar rappers. Jay-Z found critical success with his 4:44, which is so contemplative as to sound like an intake session at a psychologist’s office; Eminem has struggled to find acclaim for (though has made plenty of money with) his own technique-obsessed records, which often have a suffocating tunnel vision and will prioritize syllable-stuffed bars over ones with any bend, life, or musicality. Funeral argues that Wayne will be able to split the difference between these extremes: to challenge himself as a technical magician without compromising the bigger picture.
Funeral’s B-side begins with “Harden,” StreetRunner’s bleeding soul flip. The song is written as a long apology. Wayne has done this before; some of his most beloved songs are built around unnervingly honest lyrics. What makes “Harden” mesmerizing is that it scans so sincerely as a letter to an ex while also being wound tightly as a vocal exercise. Passages like this one:
“I drive you crazy and I know I've been swervin'
I know you've been nervous, I know I've been reckless
And now you all heartless, and now it's all worthless
I don't deserve ya, you don't deserve this
I turned a blessing into a burden
I'm really sorry, I know it don't fix it
would be thrilling if Wayne were rapping about the weather. But of course he isn’t; even lines from elsewhere on the album like “cocaine white as my attorneys” take on a new weight in the wake of the legal skirmishes with his former record label. This seems to be the promise of Lil Wayne’s work as he moves into middle age: a master craftsman burrowing deeper into his life and his instrumentals in endless new combinations.
Originally Appeared on GQ