Lil Wayne emerged from Rikers Island late last year. Now, owing to the terms of his probation, he must lay off drugs and liquor for three years or else return to prison. By all accounts, he's kept kosher. For the man who once composed a love song to his purple drank, this is roughly the equivalent of stripping Bill Gates of his keyboard or Wonder Woman of her bracelets.
There are few artists more associated with substance abuse than Weezy; in the years before his incarceration, he was almost never seen without his Styrofoam cup of prescription cough syrup, and he famously refused to go into recording studios (or even hotels) where they wouldn't let him smoke his weed.
But rather than just a source of recreation, drugs informed Wayne's musical style itself. After a relatively forgettable stint as a teenager in Cash Money supergroup Hot Boys — when he was presumably sober most of the time, and outshone by Juvenile and B.G. — he came into his own as a blunted 20-something, dropping hazy, out-of-body-sounding, ultra-vivid rhymes. Sure, they were often self-indulgent and full of the faux-deep rambling common among stoners, but that was part of the fun. His burnt timbre, croaking cadences, and disjointed flow made you feel a contact high. Yes, he could be mercurial and egomaniacal — he once insisted an interviewer speak to him the way he would to Martin Luther King Jr. — but just as often he played the whimsical, delightful oddball.
His eight months behind bars, however, has changed everything. While in prison Wayne took to actually writing down his lyrics; he'd previously just recited them off of the top of his head. On the first single off of his hotly anticipated upcoming album, Tha Carter IV, called "6'7"," his rapping is crisper and quicker, his voice has lost some of its raspy edge, and his lyrics are obviously more considered. (Whether they're better, however, is debatable.) His sober performances are noticeably different. Reports from early dates of his "I'm Still Music" tour speak to a particularly energized Wayne. MTV News notes that he appears "agile" and "trimmer" than he was before prison. The word "lucid" has also been used.
But is this what we want? Has sobriety infused Wayne with renewed creative vitality, or has it stripped him of the spark that made him so much fun before?
One could really argue both points here, which is what I will therefore do.
Point: A sober Wayne is an awesome Wayne: Sure, musicians on drugs are romanticized, but they also quite often end up dead. I think we can all agree that codeine-promethazine drank is not part of a balanced diet, and that a healthy Wayne beats no Wayne at all.
In fact, let's face it — all the stuff about how he's an alien, how he does things for his "click" like Adam Sandler, and how the police are only "logic" for patrolling black neighborhoods looking for crack dealers has gotten old. Smoking weed while you're recording, and then proceeding to quote vague statistics from an unspecified "white guy" on TV — as he did on Tha Carter III track "Dontgetit" — is pretty much the definition of lazy music-making.
For the first time in a while he seems completely focused on his craft, and his new stuff sounds on-point. "6'7"" is sharp, clear, and — more often than not — clever. "Glass half-empty, half-full, I'll spill ya / Try me and run into a wall, outfielder," is good, and "woman of my dreams, I don't sleep, so I can't find her," is funny, too. Regardless of what you think of the song, it's clear he has actually planned out what he's going to say, rather than just spewing whatever bogus epiphanies filter into his dome.
There's also evidence he's no longer such a colossal prick. Fat Joe has said he's funnier these days, and Nicki Minaj insists he's nicer — "I guess when you're not getting high, you have to deal with reality, and I think he likes his reality now," she told Tim Westwood. Wayne's days of megalomania seem to be over. Like all great artists eventually need to do, he's ready to evolve.
Counterpoint: Sober Wayne sucks balls: Um, has anyone actually listened to the lyrics on "6'7""? "Real G's move in silence like lasagna?" C'mon. It takes like two weeks to understand what he's talking about, and then you realize that the "g" is not technically silent in the word "lasagna." (Don't even get me started on, "I got through that sentence like a subject and a predicate.")
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Sure, there were plenty of times when he didn't make sense before. "Got 10 bathrooms / I could shit all day," off of "We Be Steady Mobbin," for example, doesn't check out because, well, you could poop for 24 hours straight on a single toilet.
But in the old days, even when Wayne spoke gibberish, at least it was amusing gibberish. At their best, Wayne's ramblings were transcendent. If lines like "I don't even talk, I let the Visa speak/ and I like my Sprite Easter pink" and "Touch and I will bust your medulla / That's a bullet hole, it is not a tumor" are not downright Dada, I don't know what is.
Wayne recently admitted to radio DJ Angie Martinez that, from a creative perspective, sobriety makes things more difficult for him. This is not a good thing. Rap stars are supposed to be divinely inspired, not labored and stilted. What next, spoken-word poetry? What we all love (make that "loved") about Wayne was his spontaneity, his humor, and his unpredictability. These characteristics seem to have gone down the drain, along with his stash.
Biggie, Tupac, Kurt Cobain, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Our heroes are our heroes for a reason, because they burned out before they got a chance to suck. With Wayne off the sauce, there's every reason to think that his new, polished material will not live up to his previous, gloriously unhinged work. Tha Carter IV could be filled with fresh flows, precise rhymes, and the best rapping of Wayne's career. That might be an unmitigated disaster.