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A Year of Lil Wayne: The Year in Lil Wayne

What did Wayne accomplish in 2016?

Day 102: "No Problem" – Chance the Rapper feat. 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne, Coloring Book , 2016

Can Lil Wayne still rap? Every mention over the last few years of the greatest rapper of our generation has come with this subtextual question attached. Two decades into his career, the Hot Boy turned Fire Man turned Martian might very well be wise to resign himself, among a younger audience, to a career legacy of being the guy who made Drake famous. Certainly the things that made Wayne so electrifying in the late aughts—his prolific musical output, his impish irreverence, his limitless verbal creativity, his bold redefinition of rap's boundaries—have felt in short supply in recent years, as legal battles kept new music locked up and his own interests seemed to veer more toward skateboarding and bad oral sex punchlines rather than honing his verses.

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Yet the constraints placed on Wayne by his status of music martyr have also seemed to energize him. And, even as the question of whether he can still rap has lingered over him, turning him from a global superstar into a cult fan favorite with an out-of-touch perspective on the world (the latter of which, it should be said, seems like a fair assessment), he has quietly returned to music in a way that should be turning heads. Lil Wayne may not have released an album in 2016, but his guest verses were myriad, and they were as strong as they have ever been. Although there are moments of it across his catalog, Wayne has never been a particularly introspective rapper. But that was not as much the case in 2016, whether he was observing that he gets "too choked up when I think of old stuff" or reminding himself to "let it go" as he contemplated his anger toward a certain avian father figure. Wayne hasn't quite shifted into Andre 3000 territory of delivering one or two devastatingly self-excoriating features a year, but he's inching toward being an artist whose presence on a track is seen more as a marquee statement than an attempt at broadening the song's fan base.

Moreover, Wayne in 2016 is a rapper who has internalized all the lessons of both his high-wire act rap verses and his noodly melodic experiments, and the result is a comfort in playing with rhythm that is virtually unmatched in music right now. Lil Wayne is smooth rapping in any setting. He can have fun on the battle rap back-and-forth of "Bounce"—the year's most fun bar-for-bar rap nerd song—and find profundity in the healing aura of Solange's "Mad" and skate through the celebratory shit-talking of Chance the Rapper's "No Problem" with equal facility. These three appearances, to me, invalidate the argument that Wayne has in any way lost a step in 2016. They are proof that he is as sharp as ever.

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Doing A Year of Lil Wayne has offered the opportunity to spend more time thinking about this year in Lil Wayne than I might have otherwise, and the timing proved prescient, in ways both good and bad. Wayne has spent the year touring with 2 Chainz in a way that has once again recontextualized his music for audiences. He put out a book. He waded straight into damning political controversy. He landed headlines for his lawsuit. He hinted that he might retire, prompting an outpouring of support from artists across the rap world. That artists as diffuse as Young Thug, Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar, and Drake would all rush this year to affirm the impact Wayne's music has had on them is testament to the way in which we are just even now beginning to see Wayne's legacy form.

And I have no doubt that what we will see in the years ahead will be fascinating. This past year also forced us, sadly, to consider a long view of the careers of those who left us, most notably Prince and David Bowie. For me, one effect of revisiting their lives has been to appreciate the different eras of their careers. I began to think of artists on a different time scale. With the internet accelerating the narratives of celebrity, every story takes on outsize importance for the briefest of moments until it is swallowed by something else. But when you zoom out, you see bigger narratives form, and you realize that, perhaps, the broader story of a genius like Lil Wayne will encompass periods of stagnation and failure, that decisions that seem ridiculous at one point will play out with worthwhile significance later on. And so I've begun to see evidence of Wayne's longer arc justifying his recent period of artistic slump: The way he's rapping now suggests the imminent emergence of a new phase of Lil Wayne. It's been a rebuilding year for Wayne, which has made it a good time to blog about him. There's been a lot worth witnessing.

I wrote about Wayne's verse on "No Problem" before the Year of Lil Wayne even began, and I don't see much need to expand on what was previously said, which is why it is a good song to post as we reflect on the past year of Lil Wayne. All my other Year of Lil Wayne posts about Wayne appearances from 2016 are below. Here's to the year ahead.

"Holding" – Lloyd feat. Lil Wayne "Like Dat" – PartyNextDoor feat. Jeremih and Lil Wayne "Let Me Love You" – Ariana Grande feat. Lil Wayne "Loyal to the Soil" – Damian Lillard (Dame D.O.L.L.A.) feat. Lil Wayne "Bout That" – Jeezy feat. Lil Wayne "Oh Lord" – Gucci Mane and Lil Wayne "Mad" – Solange feat. Lil Wayne "Bounce" – 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne "Blue C-Note" – 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne "Gotta Lotta" – 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne "Smell Like Money" – 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne

Follow Kyle Kramer on Twitter.