In 2007, Lil Wayne, the best and most prolific rapper alive, officially released five songs. You can go to your favorite streaming service or digital music retailer right now and listen to them, on an EP called The Leak, a project that will allow you to tear through the entirety of one of hip-hop's greatest-ever runs in under 20 minutes. Do it; you'll probably never hear anything in a song as entertaining as the moment when Lil Wayne raps, "I'm running this, and I can jump the hurdles / I'm feeling like I'm racing a bunch of little turtles," his voice bouncing over the beat as though each punch of the 808 were indeed a racecourse obstacle to be effortlessly cleared, as if all other rappers alive were in fact helpless baby reptiles.
But so what? Is that really a legacy that Weezy F. Baby can hang his red bandanna on? Anybody paying attention to rap from the years 2004—when Lil Wayne first claimed he was the "best rapper alive since the best rapper retired"—to 2008—when Lil Wayne released Tha Carter III, an album so anticipated it went platinum in its first week—could tell you that, yes, at some point in the mid-to-late 2000s, Weezy transcended. And almost everyone would agree the moment it happened was 2007, the year of the aforementioned five songs, guest appearances on era-defining hits like DJ Khaled's "We Takin' Over" and Playaz Circle's "Duffle Bag Boy," the mixtape Da Drought 3, and a never-ending stream of unwanted but ultimately beneficial leaks.
In that period of chaos, Lil Wayne was playing 4D space basketball while the rest of rap was playing checkers. His music wasn't just good; it reimagined the act of rapping as a feat of raw, pristine athleticism, a postmodern dance of free-associative imagery and spectacular vocal acrobatics. There was a Herculean drive to everything he did, too. Nas's 2006 album, Hip Hop Is Dead, kicked off a year of arguments over whether there was truth in its title. And if the genre was in peril, Wayne seemed to take it as his singular duty to save it. On "I Can't Feel My Face," he offers to hop in the ocean to perform a rescue; on his scorched-earth manifesto "Gossip," calling himself "Mr. Hip-Hop," he declares, "I'm not dead, I'm alive."
These songs also rede ned the music industry's relationship with the internet, showing that making music freely available to fans online was a powerful way to build a fan base.
He succeeded, although much of his fight for hip-hop's resurgent vitality was often happening at odds with himself. An entire early version of Tha Carter III surfaced online. The songs it included still do not feature in the official, label-playlisted histories of Lil Wayne, but the music remains some of Wayne's most popular and influential, shaping much of the generation of hip-hop to come: Chance the Rapper once rapped "La La La" as proof that Lil Wayne was his favorite rapper. "I Feel Like Dying," which imagines the rapper "in a marijuana field" and "locked up behind Xanax bars," set the blueprint for a new era of rap that sounded like and emphasized getting lost in a haze of drugs. And "Prostitute Flange," a gurgling, auto-tuned love ballad, is at the root of nearly every bit of rap's melodic, vocally processed present, directly traceable in the sounds of artists like Future and Young Thug.
These songs also redefined the music industry's relationship with the internet, showing that making music freely available to fans online was a powerful way to build a fan base. The lawlessness of the internet matched the disorder of Wayne's music and the frenzy with which he was working. He was incredible precisely because he wasn't following a formula for success, because his best verse might be a throwaway two-minute freestyle over someone else's beat. Just like hip-hop had done in its earliest years, just as the internet itself seemed to do, Lil Wayne in 2007 promised creativity unbounded by any rules.
Eventually, Lil Wayne lost some piece of that period's distinct magic—to drugs or prison or his newfound love of skateboarding—and the music industry figured out how to monetize the internet. Today, artists package themselves more meticulously than ever. Success lies in mining data from Spotify plays, in curating a tasteful Instagram feed, in strategically creating moments that send Twitter into an uproar. The suits are back at the head of the table, asking you to pretend those pesky bootleg mp3s don't exist and listen to the Suicide Squad soundtrack on your favorite DSP instead. Lil Wayne's on there, too, if you want to stay within corporately sanctioned limits. But, then, what would a goblin do?
Kyle Kramer recently completed "A Year of Lil Wayne," in which he blogged on Noisey about Lil Wayne every day for a year. This essay is part of a special series we put together for the Music Issue called Musings on Music: Four Writers Reflect on the State of Music Today. Read the other three essays:
Streaming Is Killing the Musical Author
That Time the Foo Fighters Got Censored on FM Radio Because of 9/11
God Bless Women Who Sing Candidly About Fucking