Day 216: "Levels" feat. Vado – Dedication 5, 2013
What does it mean to be a "biter"? Rap fans love to argue about this kind of thing, especially right now, when the internet makes it easier than ever to check the receipts. If Drake or Kendrick Lamar so much as like a newer rapper's Instagram post prior to releasing a song with a similar sound, suddenly accusations of theft abound. If a song seems structurally similar to another song, some YouTube vigilante is bound to make a side-by-side comparison of the two.
The scale of the internet and the way information is spread now has changed the power balance dramatically. In the past, a rapper from New Orleans might lift the sound of a rapper from California and nobody was really any much the wiser because music traveled more slowly. Ideas took so much longer to spread, which also meant that tracing the lineage of an idea was much harder. Also in the past if, say, The Beatles decided to paint a van a bunch of different colors and drive around England tripping on acid, nobody was going to call them out for biting Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters because most people had no idea where the influence came from, and the ones who did weren't going to get the public on their side. Today, however, everyone knows exactly what songs Drake's new music sounds like, and they will quickly go viral on Twitter if they point it out.
But what if two people independently drew upon more or less the same influences and ended up with more or less the same sound? Or what if an artist was just directly inspired by another artist? What if the artist being the biter is in fact borrowing from an artist they influenced? What if they are just shamelessly biting? Is that OK? Is it fine to be a biter? Is it worse that now when Drake bites a sound his music can spread instantly across the planet, making him the ambassador of that sound? Or is it better that now when Drake bites a sound fans of the artist he jacked can make sure that artist is given credit? This is a broader-reaching question than Drake; there are profound artistic and cultural implications behind what counts as sharing ideas versus taking them (this also ties into debates over cultural appropriation, but that's a topic for someone's Ph.D., not this short Lil Wayne blog post).
I ask all of this because, on the very excellent and widely overlooked Dedication 5 cut "Levels," Lil Wayne is rapping a lot like Young Thug. He opens with these lines, sung in an almost identical cadence to Thug's "Danny Glover": "Man, all these pussy niggas drive me crazy / make me sick to my stomach I feel nauseated / all you haters hold hands and jump off a building / I can still taste her pussy, memorabilia." Incidentally, this song came out a couple months before that one, but we'll come back to that.
Then, Wayne dives into his verse with the same kind of staccato, syncopated patter that has become Young Thug's signature, where syllables are simultaneously hyper-enunciated and wackily truncated or elongated depending on the melody. Listen to how he raps this set of lines, especially the way he yelps "parking ticket' at the very end:
Backpack full of artillery
One me, no equivalent
These niggas actin' like lil bitches
I don't understand this shit like you scribbled it
Take her clothes off, step back, and exhibit it
Then tear her ass up like a parking ticket
It sounds almost exactly like Young Thug! This is complicated for a few reasons. (You might say... there are levels to this shit). First of all, Thug has said many times that Wayne is essentially his only influence, which is obvious if you listen to any Young Thug at all, especially his earlier material. Secondly, this was around the time Wayne would give Thug his co-sign (before they ended up beefing over who was Birdman's preferred protegé a year or so later). Third, as mentioned, this song came out before the specific Young Thug song that it sounds most like, although there are other Young Thug songs with similar cadences and melodies. So is Wayne biting Thug? Did Thug copy Wayne? Who invented this flow?
I would say, more importantly: Who cares? If anything, the similarity between Wayne's rapping here and Thug's rapping elsewhere is a good example of how two very talented people might end up chasing down the same ideas. Michelangelo and Raphael may have been painting kind of similar stuff, but they're both recognized as Renaissance masters, and we can all agree that they are equally valid Ninja Turtles. So let's just imagine Lil Wayne when he chirps "pop some pills that make me sleepy!" is using nunchucks to take down a bad guy where Young Thug might use his daggers.
(While we're talking about the New York sewer system and the slime contained therein, let's take a moment to appreciate Vado's appearance on this song. It's kind of an out-of-nowhere feature—especially when you consider that the only other non-Young Money features on the tape are The Weeknd, T.I., 2 Chainz, and Chance the Rapper—but it rules. As much as we talk about, like, Drake or Kanye being curators, there's a lot to be said for Wayne's willingness over the years to just throw dudes who can fire off 16 blistering bars of head-knocking raps about old nightclubs in Miami and shit. This verse only adds to the song's firepower, and it instantly made me want to go back and revisit some old Slime Flu tapes. Which, come to think of it, is another tie-in to Young Thug. Take "Slime Flu was the original Slime Season" and plug that in your thinkpiece generator!
And then Wayne takes it all off in his own direction anyway, powering through the final lines of his verse to build up to a conclusion that might seem hokey typed out but comes across as epic after three minutes of rapping, especially when you consider that this line came a mere six months after a Lil Wayne death scare: "This that motherfucking Dedication 5, I just I hope I'll be alive to see a Dedication 6."
After hearing this song, I have revised my take on Lil Wayne's latter-era Dedication tapes, and I completely agree.
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