Day 136: Rap City Freestyle, 2007 / "Live from the 504" – BET's Rap City / Da Drought 3 , 2007
Today a freestyle by an unnamed rapper that contained a line about stabbing Donald Trump found its way across my social media timeline, and, although I am loathe to espouse negativity Online, I have to admit, I hated said freestyle. But if there is a silver lining in that freestyle making my skin crawl, it is that it reminded me of an excellent freestyle—truly one of the best—on BET's Rap City, from 2007. For the full effect, you'll need to watch the video, which is great for a number of reasons:
The video begins with Birdman declaring "it ain't right if we don't make it hot in the building" and draping his red bandana over the mic for Wayne. He then steps back and turns away from the camera, hands raised like a champion boxer stepping into the ring. Has there ever been a more poetic setting of the stage? Has the red carpet—or red microphone—ever been rolled out more emphatically for a verse? I don't want to promote gang ideology, but this has to be an all-time classic on-air moment for the Bloods of the world. And then Wayne starts rapping.
He takes a moment to calibrate: "live from the, from the, from the—gotcha." What comes next is on the order of discovering the existence of rhymes for the first time. Wayne slips into the beat with complete effortlessness, and he raps.
Live from the five hundred and fo'
It's Mr. Crazy Flow jumping like a bungee no rope
Even in the dungeon I glow
Even if ain't sunny I glow
If it ain't 'bout money I go
Nowhere, I'm nailed to the floor
I am a sail to the water
Money's the sail to my boat
And it's going down, it's going down
Like there's a whale in the boat
We should pause here, not that Wayne pauses at all, to acknowledge what Lil Wayne looks like during all this. He has on wraparound sunglasses that he occasionally raises from his eyes to emphasise a punchline. He's holding two stacked styrofoam cups. He's wearing a white hoodie and a boatload of diamonds—on a bracelet, a ring, earrings, and a particularly flashy grill. The grill is important because by the time Wayne gets to the most fantastically brilliant part of the verse, he is full on cackling at his own skill, flashing those diamonds all over the studio. That line? "I hear the track I'm like an energy pack / the instruments are crying out 'where the sympathy at?!'"
Typing it out doesn't really do justice to the way the rhyme builds up throughout the verse, the way Wayne enunciates throughout, the way his voice works as percussion, the way that it arrives with sheer glee as if even Wayne himself can't believe how easy he makes this sound. The host, DJ Q45, is right when he cries out "this is legendary right here!" at the end of the clip. This is Wayne at his absolute height of talent; it says a lot that that height is probably best witnessed in a random TV freestyle rather than in some flashy, formal, industry-sanctioned way.
It's also, of course, best witnessed on a free mixtape, Da Drought 3, which was released this same week. On Da Drought 3, a slightly different version of this freestyle appears under the title "Live from the 504." The differences are minor until the end, which Wayne presumably tweaked for Rap City to be more TV-friendly. This is unfortunate to some extent because the end of "Live from the 504" features one of the all time greatest Lil Wayne lines ever. It goes, "and to the kids, drugs kill, I'm acknowledging that / but when I'm on the drugs I don't have a problem with that."
By 2007, Wayne's drug habit was, to say the least, pretty pronounced, and, although we've kind of normalised the story with the benefit of hindsight, there was a pervasive feeling, egged on by Wayne himself, that he might kill himself in the pursuit of his art. He was closing in on age 27, which made comparisons to self-destructive 27 Club stars like Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison inevitable, particularly given that he was at the height of his virtuosity and quickly becoming the most famous rapper in the world. He was without a doubt the era's preeminent rock star, and nothing says preeminent rock star like having a drug-fueled death wish.
Yet as much as death hung like a spectre over Wayne's constant invocation of his drug use, it also was a muse, whether he was batting around celestial bodies because he was so high or simply, as he does in that freestyle, clutching that double cup as he stepped up to the mic to destroy a beat once again. Nobody embodied the inherent contradiction of that drug use more than Wayne, and perhaps no line of his embodies that contradiction more than this one. The reveal of this song, through that line, may be Wayne at his most volatile, but it's only a reveal because—as the freestyle version proves—it is also Wayne at his most brilliant.
Photo: Screen grab via YouTube
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