Day 147: "How to Love" – Tha Carter IV , 2011
Love and Lil Wayne are two concepts that have something of a complicated history. Lil Wayne has made a few great love songs, a few great breakup songs, and, for the most part, a fuck ton of songs about sex, especially sex that involves eating pussy. Depending on what kind of Valentine's Day you're hoping to have, perhaps some of those others would be a better fit. But today I'd like to talk about "How to Love," which is one of the most undeservedly maligned Lil Wayne songs yet also one of the most confusing.
The basic premise of "How to Love" is that the woman it is addressed to has been burned too many times in love to be in touch with the feeling, and Lil Wayne is encouraging her to come out of her shell. The video, which is mildly problematic but also surprisingly progressive about same-sex relationships, involves two timelines: In one, a woman, abused and molested as a child, becomes a stripper then a prostitute and then goes on to contract the HIV virus; in the other, she has loving parents and ends up happily expecting a baby with her partner. It also inspired this truly terrible recap on MTV News, which concludes, "It wasn't just the guitar strings that Weezy plucked at with this single; he was clearly tugging at the heartstrings as well." However, to be fair I have a nagging feeling that it is more or less this concept that inspired the song. Lil Wayne was almost definitely like, "yes, heartstrings, it's ballad time."
As Wayne told MTV News in the context of a separate article, he was confident that "the song is gonna take me somewhere that I've never been musically" and that it was going to be part of his bid to add more variety to his live shows and be thought of as "one of the greatest musicians of all time." He added, in line with his general fixation on comparing himself to Jay Z, Biggie, and Tupac, "When you think about it, Tupac is just known as a great rapper; Biggie is just known as a great rapper, Jay-Z—just known as a great rapper. I want to be known as that rapper that turned it all the way up and became the face of the music."
"How to Love" might seem like an odd approach for someone trying to do that, considering that it is a simple sing-song, the guitar parts are incredibly rudimentary, Wayne's voice is drenched in Auto-Tune, and the song was co-written with Detail (someone who, speaking of recognition, deserves his own paean one of these days as the architect for so much of melodic modern Wayne). Yet "How to Love," while falling short of basically every metric that would turn a rock fan's head, is a remarkably innovative song. After all, it's a tender acoustic guitar ballad from the biggest rapper in the world on an album full of blisteringly rapped songs about shooting people. While the guitar parts are simple, the interplay between guitar and Auto-Tune—as I've argued before, our generation's electric guitar—is more complex. This was far from the first heavily Auto-Tuned Lil Wayne love song, but it was the first to be both this straightforward in this sound and this successful. In fact, it's the third most successful Lil Wayne solo single of all time, having peaked at number five on the Hot 100.
"How to Love" might have been jarring for Lil Wayne's fans, but it blew the door open on a sound that has since become widespread. Not only is there the simple winding croon of his voice in Auto-Tune, there's the way that he begins to bend his voice in the effect and find emotion in lines like the soaring reference to "bartending and stripping." And despite the somewhat judgmental video, which equates stripping with the path to AIDS, the lyrics are a rather open-minded take in an era before "slut-shaming" was part of the national vocabulary. As on "Prostitute Flange," the predecessor to this song that might be an even better Valentine's song (although will require a more involved post from me), he's focused on love outside the context of societal pressures, a theme that he returns to over and over in his music.
Wayne's use of Auto-Tune as a way to convey romantic feeling is pioneering. He was already on the sound half a decade before this song, but it was here that it hit the mainstream, that he made the formal argument that his Auto-Tuned voice could be stadium hit material like the music of any more traditional balladeer. The song is a clear forebear for the success of Future songs like "Turn on the Lights" or "Neva End" a year later. And, although it's clearly not the only influence, its imprint can be seen in the sounds of artists like iLoveMakonnen or even Lil Yachty today, who have a similar type of nursery rhyme romanticism.
It's funny that "How to Love" worked, too, because lyrically this is a pretty weird song. It is not a traditional love song in any familiar sense; although Wayne seems to be cajoling the person it's addressed to to love someone, it's more about the concept of love than about loving him (hence the video). There's not any kind of come on, really, other than the reassurance that the subject is beautiful. But that's said in more a self-esteem building way than romantically. It's pretty cool that Lil Wayne, not traditionally a real rah-rah, lovey-dovey type, made a song about encouraging people to have more self-esteem even if they've been in hurtful relationships before. How positive is that?
One more thing: As I was reading what had been written about this song at the time of its release, I found this interesting news tidbit: In 2012, Wayne told an MTV interviewer that he had an album worth of love songs he'd written in jail and that he was planning to release called DEVOL ("loved" backwards, four years before Future got the idea). "It's my version of love songs," he explained. "And what I mean by my version of love songs is they're not saying I love you."
"How to Love" is a good example of that approach. So is its counterpart, "How to Hate." It would be fascinating to hear the rest of what he had in mind. Lil Wayne didn't invent the love song, but with "How to Love," he may have offered an instructional manual in more ways than one.
Photo: "How to Love" screengrab via YouTube / Illustration by the author
Follow Kyle Kramer on Twitter.