Day 339: "Swagga Like Us" feat. Kanye West, Jay-Z, and Lil Wayne – T.I., Paper Trail, 2008
While we're on the subject of event tracks and posse cuts, how could we fail to discuss "Swagga Like Us," which had Big Deal written all over it? First of all, there was the sample of M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes," which had blown up over the summer thanks to its prominent role in the trailer to "Pineapple Express." And it was the four biggest rappers of the time teaming up. T.I., in the midst of a redemption tour following gun charges that threatened to send him away for decades the year before, was gearing up to release Paper Trail, which would prove to be his biggest album ever thanks to the hits "Whatever You Like," "Live Your Life," and "Dead and Gone." Kanye was coming off of his biggest album ever, Graduation, the year before and coasting on the fact that shutter shades were still cool. Jay-Z was Jay-Z. And Lil Wayne had just made his biggest album ever, Tha Carter III, while spending most of the summer ruling the charts with "Lollipop" and "A Milli." This would be like Drake, Kendrick, J. Cole, and Future teaming up on a song now. It was huge. Everyone knew it was huge.
"It was a song that Kanye and I had done first; me featuring Kanye. An idea had presented itself—'What if we included these people and made it an event record?'—and I was like, 'That's a very ambitious idea but a lovely one,' " T.I. told MTV News at the time, lamenting the song's leak, which, once again, only added to the mystique. Naturally, there was no way it could live up to the sheer fact of its existence. Nonetheless, it provided a valuable benchmark of where rap was at the time—as well as a convenient benchmark for T.I. to build buzz for his album by being the only one of the four biggest rappers alive to bring his A-game on his verse.
In the context of Lil Wayne, though, to me this song is notable for two things. First, there's the part where T.I. lists off all his fellow rappers' strengths (he talks about Jeezy, who was rumored for a remix, instead of Jay-Z, but close enough), lauding Kanye's "diversity," his own "controversy," and Wayne's "wordplay." This is cool because it gives a sense of how another rapper—an inveterate craftsman like T.I. no less—sees Wayne. It's a better moment of music criticism than anything I could write on this blog: One of the most dextrous rappers alive considers Weezy the guy you go to for good wordplay. What else do you need to know?
But it's not really Wayne's wordplay that stands out most to me on this song, even though my favorite line is a punchline. It's the way that he delivers said line—"And my jew-eh-wels, blue and yellow / the type of shit that make 'em call you Carmelo"—stretching the pronunciation of "jewels" into three syllables to make it echo "blue and yellow" and "Carmelo." His voice, piled with Auto-Tune, swoops into "Carmelo" (the punchline being that, at the time, Carmelo played for the Denver Nuggets, whose colors are blue and yellow) in a way that instantly imprints itself on your brain. To this day, I can hardly hear about Carmelo Anthony without this line springing to mind. And then he caps it all off with a nice little coda of "Rules as follows: stay true to the ghetto / write your name on the bullet make you feel special." That is good wordplay. But that's not all it is.
When you go to Weezy for the wordplay, it's never clear what you might get. Sometimes it's just a good punchline. Sometimes it's a weird, new sound. But whatever it is, it's something that can help make an event track an event track. "Swagga Like Us" ended up being far more of a footnote historically than anyone involved might have expected, but nothing expresses what the fall of 2008 was like better—hell, Jay-Z even gets in a dig at skinny jeans. Soon, these rappers would once again go in separate directions, but, for one glorious moment, no one on the corner did have swagger like them on this ridiculous beat.
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