Photos by the author
“Weezy, Weezy!” The chant grew louder and louder throughout the El Paso County Coliseum, as Lil Wayne inched closer and closer to the front of the stage. Surrounding him were his bandmates; behind him was an animated projection of his head, which came to life as the band began to perform. Animated Wayne opened his eyes, revealing two glowing white eyes that brought Mortal Kombat’s Raiden to mind. Real Wayne offered that charmingly mischievous smile that he’s infamous for, his grill shining underneath a row of lights all pointed at him.
The message was clear: Dwayne Michael Carter, Jr., better known as Lil Wayne, is larger than life. Yes, he’s from Hollygrove, the Holy Mecca. But in his two decades-plus career, the rapper created his own world—Wayne’s World—and redefined and transcended the sound and style of contemporary rap music time and time again. He’s an entrepreneur; icon; influencer; martian. The teenager who held his own against rappers twice his age in the Hot Boys went on to become one of the most respected and revered rappers of all time. Yet have we reached the point where we mostly talk about his accomplishments in the past tense? Questions loom about Wayne’s longevity and his place in today’s rap world.
Wayne’s current Dedication Tour makes you consider these realities: the fact that the 33-year-old rapper is, despite a recent reconciliation, in an ongoing battle with his mentor, label owner, and “father” Birdman over, among other things, releasing his own music; the fact that Wayne’s most known protégés, Drake and Nicki Minaj, have surpassed him since their Young Money days, while his spiritual successor, Young Thug, has seen a rapid ascension; and the fact that once Wayne finally releases the long-delayed Tha Carter V, he may retire.
So what better time to embark on a tour dedicated to the fans who live in smaller cities that Wayne wouldn’t normally perform in, under the premise that it’s more intimate and special than previous tours? Sure, it’s cynical to think of this occasion as one of Wayne’s final hurrahs or an attempt at gauging the rapper’s relevance. But that’s the reality of his current dilemma of trying to figure out what he represents in 2016.
Wayne wasn’t preoccupied with these concerns the first night of his tour, though. His main and only goal was to turn up. “I ain’t shit without you” declared Wayne to the audience as he went into his hit single, “6 Foot 7 Foot.” Hit after hit, Wayne’s setlist served to remind fans of his work as both a solo and featured artist: “A Milli,” “Believe Me,” “Drop The World,” “Go DJ,” “Love Me,” “Got Money,” “How To Love,” “Hustler Musik,” “Lollipop,” “Mrs. Officer,” “HYFR,” “I’m Going In,” “I’m On One,” “Karate Chop,” “Only,” “Truffle Butter.”
He commanded the stage with a confidence and energy that could only come from being a rapper who’s been around for so long. He played with his catalog, reinterpreting lyrics as he saw fit. Some he transformed into vocal melodies; others he just rapped in a cadence different from the original. The entire performance was a well-crafted display of showmanship: We weren’t just watching Wayne the rapper but Wayne the entertainer, a legend in every right.
However, hearing “Coco,” the freestyle from Sorry 4 The Wait 2 that Wayne performed as his second song, dampened the celebratory mood of the night. “All I got is Young Money / No more Cash, nigga.” This was the only moment in which Wayne referenced his highly publicized fallout with Birdman and Cash Money. No spontaneous rant followed nor occurred throughout the rest of the concert; Wayne even performed Birdman’s “Pop Bottles” in the second half of his set. But including “Coco” in his set tarnished the idea of celebration that The Dedication Tour embodied. There was something so poignant about watching Wayne perform “Coco” as the music video for the track played behind him—the rapper trapped in a cell, the image symbolic of the creative and financial confinement he’s currently dealing with.
Whenever Cash Money-era Wayne songs were played, in particular, you couldn’t help but be reminded that this was the empire out of which Wayne built himself. His partnership and relationship with Birdman is one of the most important alliances in rap history. But now that bond seems to be something of the past. Performing “Coco” right from the beginning and continuing the concert without any other acknowledgement of what is going on, served a purpose: to remind us that, although many of the songs he would perform helped make him the international icon he is today, that Wayne is gone.
So where does that leave present day Wayne? Sure, it was great to see the rapper effortlessly go back and forth throughout his catalog, but there wasn’t any indication of what the future holds. Although Wayne performed several songs from No Ceilings 2, none of the set was dedicated to his latest full length release the Free Weezy Album, and he never even mentioned Tha Carter V during his performance. The Dedication Tour felt like a last hurrah: the embodiment of a man who has been running a race for over two decades, and is now ready to cross the finish line for good. Hopefully it’s just a resting point—the relationship dissolution that has stagnated Wayne’s career appears to be on the mend—but certainly there is something backwards-looking about this current phase of Wayne. Then again, maybe it’s OK to pause and appreciate the long run that’s led to this. Either way, the audience was there for Wayne, seemingly unbothered by the drama and, true to his reasoning for playing to overlooked cities, excited to be there. Questioning Wayne's next move has never been a reliable endeavor anyway.
“I ain’t shit without you, I ain’t shit without you, I ain’t shit without you,” Wayne repeated to the audience before fittingly ending his set with “No Worries.” The sentiment felt genuine, the rapper smiling and jumping across the stage with his entourage one final time, before disappearing backstage. Hopefully The Dedication Tour revitalizes the rapper, especially after being creatively stifled for so long. Maybe this is what he needs to finally go forth and release Tha Carter V. Who knows? What is for certain is that the people still love Weezy: Cash Money Weezy, Young Money Weezy—Weezy, point blank.
Elijah Watson is a writer living in El Paso. Follow him on Twitter.