Lil Wayne f/ Robin Thicke - "Tie My Hands" (mp3)
Lil Wayne was the most overdiscussed figure in popular music well before the release of Tha Carter III
, and is only moreso two months later. But OK, let's talk about something specific about the album, and his transformation in recent years, Wayne's relationship with R&B. In the first few years of his career, it was a minor element in his music; the hooks on most of his songs were rapped, either by himself or another Cash Money MC, and what melody there was usually came from Mannie Fresh's production. Wayne sometimes rapped in a slightly melodic singsong, but never anything as overtly tuneful as a Nelly or early 50 Cent hit had at the time. His first single with an R&B hook, 2002's "The Way Of Life" featuring TQ, was probably the worst and most generic single of his career up to that point.
Even as recently as on Tha Carter II
, "Grown Man" felt like a completely cynical, uninspired token R&B jam on what was otherwise a mostly lyric-driven straight up hip hop album. But that album also included "Shooter," the first of many collaborations with Robin Thicke, and it wasn't at all calculated; Wayne had just been a fan of the song from Thicke's first album, and wanted to rap over it. The song got a lot of critical praise; I remember my friend Tom Breihan called it the song of the year
before I even heard it, and after he'd built it up so much I was surprised at how awful I thought it was. To me, it was just a bunch of scattered 8-bar verses shoehorned into a song where they sounded completely out of context and forced, like a bad mashup. To my ears, his latest song with Thicke, "Tie My Hands" is a much more successful collaboration between two different artists with a lot of mutual appreciation.
But that Thicke collab marked arguably the beginning of Wayne showing some active passion for R&B. And really, probably most rappers listen to a good amount of R&B, or at least follow it as much as any genre other than rap. Older guys like Snoop, who can actually remember a time before rap, always seem to have a deep knowledge about and love for soul music beyond what they occasionally sample. But starting around Wayne's generation, you've got guys who could have listened to nothing but hip hop for their entire life.
By Tha Carter II
, Wayne had already started his run of guest spots on R&B singles with Destiny's Child and Bobby Valentino, and continued it over the next couple years with Chris Brown and Lloyd and Usher (and occasional flops by Avant and Mya). Any time a rapper is at the peak of his career and in high demand for features, he inevitably appears on some R&B songs regardless of what his general music or image is, but the R&B records Wayne did felt like such an integral part of his success during his mixtape monster period, the things that most kept him relevant to teenybopper radio listeners at a moment when his fanbase was skewing in a whole bunch of other new directions it'd never reached before. But he also seemed genuinely psyched to be on a lot of those records, doing goofy dances next to Chris Brown and mouthing Lloyd's lyrics in videos.
It was also around this time that he started playing guitar, albeit pretty badly, in stuff like the "Leather So Soft" video. When I saw Wayne on tour with Jeezy
over a year ago, and he played guitar onstage, lamely twanging away tuneless leads over the same song, I wrote "A few years from now, this might be remembered as the moment when it all started to go wrong, and Wayne got on the road to becoming Andre 3000." That wasn't really fair to Andre, however; as much as I hate "Hey Ya," he actually did learn some chords and write a catchy rock song that crossed over to people who'd never heard him rap before. Arguably Lil Wayne did something similar with "Lollipop," a massive #1 on which he played some barely audible guitar in the background, and arguably sang the whole song. I say "arguably" because I personally think he just rapped it slowly through autotune; Yung Joc could've recorded the exact same verses and everyone would call it rapping, because Wayne happens to be rapping at a Yung Joc tempo and skill level on "Lollipop."
Meanwhile, Wayne started namedropping R&B artists out the ying yang. About a year ago, Wayne told The Fader
, "I had an iPod full of Prince from my manager, and I sat and really listened. And like, this nigga can't sing! Nigga just got a distinctive-ass voice," and "I started practicing what Prince do." And this March, Wayne told MTV News
, "I got to owe a lot to T-Pain. He made me really look at myself. I always look at somebody like, 'I can't do what you do, but man, I damn sure wish I could.' So when I figure out what I could do about that, I go and do it. So every time I get a chance to say it, T-Pain, Prince, Wyclef, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Alicia Keys, Lenny Kravitz — all these are people I looked at the past two years. I viewed them seriously and was like, 'Wow, I could do that without being totally them.' I can present it as Lil Wayne." When "Love In This Club Pt. 2" dropped, he was practically emotional with gratitude that Usher's people kept all of the virtually unlistenable verse he recorded for it, including the last few bars where he sang a few lines of an old Janet Jackson song. I think he realizes that he's testing people's patience with a lot of these melodic indulgences, but he's totally committed to the path he's on.
And even on his biggest straight-up rap hit to date, "A Milli" (the only Carter III
single so far with no singer on the hook), Wayne addressed his rising stature as an MC while twisting the conversation toward R&B: "they say I’m rappin’ like Big, Jay, Tupac, Andre 3000 -- where is Erykah Badu at?" A lot of people took this as either a diss at Badu, a reference to her past relationship with 3000, or just another Wayne non sequitur, but in the context of the MTV quote, it's pretty clear he's expressing straight up admiration of her, and maybe some annoyance that critics overlook his influences that aren't rappers. Myself, I'm just curious if he's getting major inspiration right now from the crazy shit on New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War)
, or he's still just bumping Baduizm
. Last year
writing about T-Pain and his transformation from no-name rapper to moderately talented but hugely popular singer, I mentioned "There aren't many artists in hip hop/R&B I have more disdain for than good rappas ternt mediocre sangas like Mos Def and Andre 3000." It's not so much that I think these guys should be rhyming in an expressionless staccato the rest of their careers; for the most part the rappers that take an interest in singing are the ones that had an ear for melodic hooks to begin with. But when they do, it usually seems to be part of a strategic career move, disassociating themselves from current hip hop to align themselves with more 'timeless' artists of the Stevie Wonder variety. It's frustrating for the same reason that Jay-Z suddenly repping rock music, but championing Coldplay of all bands, if frustrating to anyone who likes both hip hop and rock.
The other reason Wayne's R&B jones can be off-putting is because he sometimes approaches it amateurishly, but exudes the confidence of someone who thinks they can do no wrong; you know, the way, say, a celebrity with a drug problem might act indestructible, to pick a completely random example. The downside of Wayne's embrace of the daily grind of constant mixtapes and guest appearances is that you see every little step forward in real time, and he never has time to surprise you with a big growth spurt all at once, like he did with his rap skills on the first Carter
album (which was only seen as an unexpected leap forward because few people heard his mixtapes with Sqad Up that preceded it). Under the old model, an artist who wanted to learn a new instrument or explore a new genre could go off and woodshed for a couple years, and then drop an album with their new style fully formed. Wayne doesn't have that option, or doesn't give himself one, so we've got all the little autotune mixtape tracks before "Lollipop," and a lot of really shitty attempts at playing guitar that he'll have to try hard to overshadow if he ever learns to play well and make music with a guitar.
So now you've got Tha Carter III
, the album that was delayed for 2 years straight and preceded by so much hype and anticipation that Wayne was in the rare position where he probably could've put any guest he wanted on the album, or none at all. And you've got 6 or 7 tracks featuring R&B singers, a ratio that in the past would've been typical to a Ja Rule album. Pretty much the only track from the Carter III
sessions that leaked prior to 2007 that still made the album is one of those R&B jams, "Comfortable," which Wayne reportedly kept because he's a huge Babyface fan. A lot of people shit on the song at the time of the leak as an ill-advised crossover attempt, just the kind of thing that could derail the album once it would finally be released. Turns out, though, that there are plenty of songs on Tha Carter III
that hold it far far back from being the classic it was hyped to be, including a lot of the songs with no trace of R&B. But "Comfortable" is one of those songs that somehow sounds perfect, and when Wayne says "my momma gonna like this one...I think everybody gonna like this one," I feel like nodding in agreement.