Lil Wayne and the future of the rap game 

A Hustla Looks at 30

A Hustla Looks at 30

Keeping track of Lil Wayne could be a full-time job. In the past six months alone, the prominent rapper has finished a mixtape and a record of "love songs," been a featured guest on a slew of albums and singles, spent a week in the hospital amid preparations for extensive U.S. and European tours, and released his 10th official solo record, I Am Not a Human Being II. Three months after its release on March 26, this latest effort closed in on 500,000 sales, despite mixed reviews.

The hits show that Weezy is still the dynamite MC who rose from New Orleans' infamous Hollygrove neighborhood under the wings of Cash Money's Birdman and Mannie Fresh, later to dominate the mixtape game with his head-cutting turns of phrase, and win the Grammy for Best Rap Album with 2008's Tha Carter III. The misses reveal that he's also still the guy who thought the miserable rap-rock outing Rebirth was a good idea.

IANAHB2 covers all the gangsta rap bases — getting paid, getting laid, getting high, protecting turf — but does so with little of the energy or ingenuity that made Wayne a household name. In standout cuts like floss track "Rich as Fuck" and scorched-earth assessment "God Bless Amerika," the flow floats effortlessly like the proverbial butterfly and stings like the bee, with lines you never saw coming. On the other hand, "Wowzerz" boasts the best wordplay of the sex-focused tracks, but the bar is pretty low when the runner-up involves genitals and Megatron. Next to up-and-comer Gudda Gudda's featured verse, Weezy's lines in thug track "Gunwalk" fire blanks.

Not only his records are suffering. Lil Wayne is not the only rapper to blow an endorsement over questionable lyrics, but the Emmett Till reference in Future's "Karate Chop," which killed Wayne's deal with Pepsico, might be the most tasteless and offensive thing to come out of a rapper's mouth since Donaghy Estates Sparkling Wine — or at least, the rape jokes that cost Rick Ross his Reebok contract.

In mid-March, Wayne suffered a series of intense seizures and was checked into Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Though rumors that he was at death's door were greatly exaggerated, it was clear he would have to cut back on whatever was aggravating his epilepsy, whether work-related stress, as acknowledged to the public, or an excess of booze and codeine, as circulated by the media.

Lil Wayne's path is becoming clearer. Last November, Wayne acknowledged in an interview with MTV's Sway Calloway that, after rapping for 22 of his 30 years, he's looking at retirement from music after a fifth installment of Tha Carter. "When I love to do something, I'm focused on it, and it only," Wayne told Calloway. "Music is sometimes not that 'it.' " He reaffirmed his decision to Jimmy Kimmel in June, with the caveat that he has other work on the table before he's ready to call it a day, most notably with mentor and surrogate father Birdman.

The pair had a hit with Like Father, Like Son in 2006, but their latest venture changes the formula a bit, opting for the strength of a posse. The amorphous collective, called Rich Gang, is set to release its official debut Flashy Lifestyle — loaded with contributions from Future, Drake, Nicki Minaj, Mystikal and more — on July 23. The most heavily promoted tracks — "Fly Rich" from February's Rich Gang: Allstars mixtape, and "Tapout," the lead single from Lifestyle — give maximum exposure to as many members as possible. If it wasn't clear from the marketing approach, the Rich Gang is blunt about the product they're selling: a lifestyle. In a May interview, Birdman told Sway, "Rich Gang is ... based on hard work, a grind. How we show [what] comes from a body of hard work," as he gestured at the opulent Miami villa where Cash Money is headquartered. "I think it's just a symbol of hard work, and it pays."

Big corporations market lifestyles every day, transcending and combining individual artistic specialties for maximum profitability. Why should talented artists with as much street cred as Lil Wayne not be in the game? With an eye on supporting his four children, and other interests like his Trukfit clothing line and a growing string of skate parks tugging at his sleeve, it's little wonder that Weezy's grip on the MC ball has grown a little slippery.

These details aside, Wayne knows well that none of this is possible without the continued support of his fans. Accordingly, the America's Most Wanted Tour is shaping up to be a massive party, sporting the soul-funk quintet who back up many of the Young Money artists on the road, as well as special guests T.I. and 2 Chainz, whose recent releases have both topped the Billboard 200. Whatever the future holds, you can bet that Dwayne Michael Carter Jr. will be right in the middle.

Email music@nashvillescene.com.

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