Albums Released Between 2000-2009: Lights Out (2000), 500 Degreez (2002), Tha Carter (2004), Tha Carter II (2005), Tha Carter III (2008)
Classic Mixtape: Dedication 2 (2006), Da Drought 3 (2007), No Ceilings (2009)
Group Albums: We Are Young Money (2003)
Biggest Billboard Hits Between 2000-2009: "Lollipop f/ Static Major," "A Milli," "Got Money f/ T-Pain," "Prom Queen," "Mrs. Officer f/ Bobby Valentino & Kidd Kidd"
Lil Wayne might be the ultimate example that the 10,000 hour rule is real. The majority of great rappers come out the gate and drop classic albums on their first or second try. Wayne, however, debuted in the late '90s running with Cash Money as a member of the Hot Boyz. Despite the fact that he had hits, platinum plaques, and spewed immortal hip-hop phrases like "bling bling" and "drop it like it's hot" on wax before being old enough to drink, in the early 2000s, hardly anyone expected him to surpass his previous achievements. Along with all the Cash Money crew, with the exception, in some cases, of Juvenile, Wayne was not known as lyricist. More of a game-spitter, probably, as his boss and benefactor Baby always liked to put. (In retrospect, Wayne may have been a bit underrated in this regard.)
Somewhere along the way in the 2000s, though, he became one of the most improved rappers the form has ever known—a legitimate holder of the title of the Best Rapper Alive. Wayne's unique trajectory resulted in a run unlike anything rap has ever seen.
Tha Carter and Dedication showcased the new and improved Wayne, but their respective sequels, 2005's Tha Carter II and 2006's Dedication 2, showcased Wayne maximizing his potential. Suddenly his words were perfectly enunciated, his flows had pinpoint precision ("Got that key for the leaf, that feast the beef/No need to speak, let it be, what it be.") His punchlines were funny, gangster, and totally random (sometimes all at once). As his bars improved, so did his concepts. Look at the way he strings together his hometown pride on the second verse of "Best Rapper Alive." He doesn't just call himself "the Heart of New Orleans," but works references to Zulu ball, Essence Fest, Jazz Fest, Mardi Gras as well as the The Showboy's "Triggaman"—the musical basis for the city's glorious rap history.
But heres the thing about Wayne: He didn't just maximize his potential, he made the most of his moment. When you add up the albums, the mixtapes, the singles, the guest spots, and even the leaks—shoutout to the Empire for The Drought Is Over 2 (The Carter 3 Sessions)—no rapper in history has had such a productive prime. Wayne's catalog is a total mess: There really isn't an essential album that could capture him in all his glory. Songs like "I Feel Like Dying" or "Duffle Bag Boy" are essential Wayne cuts, but neither ever appeared on one of his albums.
He didn't just maximize his potential, he made the most of his moment. When you add up the albums, the mixtapes, the singles, the guest spots, and even the leaks—shoutout to the Empire for The Drought Is Over 2 (The Carter 3 Sessions)—no rapper in history has had such a productive prime.
In his prime, Wayne was the hip-hop Tasmanian Devil: He was the beast that ate through any and all instrumentals by just whipping himself into a frenzy. Wayne made more songs in 2006 and 2007 than someone like Rakim has made in his entire career. And it's not just that he released a 100 songs in a year, it's that he released 100 dope songs in a year.
Its hard to pinpoint the exact moment Wayne figured it all out. But his 10,000th hour might have been in 2007 when he spit the verse of the year on "We Takin' Over." It was way more than just a great 16 (he's produced countless great-16s), it was his ability to sense opportunity—this was his time—and seize it. That verse was analogous to Wayne's career after he flirted with leaving Cash Money before re-joining the roster and becoming president: Baby threw up the lob and Wayne rose to the occasion to slam it home. By then it was too late: Weezy had unleashed the beast from within and there was nothing to do but feed him beats.
And by then, we couldn't get enough Wayne. He's not just the only rapper who could even consider dropping a double disk mixtape like 2007's Da Drought 3, but he's the only rapper who could make it one of his greatest achievements. He didn't just rap over other people's beats, he made you forget the original versions. He'd turn Mike Jones' "Mr. Jones" into the unforgettable "The Sky is the Limit" before making Jay-Z's "Show Me What You Got" sound all the more underwhelming by blacking out on it in a way Jay simply could not at the time. But he was still "spitting like a retard" and finding time to shoutout Apollo Creed while flipping Beyonce's "Upgrade."
On Like Father, Like Son's "Don't Die" Wayne rapped, "And just think, I'm one sell-out record away from being famous." That "sell-out record" came in the form of a syrup-sweet radio tune named "Lollipop" which became, in 2008, his first No. 1 hit. His well-earned star-power then propelled "A Milli" into the top 10, one of the most rappity-rap songs to ever reach such heights of mass appeal. With singles like those, Wayne's hard work and momentum paid off when Tha Carter III was finally released on June 10, 2008 and sold a million records it's first week—Wayne's signature achievement.
From there on out, Wayne's status was secure. He is unquestionably one of the biggest and best rappers of the early 21st century. His fame continued on, but he certainly lost some of his muster (and maybe his mind) when he opted to pursue a misguided rock album, Rebirth. Yet, even then, at the close of the decade, in the midst of losing his touch, he dropped one of his best mixtapes, No Ceilings. Ending the decade on a high note, proving that even in the darkness he could turn it on like a light switch. Hey, that's what you put the long hours in for. — Insanul Ahmed