Lil Wayne's long, tall career arc has numerous peaks, but two stand out as celebrated moments of real innovation, where his narrative style took rapid strides. With the release of Tha Carter, Wayne's style had evolved dramatically, his words slowing and becoming more rhythmically centered. This new deliberate cadence drew attention to how clever he was, and in the process, turned all eyes towards him. A few years later, his approach shifted again, his delivery becoming more eccentric. The experimental era of Da Drought 3 found Wayne pushing up against the boundaries of songcraft, and the freedom he achieved inspired generations of new stars to let loose from rap's traditional vocal constraints.
Like Father, Like Son, his collaborative album with Birdman, dropped in Oct. 2006, arriving between those two revolutions. It neither validated him to a new audience, nor did it break down doors for a new generation. Yet it remains one of the highlights of his massive catalog, a peak in a career with plenty of competition. There's a strong argument it's Wayne's most underrated release. It’s an example of how hip-hop can be just as vibrant in its moments of consolidation—of familiarity and coherence—as it is when it challenges listeners, even if it's those radical moments that get the attention.
Although it did spark a Top 40 hit with "Stuntin’ Like My Daddy," the overall response to Like Father, Like Son was muted, selling considerably less in its first week than 2005's Tha Carter II. In some ways, the reasons are obvious. After Tha Carter announced Lil Wayne's arrival as a talent worthy of serious consideration, its sequel threw down the gauntlet. Over squealing guitars, Wayne declared he was the "best rapper alive," and even slow-moving New York media began to take this claim seriously. With snap music as a bouncy, irreverent backdrop, Southern hip-hop was derided as short-witted and disposable; an embarrassment to a generation of artists who'd worked years to get people to view hip-hop as a serious art form. With Tha Carter series, Wayne was starting to be seen as an exceptional exception, with wordplay underlined by his delivery and ambitious proclamations of greatness.
But then, rather than following up Tha Carter II with something to validate his claims to the throne, came this duo-driven side project with his label boss Bryan Williams (a.k.a. Birdman). Birdman called himself a "game spitter," rather than a rapper, in case anyone was concerned he had pretensions about his own art. And together, Wayne and Birdman crafted Like Father, Like Son, which was an escape from any assertion of high-mindedness.
One year after hurricane Katrina, and Kanye's moment of outspoken honesty during a benefit for Louisiana, some may have expected a radicalized message from New Orleans' favored son. Yet Wayne—who lost his house in the disaster, and whose label was forced to move their offices to Miami—stuck resolutely to familiar subject matter: status symbols and violence, loyalty and money.
For those hoping Wayne's steps toward high art would be paralleled with a radicalized political conscience, Like Father, Like Son was a disappointment. It was steeped in clichés: gun talk and drug talk, even skits narrated by a fake Italian gangster (Thomas Marasciullo, the father of Cash Money's engineer, who would later sue Cash Money for using his voice without pay or permission.) And though Wayne was rapping at a high level, he wasn’t taking steps toward serious subject matter, nor was he pushing in a radical new direction. It was another tape of Southern hip-hop, 808s, organs and all. He was just rapping—and accompanied by a CEO whose verses tended to the low brow.
Yet in its modest aims, the album aged better than its predecessor. Though Tha Carter II was widely acclaimed upon release, few of its records survived the era. Carter II's lead single "Fireman" was a diminished redux of 2004's "Go DJ." Meanwhile, the pop-R&B Robin Thicke collaboration "Shooter," a swaggering experiment in pushing Wayne into unfamiliar territory, failed to sell Wayne on his own terms. By the time he released the R&B smash "Lollipop" three years later, it felt like a much more natural extension of Wayne's gradual build toward the pop charts. "And just think, I'm one sell-out record from being famous," Wayne raps on Like Father, Like Son's pseudo-slow jam "Don't Die."
Yet Like Father, Like Son aged well because it understood Wayne's strengths, and at that time, his biggest strength was his ability to embody its clichés, and to express them in fresh ways. For knowing fans of street rap, these tropes—the Mafioso interludes, choruses about gangsters getting chubby and moving to Miami, the mastery of violence, and the conspicuous consumption—aren't drags on the art, which need to be escaped. Instead, they're a common vocabulary; an assertion that the artist understands the rules of the game. It's not a great rapper's job to reject these clichés, but to energize them—to render them more fully, in deeper shades and greater commitment than the competition. And so he did, in over 18 tracks. This sort of achievement may not play well with critical acclaim, and it isn’t easy to push in a publicity campaign. But it's great for long-term replay-ability.
This also came down to Wayne's collaborators. Producer T-Mix—responsible for the majority of the album's production—was a longtime Southern hit maker who crafted the bulk of the classic releases from respected Memphis label Suave House. Like Father, Like Son may be his most well known record today. Although he'd been producing for years, the record's sound was thoroughly modern; heavy-hitting drums, guitars, and organs mixed in a way to maximize impact. Birdman, meanwhile, proved to be a perfect foil for Wayne, whose burgeoning reputation as a “great rapper" now had a straight man to bounce off of. He could let his fantastical bars fly while remaining anchored to the genre's meat-and-potatoes constraints. Even more unconventional, ballad-esque records like "Don't Die" and "Leather So Soft" have a core of pure, classical songwriting with low-stakes experimentalism, which suggest a low-pressure context.
Any discussion of Like Father, Like Son requires recollection of the photo that leaked on the internet just days before its release. Wayne and Birdman's kiss was an infamous moment; an early viral photograph that framed the duo's relationship in a provocative, undeniably creepy way. ("Damn right I kissed my daddy!" Wayne would later confirm on the "We Takin’ Over" remix.) This was a fundamentally strange union. A rapper, who first appeared on wax at age 12 under the auspices of the businessman 13 years his senior, was now referring to his boss as his "daddy." In the label's refusal to clarify the nature of this provocation (Was it meaningless trolling? A genuinely predatory relationship? Both?), Wayne and Birdman had created, at the very least, a level of viral mystique.
Today, "he's not family" is Wayne's response when asked about his relationship with Birdman. Yet even at the time, Wayne was making it clear he intended to have leverage in negotiations with his mentor and his label, Universal. Both Juvenile and B.G. had left Cash Money, and the label soon found itself in court as the artists struggled to attain autonomy. In 2005, with his profile snowballing, Wayne appeared on stage in New York and announced he would be joining forces with Jay Z's label Roc-A-Fella. By the release of Like Father, Like Son, it seemed negotiations had ended. "I was just shopping my Young Money Entertainment label," he would tell Billboard the next year. "Everybody knows that I love Roc-A-Fella, so I hollered at Jay and he tried to help me work it out. But I'd already made a good relationship with Universal."
After rumors of trouble in paradise, then, Like Father, Like Son may have been as much a reassertion of Cash Money's continuing presence in Wayne's career. It was also a year where he worked on building his fanbase, opening for Chris Brown and Ne-Yo on the former's Up Close and Personal tour. After making a confident claim to the throne in the hip-hop world—though contested, Wayne's "best rapper alive" status had plenty of proponents—he had to put in the legwork to make sure when records like "A Milli" and "Lollipop" dropped, they would reach the broadest possible audience.
The other piece of that strategy came as Lil Wayne replicated 50 Cent's flood-the-market approach. When Like Father, Like Son was released, "Stuntin Like My Daddy" joined Lloyd's "You" and Fat Joe's "Make It Rain" on the pop charts. It was just the beginning, as Wayne spent 2006 and 2007 making moves to become an omnipresent, saturated force on radio and the mixtape circuit, remixing popular rap records when he wasn't releasing them himself. "Every time I turn around, I have a new song on my desk," a Universal employee told Billboard in 2006. "If we cleared all the songs, it'd be Lil Wayne radio."
His crossover run took another two years before peaking climatically with the release of The Carter III in 2008. Widely considered a classic album today, it nonetheless showed some signs of market cynicism and creative overreach—the aggro stomp of "Phone Home" and the rock'n'roll bombast of "Playing With Fire" (removed after a lawsuit from the Rolling Stones) suggested that as he developed songs for larger arenas, the unalloyed rapid-fire cleverness of his earlier work was being stretched out of shape. Of course, these experiments often worked: "A Milli" and "Lollipop" remain quintessential Wayne releases. But the uncompromising consistency of Like Father, Like Son had disappeared, all those base hits sacrificed as he swung for the bleachers.
Today the album is remembered fondly, even if it's seen as a bit slight in his grander catalog. "Stuntin Like My Daddy"—its biggest hit—has aged better than many comparable records from that era, and can light up a club to this day. The album as a whole has become something of a cult classic. In its modest ambitions, its celebration of functionality and craft over form or innovation, it has survived as a snapshot of an artist comfortably at the top of his field, consolidating and plotting a more ambitious future. It’s an anchor in Wayne's catalog, a monument to his relationship with the man who was, for a time, his father. The label made him, but he made the label. Considering the bitter conclusion to that journey, the bold rapping which once signified invincibility now sounds wistful. Happy, even.