Sometimes your biggest album isn’t your best album. Sometimes your worst album, improbably, becomes your most influential. It happened to Kanye, whose 808s & Heartbreak, while beloved by a vocal minority, is rarely considered his best. Now, unexpectedly, it’s happening to Lil Wayne.
Innovation is ugly. It’s often a winding road trip through a misguided wasteland of artistic ambitions gone awry. In the middle of this road is Lil Wayne’s 2009 reinvention, Rebirth. Lil Wayne’s best album is Tha Carter II, his biggest is Tha Carter III, and his creative peaks are Da Drought 3 or Dedication 2, depending on the day and time. Rebirth stands as Wayne’s worst project, but his maligned rock album is increasingly looking ahead of its time, and just might be Weezy’s most impactful project, if you look at the generation currently following in his footsteps.
Rappers are rock stars who don’t need to make rock albums. That pursuit is, with few exceptions, a horrible idea. Within the menagerie of terrible are only shards of transcendence. “Numb/Encore” is a certified banger; N.E.R.D.’s “Jump” with Good Charlotte’s Joel and Benji Madden is grossly underrated in Pharrell’s discography; The Beastie Boys’ blueprint for meshing the worlds of punk, crate digging, and marketing hip-hop to a largely white audience is still being referenced today. Then there is Rebirth.
Auto-tune was always the new ax, and Wayne was its Eric Clapton. Rebirth’s greatest misstep was Weezy’s misguided belief that he needed guitars to enter rock canon. Lil Wayne was always the world’s biggest rockstar, but he didn’t realize it when he sold the world on “Lollipop.”
Rebirth criticisms center around arguments like, “instead of rapping we get gurgled Auto-Tune chirps and squeals that often nullify his one-in-a-billion elastic croak." This argument, from Pitchfork and countless other outlets, now seem outdated in a world where Travis Scott is hoarsely screaming “Goosebumps” fifteen times a night. “Goosebumps” itself is Rebirth-esque in its delivery, but thankfully not in execution. “Gurgled Auto-Tune chirps” is now the foundation upon which commercial rap is been built upon.
It was always unfair to worship Wayne the best rapper alive and crucify Wayne the rockstar in the same breath. Weezy F. turned rock into a novelty 8 years before H&M could. Colored locks, vintage tees, singing off key, and emo cliches are now par the course for modern hip-hop. Almost a decade removed from Rebirth’s release, the most exciting young artists in hip-hop—Lil Uzi Vert, Travis Scott, Lil Yachty, Migos—are indebted to Wayne’s genre-transcending obsessions and drive to make a rock opus.
Somewhere between music blogs trying to sell us on The Knux and “SoundCloud rap” reigning supreme, hip-hop collectively decided that the most punk thing a rapper could do was avoid the trappings of modern rock. This is why a song like “XO TOUR Llif3” works in 2017, but wouldn’t have in 2009. Lil Uzi Vert took all of the best things I remember about the emo boom from high school and made a song about death and loneliness that functions on festival stages and in clubs. “XO Tour Llif3” is number 8 on the Hot Billboard 100, and that is partially indebted to the mistakes of Uzi’s spiritual predecessor, Wayne. “XO Tour Llif3” is “I Feel Like Dying” for a new generation.
Wayne’s influence doesn’t stop with Uzi. Travis Scott is getting arrested for “inciting riots” at his shows, which notoriously function more like eternal mosh pits than the typical rap show of just a few years ago. Migos’ “What the Price” video takes all of the aesthetic cues of being a rockstar—studded leather jackets, pyrotechnics, a keytar solo—without committing to any of the musical trappings of the genre. The corniness of Lil Yachty’s ‘80s-infused prom ode “Bring It Back” is accepted without much eye-batting. Rebirth single “Prom Queen,” on the other hand, was mercilessly (and rightfully) ridiculed.
In the intervening years since Rebirth, rap’s melodies have gotten better, robotic vocal effects have become the texture of the time, and our understanding of how rock n’ roll both musically and culturally fits into the hip-hop tapestry has become more precise. None of this would be possible if Wayne at the height of his power didn’t hit his Pink Floydian wall headfirst.
Rebirth is a profoundly flawed and distinctly ambitious album. It is nowhere near hip-hop’s first foray into rock n’ roll. Just last week, Just Blaze reminded us on Twitter that Lil Uzi isn’t the first or biggest rapper to have mined rock for inspiration. However, Lil Wayne remains the most high-profile pivot, a reigning number one giving up his chosen medium for sloppily played guitars. In a 2009 Billboard article Wayne explained his reasoning:
When I said I was doing a rock album, it was about doing a freedom thing. This album isn’t hip-hop. When I do my “Carter” albums, I know I’ve got to rap...There’s none of those limits on this album. I say what I want, how I want. That’s what this album is: a freedom album. And rock is the avenue that gives you that freedom.
Eight years ago, the classifications of hip-hop and what was expected of its stars was far more rigid. To Wayne, Rebirth represented creative freedom. As fans, we boxed in the “Best Rapper Alive” harder the more he tried to rebel—in part because his rebellion simply didn’t sound all that good. In that same interview Wayne lists the rock acts he was working with—Weezer, Kid Rock, Fall Out Boy, Gym Class Heroes, and Green Day—and the blame isn’t squarely on us. Rebirth wasn’t rap-rock as much as it was Lil Wayne trying to sincerely make a rock record. His ambitions and love of Blink-182 and Limp Bizkit, though, outstripped his talents (and, arguably, his taste) at the time.
Still, Rebirth aged better than it had any right too. “On Fire” is a Scarface-sampling moment of genius that would’ve been championed if it had been released in Tha Carter series. “Prom Queen” sounds better now than it did then—faint praise, I know—and the realization upon rewatching its video that Wayne made a blacker “Dance, Dance” is something I missed in high school. “Drop the World” was never exceptional, but looking at his catalog now it’s clearly far from the worst Lil Wayne single we’ve been force fed. It’s an album of Wayne working through and with his creative impulses. Coming from one of the most relentlessly creative artists hip-hop ever created, it remains an interesting artifact from Wayne’s career, if an obvious misstep.
For Lil Wayne, “Best Rapper Alive” was true, but also a misnomer. Wayne was more than a rapper, rockstar, alien, or whatever the “F” in Weezy F stood for that week. Lil Wayne, for a short and exhilarating moment, was the best artist alive. Wayne never got the rebirth he wanted. Instead it’s a reincarnation, and it’s currently playing out on the radio right in front of us.