For close to a decade, fans have been anticipating an album from Lil Wayne and T-Pain. Throne-like in its ambitious pairing, unrivaled in its pop potential, and as time went on, tragic in its absence. The long-rumored, often-promised joint album between Wayne and Pain lived on in our hearts and minds—and, as in turns out, in our Limewire caches. The self-titled T-Wayne record, which Pain himself released for free (and described as a hard drive dump) late last week, is comprised largely of songs that have been floating around in various forms on message boards and peer-to-peer networks for years. But arranged in order and presented by one of the artists, T-Wayne serves as an important document for each man’s career, and should reframe ever so slightly how we see each of their peak periods.

Three nights ago I saw Lil Wayne, exuberant and half-clothed, run through a forty-five minute collage of songs from his reign as the Best Rapper Alive. “Lollipop” and “A Milli” and “Mr. Carter”; the bombast of “I’m Me” and the post-Katrina defiance of “Ride 4 My Niggas.” He spoke warmly about his appreciation for the crowd and showed his pride at coining “bling bling” (on “Bling Bling”), but the setlist didn’t make it back to Chopper City in the Ghetto. In fact, the oldest song he cued up was “Go DJ,” and he only revisited Tha Carter II long enough to get to “I love it, I fucking love it/I’m a self-made millionaire, fuck the public,” on “Money on My Mind.” 

This was at a lavish club that’s situated on a hotel roof in the middle of the Las Vegas strip. Wayne had been chauffeured over from the Billboard Awards, which were held at the T-Mobile Arena about a mile to the south, and where Wayne’s one-time protégé took home something like 22 trophies. (Wayne was nominated once, for a novelty rock song on the Suicide Squad soundtrack. He lost to Twenty One Pilots). He toted a styrofoam cup on stage, but it seemed to be for appearance’s sake: Wayne was about as lucid and sober as one could be while rapping next to people who paid $20,000 to sit in leather booths.

It was, on the whole, a great set; when “Mrs. Officer” came on, a waitress grabbed me by the shoulders and shrieked. The only high-profile song that didn’t go off the way Wayne seemed to expect was “Got Money,” the T-Pain collaboration from Tha Carter III. That one’s always been a bit of a puzzler. For a single by two of the most visible, and most beloved artists of their era—depending on how you feel about Graduation, they might be the two most influential as well—”Got Money” tends to land with a thud today. It’s no “Can’t Believe It.” It was given prominent billing on Wayne’s massive Tha Carter III, and it eventually hit the Top 10 on Billboard (there were no Billboard Awards in 2008). But only the most nervous, data-obsessed executive would consider putting it on a best-of compilation for either artist. 

Wayne’s career is marked by clear stylistic periods. Sometimes the breaks are clear through changes in production: when Mannie Fresh split from Cash Money, it pushed Wayne fully into the outside world he’d been exploring on the the Sqad Up tapes, and Tha Carter II, with its latticework of different musical styles, brought out more sides of Wayne than had been visible on his past LPs. How many rappers could execute “Hustler Muzik” and “Mo Fire” so convincingly? 

If you woke up out of a 20-year coma and were told that this was an unearthed record from the best rapper of the 2000's, you might nod in agreement and politely ask where you could hear more of this T-Pain fellow.

The period beginning in 2006 and culminating with Tha Carter III, in June 2008, has been documented exhaustively by myself and othersTha Carter III was supposed to be the final, irrefutable evidence of this for the Target-shopping masses, but wasn’t. There are extraordinary moments, to be sure (“A Milli,” “Let the Beat Build,” and so on), but it comes in as Wayne’s fifth- or sixth-best record of Bush’s second term. It also wasn’t clearly moored to a six-month window the way most of his peak-period work was; if you forced me to guess, I’d say it was cobbled together from sessions that started as early as the beginning of 2007. It was grand by design, but as a creative work, it often feels minor. What’s more disappointing: it doesn’t give us a clear signpost in Wayne’s progression, which had otherwise been widely traceable. 

And that’s where T-Wayne comes in. By the time C3 came out in the summer of ‘08, Wayne had mostly moved on from the serrated raps that had often been his trademark and onto the sort of warbling, Auto-tuned melodies you got on “Lollipop.” (The genesis of this style, or at least its best early iteration, was “Prostitute Flange,” one of Wayne’s greatest and most confounding songs.) Maybe he was bored with rap, or felt he’d given it everything he had in the tank for that moment—reasonable, considering how prolific he’d been since the turn of the century.

Unfortunately, there was no full-length project, or even circulated fan compilation, that properly showcased this period. The relatively minor Dedication 3, from December ‘08, flirts with the idea, but the Auto-tune occupies comfortably less than 50 percent of the tape, and none of those songs stuck. By the time Wayne came back for a proper victory lap the following year, with No Ceilings, he was more or less back to rapping as he had in ‘07, except with less HGH.

In other words, there was never a project like T-Wayne, where the proceedings are anchored by Wayne’s crooning on “Damn Damn Damn” and where T-Pain has nearly all of the tape’s rough-edged rapping. From the latter artist, on the intro “He Rap He Sang”: “Just think of me as the R&B version of Wayne/But since he doing the same thing now, it’s no difference.” So T-Wayne isn’t the grip of wall-to-wall hits from a generation’s best rapper and its most prolific hitmaker. But it’s something that’s fascinating in its own right, a creative diversion for each. 

Where T-Wayne gives us a fuller view of Wayne’s artistic progression, it’s really a triumph for T-Pain. No one was a more reliable pop force in the second half of the 2000s. But during his run, he found himself the butt of jokes about Auto-tune, a scarecrow for those who considered themselves defenders of real music to point to and pontificate.

That all changed when the Tallahassee native emerged from the wilderness for a concert in NPR’s Tiny Desk series (which was genuinely stunning, but the jokes about T-Pain needing NPR for critical justice write themselves). T-Pain was writing, producing, and even engineering some of the country’s weirdest and most beloved singles when he was barely old enough to drink; the slack-jawed surprise that he could sing in an unplugged setting would have been funny if it wasn’t so cynical. 

T-Wayne opens with that furious verse from Pain, on “He Rap He Sang,” where the electronic buzz is swapped for the scratch of vocal fry and green room whiskey. Then there’s his ecstatic tube top snapping on “Listen to Me,” or his hammering turn on “Breathe,” where he raps “I go ham on Mariah Carey-looking hoes.” “Heavy Chevy,” the tape’s closer and best song, hears him rattle off rapid-fire syllables about why he’ll never sell a ‘72 Chevelle. If you woke up out of a 20-year coma and were told that this was an unearthed record from the best rapper of the 2000s, you might nod in agreement and politely ask where you could hear more of this T-Pain fellow. 

There are times, of course, when Pain lapses back into his signature style. The aforementioned “Damn Damn Damn” can and should make it into radio rotation and, uh, less public settings. “Snap Ya Fingers” is the meanest, slickest R&B I’ve heard so far this year. And “Waist of a Wasp,” with its soaring hook, is the sort of song you could throw on at any present-day house party, Wayne’s tangent about storing nudes on his Sidekick and all.

The truth is that there was no stash of unearthed T-Wayne songs after all. As mentioned earlier, at least six of these could have been found in some form or another by enterprising completists. That doesn’t make T-Wayne any less fun (it’s really fucking fun) or any less of a crucial window into each artist’s work and career trajectory. And the gems belong in the canon: “Heavy Chevy” is the clearest look at what could have been, complete with Tha Bizness’s producer tag and confirmation that the album, if it were completed, would have been called He Rap, He Sang. The conceit of the song is that Pain is teaching Wayne, who moved to Miami from New Orleans after Katrina, about Florida’s classic car culture. It’s wildly funny and totally unhinged; Wayne, who’s supposed to parrot back to T-Pain what he’s learned, raps about wearing fan belts on his waist and forgets the name of “Lollipop.”

It’s far and away his best verse on the tape, but when he finishes, he says “I’ma switch to T-Wayne and take it back.” Then, fully draped in Auto-tune, he sings:

I said a long, long time agoI can still remember
How the music used to make me smile
And I knew if I had my chance, I could make the people dance
And maybe they’d be happy for a while.”