Hours before Lil Wayne dropped his thirteenth studio album, Funeral, his in-depth interview with Drink Champs debuted on TIDAL. Among the insights that came from the rare two-hour conversation was the revelation that Wayne has no idea what’s happening in rap music right now.

Wayne admitted that he once confused 21 Savage for a group, didn’t immediately recognize what either TDE or Quality Control Music were, and had no idea that Kanye West has been traveling the world for the past year doing religious Sunday Service sessions. Doubling down on past comments that the only rap music he listens to is his own work, Wayne also explained that he’s still so busy recording new music that he doesn’t have time to keep up with everything else that’s happening in the genre.

Now that we’ve had a few days to digest Funeral (read our first impressions here), it’s time to discuss: Is Lil Wayne’s habit of closing himself off from the rest of the rap world impacting his own music? Is his new material better or worse because of this? Should we even care that he’s not keeping up with the daily happenings of Kanye West, 21 Savage, and Quality Control Music?

After arguing about this topic in the office this week, Complex Music writers Jessica McKinney and Eric Skelton sat down for a back-and-forth debate. See our thoughts below.

Should he be paying more attention?

Jessica: Wayne has always branded himself as an other-worldly Martian in terms of his talent, but his disconnection from rap’s current landscape, although comical, is a little worrisome. Sure, there’s merit in not listening to other artists. NLE Choppa recently told Complex that he stopped listening to his peers after he caught himself accidentally mimicking their flows. But to be so out of touch that you are unaware of anything going on—whether that be knowing who a prominent artist is or just basic news—seems a little absurd. Lil Wayne doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone at this point, but this begs the question, how does an aging artist continue their career in today’s musical climate without being at least a little informed?

Eric: I loved that Wayne was so honest about living in his own world. There’s nothing worse than an aging star who pretends to be in touch with what’s cool, and obsessively pays attention to everything being said about them online. We’ve witnessed this recently with artists like Eminem, who got in a beef with a rapper 18 years younger than him (Machine Gun Kelly) and keeps making angry music in response to his critics. So it was refreshing to hear Wayne be forthright about the fact that he’s been so busy in the studio (and obsessively watching World War II footage on the History Channel, like any respectable 37-year-old should) to keep track of every new trend in rap.

In theory, at least, I like this. In 2020, I’m not coming to Wayne for his take on drill music, or any other current rap trend. I don’t even necessarily need to hear collaborations with the genre’s shiniest new stars (although, I’ll admit, I’d be interested in hearing how his sound would mesh with someone like DaBaby). Now that he’s free of his label issues, I just want to hear him get in the studio and black out over whatever beats catch his ear in the moment. Even when he was younger, I always got the sense Wayne existed in his own universe, more concerned with setting stylistic trends than following them. Some rappers center their careers around being topical and in-trend, but like you said, Wayne has always been somewhat of a Martian. I think this strategy could work for him.

Did this make Funeral better or worse?

Eric: Some songs on Funeral benefit from a feeling that Wayne wakes up every morning, blocks out the rest of the world, gets in the studio, and doubles down on making entirely self-referential music. Hearing him rap all over Mannie Fresh production on “Piano Trap,” where he admits he “ain't been on Earth in a while,” is exactly what I want from Wayne in 2020. It’s also fun to hear him rap on wildcard electronic beats like “Mama Mia” and link up with longtime collaborators like 2 Chainz on “Know You Know.” On songs like these, Wayne’s reclusive ways work for him and he proves he can still rap better than most.

The problem is, it seems Wayne does attempt to fit in with current trends on other songs. Before Funeral dropped, he told New Orleans radio station Q93.3 that he had a new desire “to put out music that sounds a little more like today’s music.” But, since he’s admittedly disconnected to modern music, he explained to Entertainment Weekly that Young Money president Mack Maine helped choose the guest artists and beats that ended up on Funeral. “Mack’s ear is to the world,” he said. “Mine isn’t. Mine is to myself and my music, my world. And so Mack knows what everyone is listening to and likes, so he comes and listens to these songs because he’s the one who will let me know like ‘They gon’ love this, they gon’ love that.’”

So, unfortunately, we ended up with a somewhat bloated tracklist that includes some head-scratching guest features (Adam Levine, XXXTentacion, Lil Twist), a few bland hooks, and occasional beats that don’t complement Wayne’s natural style. If Wayne was truly operating in his own universe, not paying attention to current music, and not taking advice from others about how to fit in with modern sounds, maybe we’d end up with a great 12-song project full of standout songs like “Mahogany,” “Piano Trap,” and “Darkside.” Or, if he was genuinely excited by rap’s new trends, we’d get a fresh take on old Wayne. Instead, by leaning on Mack Maine for advice on how to fit in with new sounds, we get something in the middle and Funeral falls flat at times.

Jessica: Like you said earlier, hardcore Wayne fans don’t want to hear his attempt at drill music or see him trying to win news fans with new gimmicks, but Funeral might have been better if he had come back down to Earth. It would be unfair to say that Wayne didn’t get anything right on this album, though. I agree that songs like “Mama Mia” and “Mahogany” show glimpses of his genius. Mannie Fresh’s production is precise and his bars are aggressive and sharp, which is all reminiscent of mixtape Weezy. But there are clear misses like “Trust Nobody” and zany beats from up-and-coming producers. Maybe we can blame Mack Maine for this, since he was in charge of connecting Wayne’s music to today’s sound. But the truth is, Wayne is no rookie, and he shouldn’t have to rely on someone else to make a cohesive album 12 years after Tha Carter III. And if Wayne had been more aware of what’s going on and taken creative control, it probably would have been reflected in the music. Funeral would have sounded better overall.

How does he compare to other rappers entering middle age?

Jessica: It feels a little weird for us to compare Lil Wayne to other veteran rappers who are still active. While he has been rapping for decades, Tunechi isn’t technically in the same age bracket as other vets like JAY-Z or Eminem. JAY is 50 and Eminem is 47, while Lil Wayne is 37. But birthdates aside, we still look at him as a seasoned rapper, because Birdman signed him to Cash Money at the age of 13. But in comparison to other vets, in regards to having an ear on the pulse, Wayne is in last place. Hov, perhaps, is the best example of a middle-aged rapper who understands the new generation of rap. It’s very clear that Jay is aware of younger artists and what’s popular, but he doesn’t let it inform his music. His thirteenth studio album, 4:44 sounds relevant, yet it also reflects his maturity, with lyrics about his life away from his upbringing in Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects and investing in fine art. Eminem also seems in tune with what is happening around him, although he’s arguably too aware. On his latest album, Music to Be Murdered By, he appears to care a lot about what people think of him, and this insecurity results in some cringe-y bars. And then there’s Lil Wayne. I hate to say it, but Wayne sounds older than both artists and he’s at least 10 years younger than them. They say rap is a young person’s game. And there is, of course, still room for middle-aged rappers, but they have to know how to play along. It doesn’t look like Wayne understands how to do that.

Eric: You’re right about JAY-Z’s career being the best roadmap that rappers have to follow when it comes to aging gracefully in rap. But before releasing 4:44, even JAY stumbled with Magna Carta Holy Grail. All of the greats have tripped up at some point as they’ve approached middle age. Most recently, we watched Kanye go through self-imposed challenges on his last couple projects, and, as you mentioned, Eminem has struggled through his own issues as of late. Comparatively, Wayne is doing well. I disagree that he sounds 10 years older than JAY and Eminem. Aesthetically, he has the advantage of sounding similar to all these new artists who grew up idolizing him (think Young Thug, Lil Uzi Vert, Gunna, and many SoundCloud rappers). And throughout Funeral, I thought he was rapping with a surprising amount of energy. Did you hear “Mama Mia”?! His last two albums aren’t among the very best of his career, but they do have some standout moments that prove he’s still a very good rapper. Most importantly, when it comes to this discussion at least, he avoids any cringe-y “How do you do, fellow kids?” attempts at keeping up with rap’s youngest stars. Aging gracefully in rap is a challenging task, but I think Wayne is doing fine.

Is this helping or hurting his legacy?

Eric: Outside of a few stray tweets about Wayne being “out of touch” following the Drink Champs interview, the revelation that he has no idea what’s happening in current rap doesn’t hurt his legacy. If anything, it only makes him more endearing. I’d much rather watch Wayne admit that he thought 21 Savage was a group than hear him make music designed to blow up on TikTok and see him breathlessly tweet opinions about new rappers like Lil Nas X. The music that’s coming from this era—Tha Carter V and Funeral included—isn’t his life’s greatest work, but it also doesn’t detract from his legacy. It’s clear Wayne is still having a lot of fun making music every day, and there’s an audience for it. I don’t think this mentality dramatically impacts his legacy either positively or negatively. 

Jessica: Lil Wayne will always be mentioned in the rap GOAT conversation. Many will say he walked so rappers like Young Thug could run. And they could be right, but I disagree with the idea that his ignorance won’t ultimately tarnish his legacy. We can look past future interviews that make statements similar to those about TDE and 21 Savage, but what we won’t be able to overlook is that same cluelessness in his music. When you look at projects like No Ceilings or the Dedication series, you can hear a more relevant and connected Wayne. He was not only rapping at a top-tier level, he was using anecdotes and metaphors that were very much a reflection of that period. That’s what you want to hear from Wayne, and unfortunately, Funeral doesn’t meet that standard, because of him being out of touch. Should he continue to allow Mack Maine to be his ear to the streets while he retreats into his own world, it won’t necessarily take away from the great work he’s already done, but it will definitely put a timer on how much longer he has in the game.