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Lil Wayne rose to stardom calling himself “the best rapper alive.” Since then, he’s inspired a whole generation of rappers who refer to him as “the GOAT.”
One of those artists is Roddy Ricch, who recently tweeted, “I peep game from the greatest to ever do this shit” after the two collaborated on “Stunnaman” last week. That same night, Wayne was also featured on “Gang Gang,” the lead single from Polo G’s upcoming album, Hall of Fame. The Chicago rapper made a point to commend Wayne on release night, saying, “It’s crazy because I take the approach I do in this shit because of him. Going from trying to study the lyrics to actually being on a song [with him]. Crazy.”
A large portion of today’s biggest stars cite Wayne’s late-’00s rise as one of the biggest memories of their formative years. His wordplay-heavy style and Auto-Tuned crooning became the model for a generation, and songs like “Lollipop” and “I Feel Like Dying” played a heavy part in shaping modern rap and pop music.
In 2021, Wayne’s skills are still sharp enough that he can go toe to toe with artists who weren’t even alive when he first stepped to the mic on B.G.’z’ True Story in 1995 (as Baby D). Despite being around for what feels like eons, Wayne is only 38, which is close to the age of some rappers who just achieved stardom. Some 35+ rappers don’t sound up to date on tracks with new artists, but Wayne always sounds in tune with the modern sound—probably because he helped birth it.
Wayne’s career has already touched four decades, with everyone from 46-year-old Juvenile to 34-year-old Drake to 29-year-old Young Thug to 22-year-old Roddy calling him the best, and he’s still going strong. Jay-Z recently shouted out his own “unprecedented run” on “Sorry Not Sorry,” and true to their artistic rivalry, Wayne is right on his heels.
There was a time in hip-hop when legends were admired from afar, lauded at awards shows for their impact, but not quite part of the contemporary mainstream rap conversation. But now we can hear the chronology of rap every time Wayne collaborates with a new-school superstar.
We’ve seen that dynamic over the years whenever a new artist hops on a record with Jay-Z, Nas, or Snoop Dogg. And to be fair, there are many other prolific middle-aged artists still consistently bombin’ from the ’90s, like Busta Rhymes, Black Thought, Fat Joe, E-40, Ghostface Killah, Method Man, Raekwon, Scarface, Masta Ace, and more. But it’s a different optic with Wayne. Melody-heavy, genre-bending artists run mainstream rap now. Wayne, more than any veteran act this side of Kanye, is the reason for that.
Wayne’s run right now is like if Michael Jordan actually had access to his secret stuff from Space Jam, and could have gone toe to toe with prime Kobe, talking trash about who’s fadeaway was sharper.
Kendrick Lamar has called Wayne “the greatest,” and also encouraged him amid retirement talk by recalling, “I seen you… 200… 2008… I see you knock out 10 motherfucking features in a row… back to back.” On Kendrick’s 2008 C4 mixtape, he ripped through countless beats from Wayne’s arguable opus. Drake has gushed about Wayne being “too good,” and repeatedly shows his Young Money boss deference, even as one of the world’s biggest music stars in his own right. Chief Keef has cited Wayne as an influence multiple times, saying he inspired him to stop writing rhymes (and motivated the title of his 2017 Dedication 6 mixtape). Lil Uzi Vert says he “wanted to be Lil Wayne” as a kid. Young Thug has called him his “idol.” The list goes on and on.
Now, his relevance is continuing on into the 2020s via features with those same artists he helped mold. “Gang Gang” starts out with a braggadocious verse from Polo G, whose slinky delivery swoops through producer Angelo Ferrara’s spacy synths. Wayne follows up with a feverish verse that would make one think this was his single. First, he darts through singular words, then unleashes a torrent of assonance with rhymes like, “I hid fettuccine from the federales / I’m like Rick Pitino or John Calipari / I’m leadin’ my team, yeah, right to the finals.” He also recites Polo G’s hook to the tee, rhyming “block hot like I’m Wayne”—as if he’s not Wayne. Odd humility aside, that’s the “mixtape Weezy” we love to hear.
On “Stunnaman,” Wayne matches Roddy Ricch’s lithe, catchy verse with his own vocal theatrics, including the witticism, “Lit like the light at the end of the tunnel man / But the light just might be a train comin’ man.” These two tracks followed up Nicki Minaj’s “Seeing Green” from a week before, where Wayne led off the YMCMB reunion with an excellent verse that included the bar, “I put you 6 feet deep, I’m bein’ socially distant.” He went with a different stylistic approach on all three verses, hanging with four of the biggest rappers out right now. Nicki even admitted Wayne and Drake “washed her” on the Beam Me Up Scotty bonus track.
It’s not the first time Wayne stood out on a song. Or maybe even the 100th. There’s a sect of rap fans who feel like his fixation on braggadocio and rhymes about women isn’t all that impressive, and they’ve never rated him high as a result. Others feel like he hasn’t grown as a rhymer, perhaps even devolving with the absence of tracks like “Georgia Bush.” That’s fine. But the beauty of Wayne is that he’s been consistently great with a creative approach that gets to the heart of what rhyming is all about: free associative rhymes that show off your wit, technical penmanship, and ability to ride the beat. He bunches quotables into never-ending, intricate rhyme patterns—and he was blessed with the kind of elastic voice that can fit just about any kind of pocket.
Few of Wayne’s peers from the early-to-mid 2000s rhyme with the consistent quality that he still does in 2021. He’s been a cipher killer for over 15 years—ever since he stopped writing rhymes, revamped his style, and went on his mixtape run. And even when contractual woes knocked him off his commercial pedestal and locked him out of his own kingdom, his work on mixtapes like No Ceilings 2, Dedication 6 (and the Reloaded edition) demonstrate that he never lost it lyrically.
Now that he’s retained his artistic freedom, Wayne is proving his form is still intact alongside the biggest artists in the game. There might be a lot more to come, too. He’s also apparently working on Carter VI and his HollyGrove 2 project with 2 Chainz right now.
Despite how many artists view him as an icon, it doesn’t feel like as many fans quite hold him in the same esteem that they do Jay-Z. There are several reasons. First off, some of his comments have been too disrespectful for many of the people who once supported him. It’s completely understandable that some people have tuned him out for past colorist raps, dismissive comments about Black Lives Matter, and his photo op with former President Trump right before the 2020 election. Everyone has their line, and Wayne has crossed many.
Part of Jay’s godfather-like impact, on the other hand, is based on his outside-the-booth endeavors: his marriage to the biggest music star in the world, the way he helps out fellow artists in need, and his status as a beacon for Black capitalism (for better or worse). Today’s crop of young stars know no other Jay-Z than the 40+ rap mogul who carries himself like an OG while building a family. He rapped with Biggie, and they probably remember older family members being Roc-A-Fella stans. But young artists grew with Wayne, watching his evolution from burgeoning star to megastar to icon.
There’s also the perception that Jay-Z has matured through his music, whereas Wayne has more or less delivered the same winning formula for years. And of course, Jay’s scarcity helps. While Wayne is in the field taking on all comers as a veritable peer, Jay sits on Mt. Olympus, only publicly acknowledging artists who reach a certain commercial and cultural pedestal. That reclusiveness allows his releases and features to feel like events, where everyone gets a chance to gather and riff on his continued excellence. A Jay feature feels like an accomplishment in itself for a young artist, whereas Wayne is so active that his prolonged output can get taken for granted by fans.
Those disparate creative approaches aren’t necessarily good or bad on either artist’s part, but it explains why they’re perceived differently. Younger artists speak on Jay-Z as the model for “bossin’ up” once they reach a certain plateau of rap stardom, whereas Wayne is the artist they emulate to even become stars in the first place, right down to the tatted faces, colorful locs, and rockstar-chic fashion that he helped popularize.
Anyone who genuinely loves rap should acknowledge what Wayne is doing right now, even if it’s begrudgingly, or purely “objectively.” His run right now is like if Michael Jordan actually had access to his secret stuff from Space Jam, and could have gone toe to toe with prime Kobe, talking trash about who’s fadeaway was sharper. Art allows legends to work alongside contemporaries, and we’ve seen it all throughout hip-hop over the past decade. But it’s never been more apparent with Wayne, who most of today’s stars actually regard as their “GOAT.”