Tuesday, July 7, 2015

album review: 'free weezy album' by lil wayne

It's hard to talk in today's hip-hop scene about Lil Wayne. His fans think he's the greatest rapper alive, a pioneer of creative rapping techniques and wordplay that managed to accrue mainstream hits through pure explosive technique, disgustingly catchy hooks, and unquestioned bravado. Others see Lil Wayne as a charismatic rapper but lacking in technical skill and prone to bad fits of hyperbole and the occasional atrocious line that is impossible to ignore. Still others see him as a toxic presence who brought lean, Autotune, rapping words with themselves, hashtag rap, and the absolute abortions that are Rebirth and I Am Not A Human Being II to the table and little else, massively overrated by an obsessive fanbase and responsible for enabling the laziness of him and large chunks of his Young Money crew. And all three groups will inevitably argue with each other in the comments of this video and will take issue with what I say regardless of whether it's positive or negative.

See, here's the thing: they're all right to some extent, at least at specific stages of his career. When Lil Wayne started making some critical impact with Tha Carter, he was a hungry MC who had a solid flow, a ton of swagger, and a lot of creative and mainstream-accessible wordplay. And that continued into both Tha Carter II and Tha Carter III, which were both genuinely great album that I really dug. And then Rebirth happened and while the record was a commercial failure and critically savaged - for good reason - it didn't immediately ruin Lil Wayne's reputation - he was still pumping out mixtapes at a frankly ridiculous pace. But then I Am Not A Human Being was underwhelming and Tha Carter IV didn't live up to its name and I Am Not A Human Being II was absolute shit, and popular buzz was that if Lil Wayne hadn't fallen off completely into a pit of his own reckless hedonism soaked in laziness, lean and increasingly asinine sexual references, he was nowhere near his best anymore.

So I will admit to being surprised when the feud between Lil Wayne and Birdman erupted near the end of 2014, with Wayne accusing his former mentor of blocking releases - which baffled me, considering Lil Wayne has long had enough free rope to hang himself multiple times over. The ultimate result was a well-publicized split with Cash Money and Lil Wayne signing with Jay-Z's TIDAL - which to me felt like a bad idea, especially considering a Wayne endorsement might not be enough to save TIDAL from being the money-pit disaster that it is. But on a bigger level, Jay-Z also does not deal well with stupid or incompetence, and unless Wayne can stay sober and producing quality - which given his
track record is still up in the air - I see this backfiring. But putting all that aside, we now have Free Weezy Album - how does the newly liberated Lil Wayne sound?

Well, I'll give Lil Wayne this: this is probably the most focused and driven Lil Wayne has sounded in years, at least since probably Tha Carter III. Now let's make this clear, it's not on the level of his best work - Free Weezy Album is still wildly uneven, features more autotune and outright asinine lyrics than any self-respecting rapper should include, and definitely makes some questionable decisions in production and guest verses... but this is actually decent, which is a lot more than I can say about the majority of Lil Wayne projects over the past seven years, and I'll give credit where it's deserved.

So let's start with Lil Wayne himself - and look, at this point you're on the bandwagon or you're not. Wayne's hoarse cackle has always been expressive and charismatic - it's got personality and when he sounds engaged and hungry, he can ride a variety of flows well with real intensity. What I've never liked is the usage of autotune, and that unfortunately hasn't gone away - it makes Wayne's half-asleep delivery at its slowest even less appealing, because if he doesn't care about his hedonism, why the hell should I? Sure, on tracks like 'I Feel Good' and especially 'Pull Up', he's spitting with real intensity and passion, but on tracks like 'Living Right', he sounds half-asleep. It doesn't often help matters that his guest stars rarely step with the same intensity, with the sheer laziness of Wiz Khalifa and how forgettable Cappo was on 'Murda'. Thankfully, most of the other rappers that show up acquit themselves decently - Jeezy handles a pretty standard cocaine hustling verse on 'White Girl', 'Hoodybaby' is the sole saving grace of 'I'm That N****', and Cory Gunz proves how underutilized he is again on 'Murda' with some real intensity. Hell, even though I thought Euro was outclassed on 'Pull Up', he did have a few punchlines I liked and his transitions were smooth - and besides, Lil Wayne was actually on his a-game there and it worked well. I'll give Lil Wayne this, he's got more consistently solid flows on this record than he's had in a long time, and though you get your fair share of bad rhymes and sloppy presentation, he's more on point and energetic than he's been in a long time.

Granted, the question then comes what Lil Wayne is trying to say with his newfound freedom... and honestly, not a lot. Yeah, you get fragments of good ideas: I liked the exuberance of 'Glory' and 'I Feel Good', I liked the death metaphors worked through 'He's Dead', and I liked that he showed some focus on 'Without You', a song where he's trying to work through the complicated emotions that come with getting over an ex. What becomes a problem is that whenever we get close to introspection about where Lil Wayne can take his career, or questions of his legacy - the latter established fairly early as a running theme that occasionally gets revisited - the tracks drop back into Lil Wayne's comfort zone about blowing his rivals away, hustling drugs, drinking lean, and unbridled hedonism. And I'm not sure if this is a lack of focus or just Lil Wayne just not having more to say, but's it's disappointing where you have songs like 'My Heart Races On' or 'Thinking About You' that could have hit a fair bit harder if he had just stayed on topic. But fine, are his songs about hustling or luxury rap at least interesting? Well, here's the thing: I'll definitely say Lil Wayne has solid flows on this album, and he's still got enough imagination to string together interesting bars, but for every good line on a track he'll pair it with yet another comparison of himself to shit for a cheap poop joke or a bad pun like that Ariana Grande line on 'London Roads' or yet more flossing that feels increasingly interchangeable without any storytelling or arc to these tracks. And that's not counting the points where I'm just left shaking my head asking why: was it necessary, Wayne, to use racial slurs against Asians on 'Thinking About You', or saying you 'break bitches down to pebbles' on 'Murda'. Or all of 'Psycho', where I'd like to say he's following Eminem's formula for a pseudo-horrorcore track stalking this girl - especially with that production which reminds me a lot of recent Eminem in the past five years - but then pairs it with lines like 'psychos need love too' and you realize that many of his sex references that are treated as gross on this song are played straight elsewhere on this album.

So what saves this album? Honestly, some of it is the production. Sure, there are chunks of this album that fall very much into recycled and tedious trap beats that don't have the depth or potency of better material, especially on the back half of this album, but Lil Wayne is at least smart enough to pick some beats with a quicker tempo and more energy and colour. I liked the symphonic swell of 'Glory', the Star Trek sample that's paired with the ragged guitar and punchy beat of that picks up some horns thanks to a sample of As Animals on 'He's Dead', the creaking pianos and horns on 'My Heart Races On' that oddly reminds me of the chord progression of 'Lean On Me' by Bill Withers, the wall of smoky, bass-heavy production on 'London Roads' that reminded me a lot of A$AP Rocky in a good way, the spacey synths on 'Thinking About You', and the faded pianos and real drums on 'Without You' that actually sounded really good. Hell, there's even some trap production I dug, like the bass-heavy operatic darkness of 'Murda' with a pretty propulsive groove or the grimy simmer of 'White Girl'. And then there's 'I Feel Good' - and yeah, a lot of my liking for this song comes from the obvious James Brown sample, but it adds a wild exuberance to the track I really did appreciate. Of course, when the production does go off the rails, it gets really rough, like that pitch-shifted oscillation of 'I'm That N****' or that moaning sample that anchors the melody of the otherwise pretty solid beat on 'Post Bail Ballin' or the completely empty 'Living Right'.

So to bring this all together... when this album has energy and intensity and Lil Wayne is on topic, I see the sparks of why I liked him in the first place. And yes, he is writing sharper material than arguably his last four albums... but on some level, it's not all that exciting or interesting, and it's certainly not better than his material in his heyday. This is Lil Wayne's eleventh album, and what made him stand out from the crowd was his creativity - and I only see fragments of that here. Sure, Lil Wayne might have his freedom from Cash Money and Birdman - and it's bizarre how often he doesn't take shots at him - but it seems like even he's at a loss on what he's going to talk about, and he's revisited his defaults so often than even he seems to be running out of ideas. That said, I'm giving this album a very light 6/10 and a recommendation, especially if you're a Lil Wayne fan and are hoping for a return to form, but seriously temper your expectations. He might be free, but he's got a ways to go before he gets back on top.

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