Misreading Mr. Carter: How Lil Wayne’s Carter III avoids the anxiety of Jay-Z’s influence

Comparing Lil Wayne to Jay-Z has become the favorite sport of music writers covering Wayne’s new album, Tha Carter III, starting with its leak on May 31 and continuing through the album’s release earlier this week. Some of these comparisons … Continued

Jay-Z and Lil Wayne

Comparing Lil Wayne to Jay-Z has become the favorite sport of music writers covering Wayne’s new album, Tha Carter III, starting with its leak on May 31 and continuing through the album’s release earlier this week. Some of these comparisons are overwhelmingly positive, anointing Weezy as Hova’s presumptive successor at the top of the rap game. Others, notably hip-hop bloggers, have lead the backlash against the New Orleans rapper, arguing that the Carter III, along with the rest of Wayne’s output, falls short of even some of Jay-Z’s middling efforts, and can’t come close to touching Jay’s best albums such as Reasonable Doubt, the Blueprint, and The Black Album.

These comparisons are far from spontaneous or accidental. As far back as 2004’s Tha Carter, Wayne started making it quite clear that he considers himself to be the “Greatest Rapper Alive”, sometimes implicitly inviting the comparison to Jay, and more recently asserting his apparent superiority by dissing Jay-Z in interviews and redoing several of Jay-Z’s songs on his own mixtapes. Moreover, the two have collaborated twice in the past year, with Wayne featured on “Hello Brooklyn” from Jay-Z’s American Gangster album and Jay dropping a verse on CIII‘s second track, appropriately titled “Mr. Carter” (if you don’t understand why, go ahead and click on the first two links above, and come back for the analysis after the jump).

Some of the biggest champions of this power transition have come from critics within the indie rock establishment, namely Pitchfork and Tom Breihan, who blogs for the Village Voice. Its no wonder that Wayne has become the toast of these indie-mainstream publications. Tha Carter III is a red-eyed 2:30 AM Aqua-Teen Hunger Force Marathon; complete with rapid-fire pop culture references, countless appearances of spaceships and aliens, and Wayne’s Meatwad flow. In other words, it is decidedly silly, lowbrow art that you can describe using cool words like “postmodern”, “stream-of-consciousness”, and “dadaist”. In addition, like other Pitchfork-approved rappers such as Clipse and Dipset, Wayne’s dedication to self-releasing mixtape after mixtape resonates with the DIY ethos of seminal independent hardcore labels such as Dischord and current favorites like No Age .

Of course, where there is hipster hype, there is also backlash. Breihan has been hillariously taken to task for being a self-important “wigster” (wigger+hipster) with inadequate respect for hip-hop legends like Jay-Z. Last summer, Doc Zeus, a Bushwick-based blogger, lashed out against the indie-mainstream for unjustly treating mixtapes as if they were albums, and for heralding mixtape-centric artists as the cutting edge of hip hop:

For the first few years of this phenomenon, people who make the taste routinely avoided these mixtapes and quite rightly wrote these glorified car commercials set to a shitty 808 beat off as the horrible, half thought garbage they were. I could live in peace…

Then Tom Breihan and the Pitchfork brigade discovered the Clipse and the We Got It 4 Cheap series and the whole world was turned upside. Suddenly, Cam’ron became a lyrical genius, the South wasn’t ruining hip hop, anymore, and Dwayne Carter became the Best Rapper Alive

The spirit of Zeus’s salvo has infused much of the negative blogger reaction to Tha Carter III; countless blog critics have argued that Lil Wayne’s body of work fails to live up to the “greatest ever” hype because it lacks focus, consistency, and a willingness/ability to self-edit.

Pace these critics, Lil Wayne is an important artist precisely because of the ways that his mixtapes are not like albums; Tha Carter III’s seeming shortcomings vis-a-vis other great rap albums are exactly what makes it great. As Harold Bloom argued for poetry, great rap is neither made by radically breaking with the past nor by slavishly emulating it. Rather, “strong rappers”, those who move the game forward, do so by “misreading” their vaunted predecessors, that is by recycling and reusing their tropes and use of language in such a way that changes the meaning. Put differently, great rap turns on the rhetorical device of metalepsis, which Bloom describes as the “metonymy of a metonymy”; essentially a linguistic and conceptual mash-up, in which new figures of speech are substituted where we expect others to be. Thus, Lil Wayne is not great because his metaphors and similies are tight, but because he mixes these metaphors with an avalanche of tropes and techniques including personification, anti-personification, hyperbole, kenning, punning, and onomatopoeia.

Jay-Z established himself as a great rapper in the same way, building on and reinterpreting the Notorious B.I.G.’s legacy (indeed, it was Jay’s use of this technique that Cam’ron used as ammo during his beef with Jay a few years back). The central metaphor in Jay-Z’s work is the tripartite hustler-rapper-businessman substitution; when Wayne tried to emulate that, he was laughably dismissable. Weezy only started to come into his own when he moved beyond this trope and recognized who he was; an industry kid, who had been in the public eye since he was a teenager. As a result, the entirety of pop culture is his hustle. His effortless mastery of it is what makes him great; by recombining hip-hop tropes with contemporary cultural history, he ensures his place in that history.

To argue about whether Weezy really is a better rapper than Jay-Z or to catalog how CIII is inferior to The Blueprint or Illmatic is to miss the point. Because the strength of Wayne’s body of work culminating in Tha Carter III is built precisely on the way in which it twists hip-hop tropes and conventions, the arsenal of critical tools that the reviewers have at their disposal fall flat. Countless reviewers evaluate Wayne on extent to which he fails to land “punchlines”, yet as Wayne himself says on “La La”, he is “wittier than comedy” because he doesn’t tell jokes… “apparently”. Similarly, Zeus’s criticism of mixtape rappers turns on the combination of the “albums:movies::mixtapes:television” shows analogy with the assumption that the artistic capacity of television is inherently more limited than that of movies. This clearly ignores DVD friendly TV epics such as Arrested Development, Lost, and the Wire, which map out massive conceptual points over the span of 50+hours, something that movies can’t accomplish anymore. Wayne has done the same thing through his bevy of mixtapes, verses, and albums, creating a dense, self-referential web of meanings that transcends the potential of the album format.

If Tha Carter III doesn’t seem like a great rap album, that’s simply because Lil Wayne has changed what it means to be great.

6 Comments on “Misreading Mr. Carter: How Lil Wayne’s Carter III avoids the anxiety of Jay-Z’s influence”

  1. DocZeusX #

    I think you are misinterpting some of the core argument that I was making in my “Mixapes Are Not Albums” manifesto last year. What my basic premise was is that mixtapes and albums are two inherently different artistic mediums like television and movies and thus should not be confused and evaluated on the same playing field. Hence, the television/movie analogy I used. (I also don’t want to give the impression that I think movies are superior to television because I think modern scripted televsion right now pretty much ethers modern American cinema in it’s tracks.)

    Granted, I’m of the opinion that albums are usually inherently superior to mixtapes but that isn’t always the case as Wale’s new mixtape proves which is basically an album in everything but name.

    My main particular beef with the Weezy phenomeon isn’t just that Lil’ Wayne isn’t as traditionally great as the older generation. It’s the lack of acknowledment at best or historical ignorance at worst that Weezy’s fans and critical champions continue to refuse to make about him. Weezy isn’t re-writing the book on modern lyricism here. Weezy’s style is in great historical debt to artists like Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Biz Markie and Kool Keith. I mean ODB was doing the weirdo half-crooning and non-sequitur lyrcism 15 years prior to Weezy’s discovery of it and the fact that nobody seems to be making that connection pisses me off especially considering nobody is going to be placing ODB, Keith, or the Biz in the pantheon of great emcees any time soon. Despite the fact they all have numerous albums better than Weezy does.

    I’ll give credit to Weezy bringing into the mainstream that form of avant garde lyricism but let’s not pretend that Weezy’s work is revolutionary in the slightest. At best, he’s jumping off from a obscure branch of hip hop’s DNA and doing some interesting things with it but in terms of Wayne being a revolutionary artist. He’s not. It’s not original. It’s just obscure.

    Great Post by the way. Thought provoking.


  2. Stokes #

    DoctorZeusX: “no one’s going to be placing [Kool Keith] in the pantheon of great emcees any time soon”

    But dude, the indie-rock crowd *totally did* back in the 90s! If I had five dollars for every hipster I saw wearing homemade Dr. Octagon costumes at a halloween party, I’d have… well, ten dollars. Still, while Keith never exactly cracked the mainstream, he was a pretty big deal with exactly the kind of hipsters that are leading the Lil’ Wayne charge today.

    I guess that really just supports your main argument though. There’s all the more reason for these people to be making the connection between Wayne and Keith.


  3. sheely OTI Staff #


    I think you make a great point about Weezy’s (frequently unacknowledged) debt to MCs like Biz, ODB, and Kool Keith- thinking of “911 is a Joke”, I would also add Flavor Flav to that list. I also agree with you that all of these artists either match or surpass Weezy in terms of skill, inventiveness, and ability to put together (or at least contribute heavily to) great albums.

    But this begs the question of why none of these other artists ever receive consideration as being among the “greatest ever”, while Weezy has been the subject of such debates for the past few years. I think part of this is that most of the rappers on your list were part of a crew in which they, by virtue of their lyrical style and delivery, were designated as the “crazy/funny one”. Even though Biz Markie generally built his rep through solo albums, he was closely linked with Big Daddy Kane and Marley Marl and was more and more pigeon-holed as a novelty act after the success of “Just a Friend”. In addition, a number of these artists (Flav, ODB, and Kool Keith), match their lyrical/vocal style with erratic, off-the-chain on-stage and off-stage personas and behavior that ultimately tend to distract from the music and lead people to write them off as artists in their own right (I think Weezy runs the risk of this as well).

    What is interesting is that Weezy started off in the same role during his time with the Hot Boyz (in addition to bearing the stigma that comes with being a kiddie/teen rapper), but has managed to not only hone his lyrical skills and vocal delivery, but has also been able to reposition himself as a “legitimate MC” and a massive pop superstar at the same time. As I argued in the original post, I think his ability to do all three of these things is what makes him important. His claim to be “The Best Rapper in The World”, long before anyone else considered him to be so was not just empty boasting or even law-of-attraction style wishful thinking. Rather, the move was both conceptual and strategic, rewriting what was possible for an avant garde lyricist with an unconventional voice. Judging by first-week record sales and the sheer number of “A Millie” freestyles out there, this has worked magnificently. I predict that we’re going to be seeing a lot more bizarro lyrics and unhinged, semi-melodic deliveries in the next year or so.

    However, I think it is definitely an open question whether this influence will be a good thing or a bad thing in the long run. I agree with the point that you made in your discussion of Wale’s mixtape that Wayne manages to say very little of great substance in everything that he spits out over the course of CIII’s 70+ minutes. Wale definitely shows potential to surpass Wayne in the ability to combine inventive lyricism and flow with actual content, but I wouldn’t totally count Wayne out; “Georgia Bush” , “Tie My Hands”, and “Dontgetit” all indicate that Weezy is capable of heading in that direction as well. It will be interesting to watch both of them over the next few years to see if each one can push past current limitations to become even better.


  4. Jorge #

    “Still, while Keith never exactly cracked the mainstream, he was a pretty big deal with exactly the kind of hipsters that are leading the Lil’ Wayne charge today.”

    If hipsters were leading the charge on Lil’ Wayne, they might actually have a good reason as to why they like him. The charge is led by teenagers who can’t even think of a reason why he’s good, but since he’s on the radio they think he’s the shit. Miami has been in a Lil Wayne craze for almost 2 years already and it’s getting pretty annoying. You can cycle through stations and listen to only songs with him in them.

    I think he’s innovative, but he has terrible flow, and his over-use of metaphors gets pretty repetitive pretty quick.

    Hopefully “hipster rap” (which needs a new name) can eclipse him and start to show people some good music. And I’m not sure about everywhere else, but in Miami this isn’t looking good


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