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.