Dating back to his tenure as a “Hot Boy,” Dwayne Carter went from Cash Money’s resident prodigy in 1996 to claiming to be the “Best Rapper Alive” within a dizzying ten-year period. From there, he resuscitated the genre at a time where many believed it to be DOA and even dramatized those life-preserving maneuvers on “Dr. Carter.” Undeterred, even as his own label seemed hellbent on derailing him. Closing in on his 25th year in the game, Tunechi aims to deliver a new project album Funeral this February. And if a September 2019 interview with Vibe is to be believed, he’s approaching the art form he’s long since perfected with a renewed zeal.
“It’s different now,” he explained. “I can’t wait to get in the studio now every night, just to see what I can come up with. [Before] it was just me going to the studio and saying, let me kill ten more songs and then I’m going to go home or do whatever I was doing. Now, it’s let me see what I come up with. Self-discovery, rebirth – call it whatever you want to call it but it feels awesome, I swear to God.” Creating with a clear-cut sense of purpose, Weezy F’s unwavering focus adds fuel to speculation over whether or not this album could serve as the perfect opportunity for the NOLA veteran’s fond farewell.
It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that Funeral has a symbolic meaning based on the title alone. But when you take both the stop-start nature of his past five years and the contradictory reports of impending retirement, it becomes not only a plausible but a potentially wise course of action. For Weezy, retirement is a subject on which he’s voiced some strong, albeit oxymoronic, feelings. Beginning a decade deep into his career, Wayne attempted to reconcile with the concept of eventually riding off into the sunset during a skit on 2006’s Dedication 2. In that era, he believed little would be gained from quitting when he’s always going to need a vehicle to express himself. “You retire out when you die out straight up, cause you never retire out what you do,” he explained. “Meaning, if you put so much into– if what you do is your life, like mine. You know what I mean like, my career is my life.”
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Incapable of fathoming a world without hip-hop, this stands at odds with a 2011 interview with GQ in which he formally flipped the hourglass towards his 35th year.“I have been doing this for eighteen years,” he reflects. “That’s reason number one. I have accomplished all that I have set out to accomplish and more. Also, I have a label, and I’ve only put out two artists [Drake and Nicki Minaj]. I have a lot more work to do, and it’d be selfish to not focus on being the boss and focus on their projects.” Supplemented by wishing to spend more time with his kids, Weezy would double down on these sweeping claims during an appearance on Katie Couric’s talk show, claiming that “I know I’ll be ready to retire at thirty-five because I am so ready to retire now!”
As the prospect of The Carter V began to circulate in 2014, Wayne believed that the album, in its original incarnation, would represent his last standalone project (though he’d still pitch in when required by his labelmates). Pledging to “leave gracefully” on Twitter in 2016 amid the ensuing war with Cash Money, the constraints he was under made it possible that would Wayne end his career on an embittered note. Actively attacking his label, the eventual release of C5 was cathartic for both artist and his loyal fans. As such, the elation that he felt might have contributed to Weezy rescinding those previous remarks to Billboard in 2018, as he claimed, “I do think about retirement. I think about how I don’t think I ever will.”
Granted a new wave of enthusiasm at 37, it raises the question of whether his thoughts of bowing out were a by-product of the internal friction with Birdman. Now, he’s back to the heady days of “mixtape Wayne” where metaphors and exquisite wordplay rolled off the tongue at high volume. But no matter who you are, the law of diminishing returns is important to be mindful of. Among the elite-level wordsmiths that operate without pen or pad since he purged everything he’d written on “10,000 Bars”, Weezy’s skills have remained indisputable. Dropping 77 songs and two projects in 2018 alone, Wayne has always kept his nose to the grindstone and how this sets him apart is something he’s been cognizant of since The Carter 3. “I used to tell Cortez [Bryant, manager], ‘my work ethic is going to sell me,'” he told Rolling Stone in 2009. “Nobody ain’t doing what I’ve done. People will have to recognize that.”
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This has remained true to this day. Compounded by years of anticipation, The Carter V skyrocketed to the top of the charts upon arrival, racking up first-week sales of 480,000. Yet artistically, the record wasn’t without its sticking points. Which, aside from its oppressive length, centralized around the feeling that both he and audience had been there and done that. Save for a few moments of self-reflection on “Famous” or “Let It All Work Out” and the plaintive narration from his mother Jacinda, C5 is overrun with punchlines or puerile bars that fall on the wrong side of familiarity. Trapped between a rock and a hard place, it seems that the forthcoming Funeral will be a fork in the road for Wayne’s career. Either he sticks to his guns and potentially teeters towards stagnancy, or he overhauls his style and potentially faces the wrath of critics and fans.
Infamously slaughtered for his attempt at reinvention on the rock-indebted Rebirth, any fretfulness he’d feel about switching up would be understandable. But that doesn’t make it any less of a necessity. As he’s proved at irregular intervals of his career, Weezy heading into a more demure, less youthfully brazen direction a la latter-day Jay-Z, could yield greatness. Case in point, his verse on Solange’s “Mad” from 2016’s A Seat At The Table. Not only rappelling him into the view of snobbier audiences that had likely expelled him from consideration years earlier, but the introspective look at his previous attempt at suicide also demonstrated an aptitude for soul-baring lyricism:
“Are you mad ’cause the judge ain’t give me more time?
And when I attempted suicide, I didn’t die
I remember how mad I was on that day
Man, you gotta let it go before it get up in the way”
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Similar to the Hurricane Katrina-inspired “Tie My Hands,” his feature on Nas & Damien Marley’s “My Generation Will Make The Change” or the touching ode to his father that is “Everything” from 2000’s Lights Out, Wayne has always been capable of appealing to the heart. Yet beyond emulating the change in tact that his own GOAT pick pulled off on 4:44, Weezy should perhaps consider a line uttered during Hov’s own retirement phase: “they say they never really miss you till you’re dead or you gone, so on that note I’m leaving after this song.”
These lines from The Black Album’s “December 4th” allude to something that’s been inapplicable to Weezy’s career. Between mixtapes, EPs, compilation projects, a collaborative album, his own solo studio album discography and his time with The Hot Boys, Dwayne Carter has released a grand total of 41 bodies of work. As a result, Wayne has been an omnipresence and aside from 1998 and 2001, has released something every single year that he’s been an artist. Therefore, there’s every chance that these prolific levels of productivity haven’t given us a chance to properly digest the scope of his influence.
Alongside 2 Chainz’ remarks that he wouldn’t be here “if it wasn’t for Wayne,” 2013 saw ASAP Rocky rally against what he saw as a culture of negligence towards Tunechi’s contributions. “Are we forgetting that Wayne made everybody switch their flow up and start using the E’s and R’s, and “I’m ir-regul-ar, seg-ular”? he told Complex. “Are we forgetting that Wayne changed hip-hop, too? Are we forgetting that he made all these motherfuckers want to have tattoos? Are we forgetting that? It wasn’t Wiz, it was Wayne… This is a guy who went from being the youngest underdog in his crew to saving his company, and saving his “Daddy.” I’m not a fucking Lil Wayne dickrider, I’m just speaking facts.”
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Although Wayne has retained this status as a top-tier MC, there is something to Rocky’s suggestion that his tangible impact on the game has been overlooked on account of his continued presence. Consequently, this state of affairs takes us all the way back to his comments on Dedication 2. Ever the deep thinker, Wayne unknowingly foretold his own future on the skit and made the case as to why Funeral could be an appropriate time for him to call it a career: “Y’all gonna remember that that was a rapper. But hopefully, I’ll go down known for something different. Not different, but known for something else also, you know what I mean.”
Both gifted and afflicted with one of hip-hop’s greatest drives, Wayne’s influence— whether that be style or the careers of Young Money artists—often falls to the wayside as the hip-hop consumer focuses on what’s coming down the pipeline from “The Martian” himself. And by the looks of things, this can’t be righted while he’s still an active participant. With the world’s collective attention still in the palm of his hand, there’s a lot to be said for Funeral acting as Wayne’s offramp to the same high road that The Game and Fat Joe have recently claimed to be travelling on. Having given us more music than many record labels have ever produced, Lil Wayne deciding to draw a line under his career while at the top may be bittersweet, but no one would feel short-changed.