How Lil Wayne Remixed the Mixtape

Abe Beame takes an extensive look at the work that entered the New Orleans rap superstar into the "best rapper alive" conversation.
By    June 30, 2020

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Recently, there was a mini-holiday over the anniversary of a mixtape. Middle-Aged Rap Twitter spends much of its time celebrating random birthdays of obscure albums, then arguing over whether said album is overrated or underrated. But this one was rare in that everyone could agree that it was a classic: Lil Wayne’s Dedication 2. The general consensus was that it was the high water mark of Wayne’s unprecedented mixtape period — perhaps next to Da Drought 3, The Suffix or for me, The Drought is Over 2 — an incredibly influential and prolific moment in the history of hip hop. One that hasn’t been discussed enough with a macro lens.

Much of Wayne’s obvious influence has faded from what passes for the 2020 mainstream. The most melody-forward young Southern artists make cathartic misery rap operas that bear little evidence of Wayne’s brilliant, eccentric, and syrup-drowned DNA. But we still can feel his guiding presence further afield. In Atlanta, it’s with oddballs like Migos. In New York, it’s  scratched into the grain of the extravagantly strange boasts and references that fill mixtape-era throwbacks like Westside Gunn’s recent Pray for Paris (Paul Thompson with the fucking headshot: “The style is often misread as revivalism; it is not exactly that. It’s more like 1990s New York rap refitted by postmodernists, unmoored from time or linearity.”)  Then there’s the way we consume music, the way young artists release music, the quickening news cycle and our expectations when it comes to high volume quality content from our favorite rappers. For this, both the good and the bad, we have Wayne to thank.

This isn’t just a story about how Wayne changed the medium of the mixtape. It’s about how he found a style through mixtapes, spent nearly a decade tinkering with its standards and praxis, and came out the other side with his own spin, one that reimagined what “mixtape rap” is and what it can be. Specifically, something that sold a million physical copies at a time, post file sharing, when rap albums were no longer doing those numbers, and made a global impact on what kind of rap can be pop.

“Mixtape Rap” is a style that predates mixtapes themselves, but I will broadly date as originating sometime circa Long Live the Kane in 1988. I’m sure there’s some MC Shan affiliate who broke through several months earlier with a Juice Crew feature, or you could make an argument for some early KRS deep album cut or something, and we’re all very proud you have the reference cued up and I’ll be equally furious when you take this post and flip it into a book proposal, so have a coke and a smile. Kane had his own influences, notably Rakim, but his debut was the grand articulation of a new vision. On that album, we get the blueprint for how New York rap will sound for the next 10-15 years: furious, caffeinated, multi-syllabic rhyme schemes oriented around clever punchlines.

Beyond albums, the two dominant forms of circulating, recorded rap music would become mixtapes and radio freestyles (which would often end up on mixtapes). These forums aren’t conducive to concept songs, story-telling, or profound messages. On the previous iteration of the mixtape, your 1.5-3 minutes would be crammed in between 20 other rappers. A radio station could only afford a few minutes of mic time for a young artist any given hour, if that rapper was very lucky. With a proper mixtape style 16-bar verse, an artist could establish a voice, get in the pocket, make you laugh, make you think, and get out. 

But first, mixtapes had to evolve. Rap’s earliest mixtapes go back to the late 70s-early 80s, when cassettes first gained popularity. Radio DJs like Red Alert or club DJs like Brucie B would distribute their taped sets at a time when the notion of a station playing nothing but rap was absurd and hip hop itself was difficult to locate on a radio dial, let alone a television station. In the 90s, mixtapes began to evolve. DJs like Ron G excelled with blend tapes, mixes that would mashup beats with other songs (and inspire a young Puff Daddy’s entire production style) as well as DJs like Houston’s Screw, who created an entire new genre by fucking with the speed and cohesion of the songs on his tapes.

The modern era for mixtapes begins in the mid-90s, with a more curatorial focus. DJs like Mister Cee began populating their tapes with unreleased tracks, remixes, and underground rarities. This led DJs like Clue and Kay Slay to a logical conclusion: create your own content. Rather than culling album tracks or remixes, these DJs would commission the most popular rappers of the moment over some of that moment’s most recognizable beats specifically for their productions. It was a practice that had started on the radio, with shows like Stretch & Bobbito, who would have their guests rap over whatever instrumentals were hanging around their radio station basement. They were also generally distributed on CDs. And, at least when I was a kid, in my small corner of the world, they were sold exclusively in barbershops. But the style was pervasive and had a serious cultural impact on hip hop. It had gotten to the point where in the late 90s, you’d hear a great beat and immediately start generating a wish list of rappers you’d want to hear go over it on the next Whoo Kid. 

The snake really started eating its tail when mixtape and radio DJs like Clue and Funk Flex began releasing major label albums that operated exactly like mixtapes. Clue even had a label, featuring one particular rapper who seemed to have been generated in a laboratory to rap in 16 bar bursts. 

Let’s jump out for a moment to take the temperature of where mixtape rap was at around the turn of the century, with Fabolous’ exemplary verse here over Beanie Sigel’s “Coming For You” instrumental: “I keep the fiends noddin in the street/and chicks between my lap look like they nodding to the beat/My team be in a stretch on skinnys/and we been down for taking other people’s property before Treach and Vinny.” With his milk chocolate waterfall vocals flowing in the pocket, it just sounds fucking great. Immaculate breath control, seamless transitions, all swag, Fab is evolutionary T Mac to Kane’s Bernard King. 

The punchlines are wildly complex. In the span of a bar, he’s using the same physical descriptor to tell us he sells heroin and gets top in a way a lay person may have to go back and puzzle. Then he makes what was an at-the-time funny throwback reference to Naughty by Nature, misappropriating their anthem to tell us he’ll rob anyone. It’s next-level intricate writing made to sound and feel effortlessly cool. This was essentially the formula: clever punchlines treating the English language like a slang Rubix Cube with timely references.

Around this exact same time, 50 Cent, a major label outcast with no way to get a proper release of his major label debut, decided to seize the means of production and started a mixtape revolution. He made artist-driven mixtapes featuring himself, Lloyd Banks, a New York mixtape-style assassin who was far more technically gifted, and Tony Yayo, their Jim Jones-lite funny asshole. What 50 brought to the table was personality, and incredible, formal songwriting. As such, their approach wasn’t revolutionary just because they turned mixtapes into their own spotlight street releases. 

The types of songs they made on these tapes also broke with agreed upon conventions. 50 was smart enough to utilize his skill set, and rather than release tracks that were simple instrumentals featuring punchline laden G-Unit verses, he made entire functional parody songs, subverting their original meanings, and often improving on the source material. In these respects, he brilliantly positioned himself as an industry outsider, throwing firecrackers from the balcony and laughing at the chaos below. He rode this formula to a bidding war and one of the best selling major label debuts of all time — forever changing the way we think about mixtapes. 

This brings us to Wayne. By the early 2000s, the Cash Money empire was starting to sputter. There were still moments ahead, but the Hot Boys split in 2001, and the key pieces began moving in different directions. When he released 500 Degreez, Wayne was 20 years old, no longer a novelty, and this particular release was bloated and uninspired. I have had my differences with editorial at this site over whether or not Wayne’s early solo Cash Money period was fruitful. There are a few great singles for sure, but a majority of it sounds more like “Bloodline” (posted above). It’s important to consider his maturation, but it’s a bunch of pat mixtape rap set ups with none of the payoffs — a poor imitation. It’s a borderline unlistenable slur of generic braggadocio no one in their right mind would buy from the five and a half foot child star over awful production. [Ed. Note: huh?]

The one line that stood out on a re-listen comes on the hook. In a song about having the streets “in him,” Wayne says he, “bleeds concrete”. This is the kind of strange but inspired imagery and imagination that will power his creative peak, along with a delivery that is rambling, almost proudly, defiantly woozy and conversational, out of pocket before firing off little double time couplets at random. It is a hectic and improvised delivery that he will master and weaponize. 

The same year as 500 Degreez, Wayne began his Sqad Up mixtape series. In fact, he released the first four editions of the seven part series in 2002. The first track of the first mixtape, SQ1, is a freestyle over Cam’ron’s hit from that year, “Oh Boy”. It was also the same year that Cam would drop the first three Dipset mixtapes. This is relevant because in relation to his rise to critical and popular prominence, Wayne’s connection to Cam and Dipset became his most meaningful artistic relationship.

On his “Oh Boy” freestyle, his rapping is rambling and largely incoherent, but you start to get a sense for what Wayne cares about. He’s not doing a 50 impression, or even flipping pop songs as the Diplomats would often do on their tapes. He’s rapping over instrumentals, the hook largely an afterthought. Wayne clearly exhibits a naked desire to be accepted by the New York gatekeepers on his “Oops” freestyle, aping Andre’s infamous announcement at the 1995 Source Awards, and calling out the New York mixtape titans Clue, Kay Slay and Funkmaster Flex directly. It explains much of what will shape Wayne’s mixtape work over the next several years, as well as his album output: a desire for old guard critical New York acceptance. This can be explained not just through his music, but the attraction to mixtapes, which at the time had been understood as the most direct route to critical acceptance and love in a hip hop market that was still being dominated, perhaps for the last time, by New York City.

Cameron Giles had taken a similarly circuitous route to his style. His debut, Confessions in Fire, is a snapshot of New York rap in the late ‘90s, but also shows where he is headed. It’s narrative-driven, but in his horror-core flourishes and his punchline wizardry, he shows the clear influence of his one time Harlem mentor, Children of the Corn group member, and arguably, the greatest New York mixtape rapper of all time, the late Big L. By this point, Cam had largely outgrown L’s influence, or at least edited it. The lines were clever, to be sure, but the architecture that he and his young protege Juelz Santana used to construct their verses was staggering. 

Consider the first verse of “Maria Maria”, a graphic and wildly misogynist reimagining of the Santana and Rob Thomas hit from that year. In the back and forth of the first verse between Juelz and Cam, there are literally two rhyming sounds being waterboarded. It’s hypnotic, brain-melting repetition. This was the Dipset house style, their early contribution. Not in content, but form. Cam was a cubist in a world full of impressionists. His treatment of rhyming sounds is what would happen if there were no ref in an Octagon match to stop a dominant fighter from beating his opponent’s head into the shape of a kidney bean. It was brilliant, often bizarre, and it was happening in plain sight, with little acknowledgement, as Cam rose to his career apex on Roc-A-Fella, and the Diplomats became household names.

In the meantime, Wayne was tinkering with his sound in New Orleans, never taking his eye off New York. Tha Carter was a creative breakthrough. The album is named after the apartment complex in Harlem that had been converted into a mega crack house in the 1991 film New Jack City (and obviously Wayne’s last name). This concept plays throughout the album with musical interludes as Wayne tour guides over the same beat at the beginning, middle and end. It’s a loose concept to be sure, much of the rest of the album is drug rap that often gets lumped in with the Southern drug rap resurgence powered by the Clipse, T.I., Jeezy and Ross, among others during this era. But clearly, Wayne was aiming for Reasonable Doubt over Lord Willin’. Particularly on these interludes, he’s doing something akin to what Jay did with the “Hova Song” intros and outros on 1999’s edition of the In My Lifetime series. And on these tracks, he’s searching for something closer to a New York, Goinesian, painterly crime novel mythology rather than Pusha and Jeezy’s manic obsession with lived-in authenticity.

Tha Carter would start a middle period for Wayne in which he would follow the Hollywood actor’s ethos of “One for them, two for me”, with the one being his relatively safe major label albums and his real exploration and experimentation happening on his mixtapes. But you can see one project nourishing the other. While much of Tha Carter is “safe”, and conventional for its moment, the rapping is wildly inspired. Pay attention to the dramatic shifts in cadence on the album’s interlude verses. It’s the type of hyper volatility that rappers like Young Thug would later build brands on — these tiny brilliant melodic digressions that keep you on your toes, even as the content is filtered drug and guns rap in standard three verse structures.

The fact that Wayne’s mixtape work outshone his album work wasn’t novel. New York is littered with phenomenal mixtape rappers who never quite figured out how to convert what made them so fun and brilliant on tapes into LPs. Jadakiss and Fab come immediately to mind, but there were many others. And Wayne had the same issues. The mixtapes were increasingly exhilarating and the albums, with the rap increasing in quality, were largely rote, boring affairs that sound like what a label believes would sell units. Wayne would soon change rap by erasing this delineating line between the album and the tape.

The nadir of Wayne’s New York obsession comes in 2004-2005. In short order, he releases The Prefix, which is literally just him rapping over Jay-Z’s fake farewell, The Black Album, performing Jay-Z karaoke and reaching for his double entendre laden hood truism profundity. Then there’s Tha Carter II. C2 is Wayne’s first album without the recently departed Mannie Fresh. In his stead are Florida’s The Runners, Suave House legend T-Mix, and The Heatmakerz, then amidst their run as the Diplomats’ go-to purveyors of chipmunk soul. There are scattered songs and bars aplenty on the album but it lacks the freak flag assuredness that is forthcoming.

In one of Wayne’s biggest singles off the album, “Hustler Musik”, Benny Boom films him in New York, recreating a series of Biggie Smalls glossies. The song itself is fur-lined bubble coat shit I’ve come to think of as, “Shopping for his and her Js on Fulton mall between October and December in the aughts” music — coming from a guy who has never experienced true winter for any length of time, and sounds like it.  

But a month after Tha Carter II drops, Wayne releases The Suffix, followed a month later by the first Dedication. Things begin to shift. For some, this Rap City freestyle was a come to Jesus moment. It’s immediately apparent he’s incredibly comfortable and confident in his skin (Sadly, with a styrofoam cup fused to his hand. A trademark during this period). He’s like Mike Mussina, adjusting grip, speed and delivery by the bar, this is a man who has put in his ten thousand. There are two aspects to concentrate on: The writing and the performance, but really there’s only one, because Wayne’s breakthrough is their inextricable link. 

During one stretch, he references a then current beef with Willie da Kidd, dismissing him as “Willie da Squid”, which makes no sense. As far as I know, calling someone squid isn’t an insult. But when I think about it, it’s an insult, and there’s at least three people in my life I’d describe as squids, and if I called them that, they’d be confused, then offended, then would laugh. Wayne follows this with an incredible vocal effect when he says “L-l-lilypad rappers, l-l-look at the monster man.” which he delivers with the effect of an Atari avatar dying. A squid is not a frog, but he’s simultaneously referencing that previous bar, the entire aquatic motif that preceded these bars, and the game “Frogger”, and you totally understand, and are delighted with how he got there, and how he showed his work. 

He also laughs several times throughout the verse at deliberate points. Something I think about a lot is how the laughter is utilized. How it is staged and obviously performative, but conveys real joy and actually serves functional purpose in the verse as a timing mechanism and a rhyming sound. In doing this, Wayne is essentially transforming a standard mixtape style Rap City Basement verse into a performance piece. He’s taking the notion of East Coast, writerly cleverness in metaphor and reference and hucking it out the window with great force. Suddenly, a well written mixtape rap punchline is a work of convoluted grace. Of deranged, mad brilliance. He’s taking all the signifiers of intelligence and wit and turning them on their head in a pomo sense that is laughing at the smirking, joyless bars that Fabolous, Lloyd Banks and Jadakiss had been serving up faithfully, to great applause, for years.

This period was when the link between Wayne and the Diplomats was at an all-time high. “Suck It or Not”, off Cam’ron’s Killa Season, drops in 2005. Wayne’s collaboration with Juelz on Mick Boogie’s Blow mixtape drops in 2006. We can see both men have achieved a kind of fusion on the anthem. Cam is doing his same full sentence rhyme schemes, but has more or less left conventional use of the english language in his rearview, forcing random words to rhyme through mispronunciation like wedging together random puzzle pieces that only kind of fit, graphically laying out intercourse in mere suggestion and employing onomatopoeia, but it all holds together in a way that mostly any American in their 20s in 2005 could comprehend. 

Wayne is similarly off his rocker, using a series of dumb/brilliant punchlines referring to blowjobs that reference everything from The Wizard of Oz to State Property. The whacked out Harlem/NOLA mind meld is complete. Syrup has become Wayne’s muse and guide, what LSD did for Lennon or heroin for Cobain. The fun, and the challenge, is following Wayne on these drugged out digressions, trying to trace his chaotic footsteps. 

Of the author David Foster Wallace, writer David Lipsky once said he, “Offers his alive self.…… Writers who can do this, like Salinger and Fitzgerald, forge an unbreakable bond with readers. You didn’t slip into the books looking for a story, information, but for a particular experience, the sensation, for a certain number of pages, of being David Foster Wallace.” And this was the appeal of Wayne. To listen to him, isn’t quite to know or understand him, but to be shot inside a tram zipping around his neural pathways. To be a detective trying to get to the bottom of a byzantine plot, or more accurately, a cat trying to unpaw a tangle of yarn. 

In the following year, Wayne would drop Dedication 2, followed by the overstuffed masterpiece, Da Drought 3 in 2007, and the unofficial The Drought is Over 2, which were from The Carter 3 sessions. In Dedication 2, as well as Drought 3, we see his fully articulated approach to the mixtape. He’s no longer delicately curating classic East Coast production to appeal to Pitchfork writers. He’s going over Mike Jones, Field Mob, Rich Boy and Ciara, but also Nas and Jay and Cam. It’s beat roulette. The songs are largely riffs. There are often hooks, but they are largely functional, nothing approaching proper songs and really, just serving as placeholders between his deranged verses. In this, Wayne is combining the old and new approach to the mixtape, more or less eschewing the composed song format G-Unit innovated, but making something resembling songs on an artist driven mixtape album that is really about verse, in the same way old DJ Clue tapes were. 

Between 2006-2008 Wayne was on an incredible 41 credited features, 102 mixtape tracks (Including skits, the Blow project with Juelz, and Da Drought is Over 2 Carter sessions), and the 16 track C3. G-Unit and The Diplomats had begun releasing music at this clip in the early part of the decade, but they were both collectives, and they didn’t approach the combined quality and quantity of what Wayne was releasing. This was a time when you would still wait on 14-track Jay-Z albums for years at a time, with a carefully considered feature here or there, if you were lucky. Musical greatness was something that was considered a product of patience, blood, sweat, brutal cutting room floor sessions, and eventually, a tight, hand-picked album. I can’t stress this enough to younger readers: that one rapper was producing this much music that was essential to his catalogue, and the culture, with such regularity and volume, was paradigm-shifting and mind boggling.

It all culminated with Tha Carter 3. Finally released in June 2008, three years after the last installment. According to Wayne, Kanye wanted to produce the entire album, but he refused. While it’s fun to imagine what that album might’ve sounded like, it would’ve largely defeated the purpose of what the album represented. There is no thematic thread, except for chaos, which actually becomes its connective tissue. It’s the realization of all Wayne’s mixtape dickering that takes every tool he sharpened and employs it with max efficiency. There’s no lack of scattered and unfocused albums littering the dollar bins of rap history, but this isn’t that. This is a masterpiece that is intentionally scattered. Wayne basically mixtapifies the major studio release. 

Consider the album’s second single, “A Milli”. The song is three overwhelmingly, coke drip verses barely tethered to a *hook?*, (“Motherfucker I’m ill”) which sounds like little more than a pause to take a breath in the midst of a one take assault. This “song” is a gunshot, a Phife Dawg snippet screwed and repeated till it ceases to retain the qualities of the English language. The video is Wayne walking from his trailer to a shoot for another video (including a bathroom break). And this fits the song as well as the album. “A Milli” is a standard song you heard throughout the 90s on New York rap albums. The lyrical showcase, the deep cut for true heads. You’d never hear it in the club, but you’d likely read it in “Hip Hop Quotables.” These songs often practiced in mixtape rap, they lived for the sport of set up-punchline, as does this song. But here, Wayne is Tony Clifton, he’s Mr. Show. He’s simultaneously using, and rejecting the form to provoke, astound and refresh.

Wayne made this a top 10 Hot 100 single that has sold over 2 million copies and God knows how many subsequent streams. And this album, if you’d like to call it that, this culmination of all of Wayne’s mixtape labor, this weird, fucked up thing, went platinum in a week. The song, like the video, like the album, is a peek under the hood of Wayne’s process. Wayne left no barrier left between the audience and the artist in his music. Even if it’s not true, during this period with Wayne, you got the impression there would never be a Lost Tapes because he simply gave us everything. And it was all brilliant. 

By 2008, rap was enchanted by Wayne’s insanity. All of rap, whether it be a coke rap, materialist rap, skateboard rap, East Coast, West Coast, Southern, Kanye West, etc. opened itself up to how bizarre, specific and far afield it could go in its metaphor and reference. His stream of conscious house of mirrors was practically the sound of lyricism, particularly with his most obvious heir apparent, Gucci Mane, who took all Wayne’s excess and injected it in the heart with adrenaline. Gucci also took Wayne’s penchant for bulk releasing and upped the stakes, most notably with his 2009 Cold War triple mixtape series, released over the course of one day. Gucci, even at his monstrous peak, didn’t have Wayne’s consistency from song to song, but you could forgive this because there was so much more. Which was the point, and became the mantra of the following decade. 

“Mixtape” as we once understood it has since essentially become a non-existent term. When Drake drops a collection of songs he doesn’t have the courage to classify as an album, it’s a mixtape. The very idea of a DJ Clue-style mixtape compilation has essentially become extinct. It’s become gym space for artists to work out their sounds. On the other hand, occasionally you end up with mixtapes that are basically albums, and rival any major release. More than a few artists have one tape in their catalogue that their fans consider their definitive classic. In 2020, you wouldn’t bat an eye at a rapper who drops three mixtapes in the span of a year. At the end of the year, after, let’s be generous and say a three-month, fourth quarter lag, you might look back and think to yourself, “Where the fuck has she been?”

Wayne created this expectation of manic production, and likely forever shortened the apex runs of our great rappers. The need to keep your name buzzing in the ether turned what should’ve been dynasties by the next decade of superstars into 6 month-2 year peaks of dominance, often followed by a burnt out regression to the mean. 

We see this most clearly from Wayne himself in Adam Bhala Lough’s great documentary The Carter, which follows Wayne the week Tha Carter III drops, primarily in Amsterdam but then back on American soil for the Rebirth recording sessions. It’s a week that would consecrate Wayne’s work and cement his legacy. It’s also a supremely fucked up movie. Wayne is at the tail end of five years of incredible productivity and drug abuse, more or less a husk of himself, playing the drums, strumming the guitar and singing off-key as he prepares the album that will signal the definitive end of his own incredible peak. 

One of Wayne’s moments of genius lucidity in the film is a rant he goes on about the nature and importance of process, of hard work, and how intrinsic it is to success. He says, with delivery that borders on verse, “Repetition is the father of learning……. Intelligence, all that, comes from repetition. Awareness, preparation, all that comes from repetition.” Using this junkyard dog work ethic, Wayne took an approach to rap, and a style to rapping that was foreign to him, but he was intrigued by. He fully absorbed it, and regenerated it as something original. A style, and an approach, that changed mixtape rap, and the mixtape itself, forever.

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