Though psychologically damaging and probably not all that reformative, prison isn’t a bad career move for a rapper. It feeds the hype machine, can help with street cred (which does still matter, even in this Officer Rick Ross era), and preps everybody for a big, got-through-it-all comeback.
See: Gucci Mane, at least until time in jail outweighed time spent in the recording studio. Also, T.I. on “I’m Back,” but less so on No Mercy, the rapper’s triumphant return that never was because dude got busted for smoking weed in broad daylight and went right back to jail (No Mercy was originally titled King Uncaged). Okay, so doing time is good for rappers who can stay on the straight and narrow once they get out, and make some good songs. It doesn’t work if people don’t give a shit about you, and that’s why Shyne has been out of luck since his release in 2009.
But people really give a shit about Lil Wayne. That’s why even his disastrous butt-rock experiment Rebirth went gold, and why I Am Not A Human Being, a decent odds-and-sods collection soaked in Drake guest spots, released while Wayne was in Riker’s Island for eight months on a gun charge, did pretty well too. Oh yeah, that’s another thing prison’s good for: Releasing kinda weak albums and getting a pass for them.
Anyways, Lil Wayne has been out of jail since November, and he’s quietly but confidently returned to rapping. Maybe the fist-pumping, self-loathing triumph raps will show up on this spring’s Tha Carter IV but for now, Wayne’s announcing his return by rapping circles around his friends and never letting the post-jail context get cloying. His first appearance was on a remix of Birdman’s “Fire Flame,” which he actually made, well, interesting, injecting his manic enthusiasm into a track that otherwise thudded and grunted along. This is what Wayne does: He sneaks onto someone else’s song and transforms it into something that, at least for the duration of his verse, is really, really fascinating. It’s now the Nicki Minaj model for success.
In December, Wayne released “6 Foot 7 Foot,” the first single from Tha Carter IV and a sequel to “A Milli,” sure, but one that’s even more fevered and out-there; markedly close to the raw, uncooked mixtape Wayne of 2006-2007. On a remix of Ace Hood’s “Hustle Hard” last month, Wayne turns the obnoxious “#hashtag rap” style back into something vital, bouncing through the anti-punchlines (“I eat these rappers, Anthony Hopkins”) without gluttonously pausing to drive the lines home-like his smarmy cohort Drake. Wayne even keeps up with Nicki Minaj on “Roman’s Revenge 2.0,” and it doesn’t seem like anybody can do that these days. Certainly not Eminem on the original, or Busta Rhymes on a nostalgic but ultimately kinda pathetic remix.
Listening to these post-jail Wayne verses is lots of fun, but it’s painful too. This is the sound of a word obsessive who’s been locked-up for eight months, writing rhymes in his head, committing them to memory, finally stepping into a recording booth and vomiting it all out for our enjoyment. Wisely, Wayne keeps all that just-out-of-jail stuff in the background. Only once has he directly reminded listeners or his fellow (and mostly far-more-comfortable) rappers, that he was in jail.
On DJ Khaled’s “Welcome To My Hood,” after perfunctory rich-guy talk from Rick Ross and some “real shit” from Plies, Wayne begins his verse, “Bitch, I’m on probation, so my nerves bad,” which says more than a whole regret-filled song about dealing with poor decisions ever could. In a pop climate where T.I. ends his album with a rousing whine about how much his life sucks (No Mercy‘s “Castle Walls”); Gucci tells listeners he’s “changed” (The Appeal‘s “Grown Man”) and then gets arrested and tattoos an ice cream cone on his face; and, well, Chris Brown has any kind of career at all, Wayne’s refusal to victimize himself is refreshing. This is about as triumphant as he gets: “Back from hell / Cell 23 / Tell the warden, kiss my ass.” Welcome back, Wayne.