Making a hit song is a combination of talent, marketability, and luck. Making a banger over someone else’s hit song is a mix of ingenuity and charisma. For the latter, a rapper seeks to transform a familiar jam to reflect his own image, using just his words and his flow. Ideally, the limited resources breed creativity — think about how resourceful someone has to be to claim de facto ownership over an instrumental that’s already in the public’s consciousness.
This is happening less and less in our current rap landscape, a.k.a. the Drake Era. There have been countless freestyles over Drake tracks in the past few years, for example, but the only essential one comes from Drizzy’s fellow Lil Wayne acolyte, Young Thug. Now, this isn’t to say that we’ve run out of capable rappers; they’ve just been hemmed in by Drake’s blueprint, which is to latch oneself onto a track and coast over it without really exploring the beat.
Lil Wayne very rarely had this problem during his prime in the mid-aughts — which was also, not coincidentally, the prime of the modern mixtape era. Wayne was beat-jacking to spin out verses that served as reminders of rap’s potential as an art form — an indispensable point in the argument for him being one of the greatest rappers of all time. Dedication 2, which turned ten this past weekend, is filled with some of the finest examples of Lil Wayne’s gifts.
When Jay Z vacated the office of Best Rapper Alive after 2003’s The Black Album, Lil Wayne stepped in with his unmatchable improvisational style. A low-key important moment in hip-hop history is 2004’s “10,000 Bars” (alternatively known as SQ7), a 35-minute verse in which Lil Wayne empties out his rhyme book. It’s a cathartic performance, Wayne furiously rattling off lines without paying much mind to the beats shifting around his voice. These aren’t toilet-paper bars, either — some are as priceless as any other line uttered by peak Weezy. But they’re necessary sacrifices; Wayne spends the half-hour throwing verses away indiscriminately, speeding through them in an effort to outrun the margins and four-bar structures that once limited him. Listening to this recording is akin to witnessing a rebirth, a baptism by fire bars. SQ7 marked his turning point from written prose to off-the-cuff verbiage. That was the end of rhyming off of a page, according to Lil Wayne.
Soon after SQ7, in 2005, came Tha Carter II, which became Wayne’s first serious critical and commercial success. But it wasn’t until 2006’s Dedication 2, the sequel to ’05’s Dedication mixtape, that Weezy really settled into and inhabited the improvisational pocket he ventured into after SQ7. The style eventually became essential to Lil Wayne’s legacy.
On Dedication 2, it sounds as if Lil Wayne was discovering new flows while he was recording. The opening salvo “Get Em” finds him puckishly in command. The lines are quotables, but the real appeal is Wayne’s menacing delivery; peep the bloodletting within the pause: “Stop playing, I know what I’m doing, let me get ’em / … I hope his kids not with ’em.”
And God bless Freeway for showing up and spitting his Roc-A-Fella heart out on “Cannon,” but Lil Wayne’s ability to shape out-there metaphors into mantras is even rarer than a Knicks championship (“Simon says, ‘Shoot a nigga in his thigh and leg’/ And tell him ‘Catch up’ like mayonnaise”). Rapping over a sampled tennis match is a gimmicky detour, at best, for most rappers. But Wayne manages it on “Sportscenter,” and fits in onomatopoeia, a backhanded shoutout to The Source, and a Herzog-esque description of a one-night stand as he alters his flow several times. It’s brilliant.
The theme that threads it all together is how the ideas — the sampled songs, Wayne’s slick rhyme patters, the nutty turns of phrase — aren’t guideposts but a series of reactants, combusting one after another for 80 minutes and across 25 tracks. This is how you make such a vast array of contemporary classics your own. “Ground Zero,” “What You Know,” “Hustlin” — Weezy upends all of them on Dedication 2, renewing overplayed hits for fans while crowning himself a singular talent.
Hip-hop traditionalists tend to believe good hip-hop verses are about capital-s Something. That category doesn’t include Wayne’s brand of braggadocio. Dedication 2 mostly swings between violent threats, shoutouts to Birdman, and how less pussy he is than you. But his verses needn’t address some larger idea, and Lil Wayne argues that with a logic that reinforces itself: His rhymes are good because they’re good rhymes. “Ridin wit the AK” is gun talk over the Purple Ribbon All-Stars’ “Kryptonite (I’m On It)” instrumental, but hearing Lil Wayne slow down from his double time to make his threats clear (“I’m a rude boy, I murder for fun”) is worth sitting though a Mack Maine verse. It works at a purely musical level, like a virtuoso saxophonist’s impressionistic burst.
And, occasionally, Lil Wayne isn’t afraid to rap about Something. “Georgia… Bush,” the tape’s stunning closer, is a tribute that artfully articulates what Kanye West tried to on television back in ’05. Here, Wayne proves his idiosyncrasies aren’t mere quirks but something purer — they’re actually their own form of expression. The rapid-fire, “Notorious Thugs”-referencing first verse embodies the rage over the black lives lost after Hurricane Katrina, just like how the slower second act actualizes Wayne’s quaking pride as a New Orleanian. He then snaps back into an awe-striking final verse over “Ambition Az a Ridah” to put Dedication 2 into context. It’s a tribute to the art form of rapping and the typically faceless demographic it emboldens.
So, keep an eye on those who use the phrase “transcends rap” when they’re praising a hip-hop project. Yes, the idea of transcending something sounds like a good goal. But think about what transcending actually means — it means to surpass. “Transcending rap” implies that the act of rapping is reductive and that it isn’t in itself transcendent. Those critics never truly listened to Dedication 2. They likely also haven’t listened to Nicki Minaj and Young Thug, disciples of Wayne-ism who adopted his idea of turning four-beat bars into free-associative microcosms. With the Hot Boys and his own solo hits behind him before Dedication 2, Lil Wayne was already en route to becoming one of the decade’s biggest stars. But his lasting influence truly begins here, where he veered off script. No one has done it in this fashion — at this level — since.