In the wee hours of September 3, 2016 — this past Saturday — Lil Wayne announced his retirement, effective immediately. Supposedly. In recent years, Weezy has wavered between retirement and return. In 2014, he told MTV News that he would end his solo career with the release of Tha Carter V, an album that Cash Money Records cofounder Birdman has reportedly refused to release since its initial completion two years ago. Last year, Wayne released a stopgap mixtape, the Free Weezy Album, and admitted to Rolling Stone that, “for a person like me that bleeds, eats, sleeps and shits music,” retirement is a dreadful prospect.
Wayne now tours, and he releases new music, though not with the overwhelming frequency and vigor that he demonstrated during his mid-’00s mixtape run — a time when Wayne’s abuse of codeine was the stuff of rock ’n’ roll legend. Rap stars burn out; it happens. But no other rapper of his stature has ever seemed as perpetually exploited and physically exhausted as Lil Wayne. In June, he had a widely reported series of seizures that observers attributed to the rapper’s epilepsy as well as his notorious addiction to lean.
As unglamorous as it’s become, Lil Wayne’s drug use is now a mainstream lifestyle ideal. The earliest hip-hop performers admonished users and addicts, even as genre pioneers such as Russell Simmons, Kurtis Blow, and Whodini nursed certain habits behind the scenes. At the turn of the century, rappers in Houston, Memphis, and New Orleans had begun to rap about codeine, cocaine, and other narcotics as avid users rather than pushers. Lil Wayne was the first megastar, multiplatinum rapper to represent this manner of self-indulgence in pop culture circa the release of “Lollipop” and Tha Carter III in 2008. A decade after his spectacular commercial and creative peaks, apparently fueled by countless narcotics, Lil Wayne’s descendants are all a bit more forthcoming and proud than rappers of the ’80s and ’90s about their drugs of choice.
Travis Scott, 24, reps Houston. He’s not a conventional, slab-obsessed H-Town rapper, however; his influences are so regionally varied and diffuse as to make him sound, for lack of a better word, generic. Which isn’t to say that he’s bland or lifeless. Quite the opposite, in fact: Travis Scott is a renegade android who yodels about narcotics. His latest album, Birds In the Trap Sing McKnight, is a personal zenith of the rapper’s hedonism. His music thrills. On “Coordinate,” a standout track, he sings about pill cocktails — molly and oxycodone — with low, robotic authority: “Coordinate the tan with the beans in my rockstar skinnies.” “Through the Late Night” is another potent melody; effectively a Kid Cudi record that’s been grafted into Scott’s own nocturnal adventure, the song’s hook is the most full-throated and powerful articulation to be heard on an album otherwise defined by mealy-mouthed incantations (“Goosebumps,” “Biebs In the Trap”). “Sleep through day, then we play / All through the late night.”
These songs all compound into a single, throbbing hallucination that may well represent a single night out. The songs are loud, and Travis Scott is childish; the sum is occasionally exhilarating. McKnight is the most potent album that Scott has released to date. The music is pure in its perverse way: Travis Scott has crafted an album chock full of vice and yet devoid of any conflict, internal or external. His pills are paradise.
If Travis Scott is your worst influence, Top Dawg Entertainment is your rehab of sorts. The record label’s most famous rappers, Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q, spend much of their respective records in conversation with God and Satan — the former a source of abiding strength, the latter a charismatic pitchman for temptations that make a mess of famous faces, especially young ones.
Chattanooga, Tennessee–based rapper Isaiah Rashad, 25, is a relative novice. He’s the first TDE rapper to hail from beyond L.A. On all other counts, however, he’s a natural fit within TDE’s cosmology, which incorporates jazz, blues, and Deep South hip-hop stylings into the lineage of L.A. rap. Rashad’s new album, The Sun’s Tirade, isn’t any more or less sober than Travis Scott’s album; there are hungover prayers galore here, too. “Bday” is one particularly wonderful pisswalk:
For much of The Sun’s Tirade, Rashad is “stuck in the mud,” as he and TDE singer SZA put it on a song so titled; after a beat switch on that track, Rashad’s previously clear-minded flow disintegrates into a drunkard’s slur: “Pop a Xanny, make your problems go away / And I can handle; make your bottle go away.” “Silkk Da Shocka” is Rashad’s most dire pronouncement, a bluesy lament about gateway drugs and near-death addiction. Here, the conflict and consequences are so real that they almost precluded Rashad from recording these songs to begin with; the rapper recently confessed that his addiction to alcohol and Xanax nearly got him dropped from TDE two years ago. “You try to play out your luck for as long as you can,” Rashad told Sway. “Until you hit a wall.”
It’s safe to say that Travis Scott knows no such walls in his personal life, and certainly not in his music; not yet. On McKnight, Scott advances Lil Wayne’s vices to a cultish extreme, recruiting everyone from Quavo to James Blake into his debaucherous echo chamber. On The Sun’s Tirade, Isaiah Rashad is tapping out, struggling to break free.
Kendrick Lamar is simultaneously the proudest and the most sober descendant of Lil Wayne in this mix, and he raps on both Scott and Rashad’s latest albums. On “Wat’s Wrong” from Rashad’s Tirade, he’s trashing Trump Tower while broadly contemplating his life’s purpose. “Depending on the way I feel, Lamar raps, I might kill everybody around me / Might heal everybody around me.” For Travis Scott, healing everyone around him would mean handing out pills. For Isaiah Rashad, healing means rest and restraint. Lil Wayne has shown both rappers — and Kendrick, too — that the substance of one’s inspiration might also make for a great downfall. Travis Scott and Isaiah Rashad are both riding a high, though it’s clear in his nauseated cadences that Rashad wants off.