Lil Wayne has never been shy about the distance he sees between himself and the trappings of human life. In his own words, he is “a Martian”—a being sent from afar to smoke beats, have sex, and find new meaning for the letter F. His persona powered him to no. 1 records and a legitimate claim to the title of “Best Rapper Alive” in the 2000s. So perhaps it’s only fitting his career trajectory of late diverges from expectation.
Retrospectives on Wayne’s career typically break it down into two distinct eras: 1999-2009 and 2010 to the present. The former saw the young rapper achieve an array of career milestones. His solo debut, 1999’s Tha Block Is Hot, debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard charts while he was still a teenager. He began his run of seminal albums with Tha Carter and filled the time between its classic sequels with groundbreaking mixtapes and prolific feature appearances, all of which propelled Weezy into the stratosphere and placed his trademark lighter flick among the most ubiquitous signifiers in music. He called his shot on Tha Carter II and backed it up with another half-decade of quick-witted wordplay and cadence mastery buoyed by seemingly boundless confidence. With his place on hip-hop’s throne secured, Wayne closed the decade by signing Drake and Nicki Minaj to his Young Money imprint, then a subsidiary of his longtime home base Cash Money Records, and helped turn two artists he had influenced into some of the genre’s biggest names in their own right.
Wayne’s second era began with a troubling blip, however. In 2010, he released his rock-leaning seventh album, Rebirth, to modest success. It marked a steep departure from the highs of 2008’s Tha Carter III, both commercially and musically. Almost a year after an eight-month prison stint, Wayne dropped Tha Carter IV as an olive branch to the fans he had alienated with his rock experimentation. His gambit earned him strong first-week sales but could not mask the signs of slippage. The rapper who once seemed immune to overused analogies tossed out a few in a single album. (For example: “Some people hang you out to dry / Like a towel rack” on “She Will,” or “I put up a wall / And they just wallpaper,” on “Blunt Blowin.”) Wayne seemed tired and creatively uninspired—not shocking for a rapper entering his 30s, but still concerning given how he had revolutionized the genre just a few years earlier. As his relationship with Cash Money and onetime mentor Birdman deteriorated, he released increasingly sleepy projects within a few years: Dedication 6, I Am Not A Human Being II, and the Free Weezy Album.
Weezy was finally granted freedom from his label in June 2018 when Birdman released him from the remainder of his contract. A few months later, the long-delayed Carter V hit streaming services. The drama surrounding the release—and the mystery over whether this would be the last Lil Wayne album—brought fans in droves to the 23-track project. It turned out that freedom sounded good on Wayne. While Carter V would not reach the heights of the earlier Carter projects, the album had some of the best Wayne verses since his world-conquering mid-aughts run. He followed it with early 2020’s Funeral, a more experimental and lower-stakes affair that dealt with scars from his past. Funeral hit no. 1 on the Billboard album chart, but it failed to live up to the commercial performance of Carter V. It did, however, show he could still deliver vintage performances when necessary, as he did on songs like “I Do It” and “Mahogany.”
After Funeral, Wayne needed a way to remind the public what they were missing. The answer, it turns out, was an old staple in the Lil Wayne toolbox: an extended feature run. After a nostalgic turn alongside Nicki Minaj and Drake on “Seeing Green” in May, Wayne has spent 2021 putting together a string of dominant guest appearances that suggests a new era may still be in the cards.
Lil Wayne needs no introduction, but the one he chose to start his verse on “Seeing Green” was a perfect indicator of the year he had in store. Wayne jumps onto the soaring beat and makes quick work of it: “I’ma pull up so lit, I just might crash, dawg / Let me take this Balenciaga mask off to ask y’all, ‘Who asked y’all?’ / Cita told me to stunt my ass off, that’s all.” The mental image that accompanies the verse is striking, and he makes no bones about its purpose. The Young Money commissioner wants all eyes on him.
A rapper of Wayne’s pedigree knows a single strong verse is simply a warning shot. He made a more declarative statement on Polo G’s “Gang Gang” from June’s Hall of Fame, with a lyrical onslaught that name-checks Martha Stewart, Rick Pitino, and his many expensive foreign cars. But the key moment comes midverse, when Wayne raps “Blatt, blatt, blatt, I’m not through.” The line doubles as a promise of more to say in verse and as a reminder that he had a lot more to say, period.
Weezy then flexed his range with subsequent guest appearances, gracefully dancing on the breezy production of Tyler, the Creator’s “Hot Wind Blows” before hijacking the dark and drum-heavy stylings of LPB Poody’s “Batman.” (”I swear that shotty like sinus and that Bugatti like Sonic / The— The— The Hedgehog, how I speed off / Drop the top and take the head off / Pick a bitch up, drop some bread off,” he rhymes on the latter.) Wayne adapted to the darkness for a bit longer, entering Westside Gunn’s high-fashion underground world on “Bash Money” and making himself at home. With his rap reminders served, Weezy crossed genres by lending his rhymes to the R&B leaning “Wockesha [Remix]” alongside Moneybagg Yo and Ashanti.
While Funeral was dedicated to unpacking lifelong trauma, Wayne shies away from such topics on his run of guest spots. He operated instead like he was given a single directive from his alien brethren: Destroy any and everyone on the track. That shows on a cut from Drake’s Certified Lover Boy, “You Only Live Twice,” in which the Young Money head honcho and his onetime protégé team up with longtime collaborator Rick Ross. Wayne seemed genuinely excited by the opportunity to rap alongside other hip-hop luminaries. His resulting verse is a fiery proclamation of the unique pull he continues to have over women and the rap game, with lines like “I got bitches doin’ lines, I’m Adidas to ‘em, n---- / I got sentenced, took some time and it was easier than simple / I’m so difficult to fathom like a fever in the winter.” Ross likely wasn’t referencing Wayne on the track when he shouts “Real n----- deserve to live twice,” but after everything Wayne has been through, he somehow seems more alive than he has in years.
Even in scattershot recent outings, Weezy has still sounded hungry. On October 1, Wayne and Rich the Kid released a 10-track collaboration entitled Trust Fund Babies. It’s an odd pairing—Wayne is the master of many flows, while Rich is the master of little—but at times, it clicks. The opening track “Feelin’ like Tunechi,” a meta-reference to Wayne’s nickname, sees both MCs make a very literal play on the song’s title. “I been feelin’ like Tunechi, huh, I been feelin’ like, yeah, fuck ‘em / Let me get in my bag, duffle,” they sing in unison on the opening chorus. The track perfectly harnesses the Lethal Weapon buddy-cop potential between the duo, but it’s a feat the remaining nine tracks struggle to repeat.
Trust Fund Babies does still serve a purpose as a platform for Wayne. After a decade full of uneven projects, it wasn’t clear whether Wayne could still sustain an album’s worth of quality rhymes. Yet the freshly minted 39-year-old swaggers through the project like there was never a doubt. He raps a cappella on “Headlock” and turns a cringe refrain of “trust fund, trust fund, trust fund” on “Shh” into an earworm. The LP doesn’t feature Wayne at his very best, but his performance is competent enough to add to what has already been an eye-catching 2021 for the MC.
The playbook to jump-start Wayne’s third act looked a lot like his first: a high-volume slate of releases that occasionally turns up some stinkers (see: Logic’s “Perfect (Remix)”) but more often creates exhilarating lyrical feats. The effect this will have on his solo career is still up in the air. Wayne has stated in interviews that he plans to release Tha Carter VI and No Ceilings III soon. While continuing a series as revered as Tha Carter makes sense on paper, it comes with expectations. Can a 39-year-old in his third decade in the industry still produce a masterful record? Wayne’s subsequent releases will provide an answer. One thing is clear right now, though: Weezy isn’t ready to phone home quite yet.
Abou Kamara is a writer currently based in Boston.