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Can Lil Wayne Regain His Relevance?

Finally free from Cash Money, the commercially exiled rapper is at last able to release his long-awaited album ‘Tha Carter V.’ But will anyone care when he does?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

This past weekend, Summer Jam hosted three headliners—Lil Wayne, Meek Mill, and Kendrick Lamar, performing in that order. Kendrick was the climactic act, but Meek and Wayne were the prodigal sons. They’re both recently emancipated men, and their respective performances celebrated newfound freedom. Two months ago, Meek Mill left prison on bail—a great victor in the surreal legal saga that endeared the Philly rapper to his fickle fanbase all over again. Eight years ago, Wayne, too, punctuated his stardom with a prison bid. But recently, Wayne’s freedom has been a rather different matter. For five years now, Wayne has been at odds with his record label, Cash Money Records, and its fearsome leader, Birdman. In 2015, Wayne sued Cash Money for $51 million, claiming overdue compensation and petitioning for the commercial release of his latest studio album, Tha Carter V. For three years, the lawsuit stalled, and so, too, did Wayne’s once spectacular career. Wayne toured, but his singles expired, and the very notion of Tha Carter V disintegrated in the busy, brutal course of time. The current generation of rappers all proudly bear traces of Lil Wayne, but the man himself sunk into oblivion. His restless run was over.

Recently, and rather unexpectedly, Lil Wayne prevailed against Birdman and Cash Money Records. On June 7—a week before Wayne’s Summer Jam performance—Wayne’s attorney confirmed that the rapper finally settled his three-year-old lawsuit to the tune of $10 million. Wayne has also won the right to release new music, including his marooned studio album. It’s unclear how old the Carter V songs might be, and whether Wayne even means to release them at this point. His freedom is a plot twist, and now there’s no telling what exactly a full-force Lil Wayne comeback might entail. For now, Wayne is speaking mostly through his lawyer. “I can say that my client is happy,” Wayne’s attorney, Ron Sweeney, told Billboard. “He is his own man, a man that owns his assets, his music, and himself.”

At Summer Jam, Wayne said nothing about his legal ordeal or its resolution. His big, triumphant statement was inherent in his performance. It spoke for itself.

Lil Wayne’s emancipation leaves the rapper’s fanbase with a great deal of musical potential to unpack. There’s Tha Carter V, the imperiled album that ranks among rap’s hottest contraband; an unreleased project more cherished than Martin Shkreli’s one-of-a-kind Wu-Tang album. And then there’s Wayne, the rapper himself, whose creative and commercial potential—once wild and limitless—has been tamed and wasted for so many years. If Tha Carter V represents the idealized preservation of Wayne’s glory, then Wayne himself has come to represent the cruel whims of a recording industry that raised a musician from adolescence only to strip his authority in the peak years of his adulthood. There’s the drugs, and then there’s the exploitation: They’ve both hollowed Wayne’s face. His nemesis Pusha-T has long characterized Wayne as an exhausted pawn; “another multi-platinum rapper trapped and can’t retire.” For five years, Wayne made false starts. He didn’t simply fall out of fashion, as so many pop stars do. Wayne languished in an uncanny, unprecedented captivity, active and outspoken, but also invisibly constrained. He never fell to obscurity. No one could credibly demote Lil Wayne to irrelevance. But there he stood, thrashing and defanged.

Through his setbacks, Wayne’s labelmates, Drake and Nicki Minaj, and other musical allies, such as Chance the Rapper and Solange, have all prominently featured Wayne in their music. His guest verses have kept him afloat in the mainstream. These days, it can be tough to recall how provocative and divisive Wayne once was—through public suffering, he’s become one of hip-hop’s most benign figures. Lil Wayne is a smiling mascot. Birdman is a bleak enigma. He runs a record label defined as much by its musical innovations and commercial success as it is also, unfortunately, defined by debt, turmoil, and violence. To anyone who watched Cash Money’s dealings throughout Juvenile’s stardom—before Wayne’s great solo years—Wayne’s predicament may have seemed inevitable. Gradually, the earliest generation of Cash Money stars turned on Birdman, citing the sort of financial dissatisfaction and contractual impasses that prefigured Wayne’s inevitable disputes with Birdman. In recent years, Cash Money’s biggest first-gen stars, Juvenile and Mannie Fresh, have reconciled with Birdman, long after their musical dominance had unquestionably concluded. Occasionally, there are signs of reconciliation between Wayne and Birdman. Through their rare smiles together, it’s become tough to discern whether such a reconciliation would mark a fresh and productive start for Wayne at Cash Money Records; or a peaceful surrender to Birdman, the father figure who built, but then stunted Wayne’s career.

At 35 years old, Wayne is eight years younger than Juvenile, and 14 years younger than Mannie Fresh. He’s only four years older than Drake. He’s six years younger than Kanye West. He’s young. Indeed, his youthfulness is his key quality—it’s the reason to believe Tha Carter V, and whatever else Lil Wayne might come up with in the late 2010s, won’t sound fogeyish or outdated. Lil Wayne helped craft the prolific mixtape economy in which modern rappers now live and compete. He mastered the sounds, the moods, and the means that the Soundcloud generation has claimed as its fundamentals. The Soundcloud generation has made a sport of denying the impressions that older rappers of the previous century, such as 2Pac and the Notorious B.I.G., have made on them and their genre. It’s a foolish sport. But it would be downright implausible to suggest that Wayne has aged out of the genre that now mimics him to no end. He belongs. He requires no re-introduction. All he ever needed was a release date.