Welcome to 1999 Music Week, a celebration of one of the most interesting, vivid, varied music years ever. Join us as we count down the best singles and albums of the year, remember the days of scrubs and the girls who wear Abercrombie & Fitch, and argue about which albums stood above the rest.
“Ain’t got no suits on ‘cause we ain’t tryna be presidents” — Lil Wayne, “Tha Block Is Hot,” 1999
“The flame is burning out, sweetheart. I’m not hot, I’m great.” — Lil Wayne, XXL Interview, 2007
Tha Block Is Hot, the album, begins as most Cash Money releases did at the time: with Mannie Fresh and Baby pointing to the fences. I’m here to tell you it’s at least a major-league double, which is no mean feat for Lil Wayne, who was all of 16 when the album cover was shot. “This is magnificent,” Fresh says with a hard “C,” before creating an entirely new word, one specific to the Cash Money wunderkind’s first solo effort: “magnifiquent.” (Baby claimed it was “hot like a barbecue at Satan’s crib.”)
“Tha Block Is Hot,” the song, is a bullet sliding out of a barrel. There are Fresh’s slasher-fic strings, pew-pew drums, and a quick author bio, right there at the beginning: “Straight off the block, gold nuts in my hand, trustin’ no man.” Why were the nuts gold? No idea.
Wayne had been introduced to the mainstream the previous winter as a warbling conversation piece on “Back That Azz Up,” the youngest and strangest Hot Boy, swimming in his regimental Girbauds and white tee. The now-iconic wobbledy wobbledy–ing on the outro demonstrated unnatural smoothness and poise without much effort, seemingly by accident. It was a time when B.G. was the bigger deal at Cash Money, and Juvenile was the main subject of intrigue— nothing like “Ha” had ever been heard on rhythmic radio, before or since. Cash Money started as a New Orleans bounce label, veered into rap music, landed a deal with Universal valued at an estimated $30 million, and started cranking out classic albums. First was 400 Degreez, then B.G.’s Chopper City in the Ghetto, and then Guerrilla Warfare, the Hot Boys album, which gave a talented teen with the gangly voice a national audience. Cash Money’s summer of 1999 was a delivery vehicle, after a fashion. Wayne was the little brother that begged along and ended up a global phenomenon.
Which brings us to when Wayne could finally wear what he wanted, go where he wanted, say what he wanted. (I mean as in, a necessary condition of Wayne’s Cash Money affiliation, enforced by his mom, was that he wasn’t allowed to curse on wax. And he didn’t, until his debut album, when he decided for himself that it was time.) Tha Block Is Hot is an essential archive to the Wayne completist, but not so highly regarded by the casual listener, because, well, it’s not Tha Carter, which consensus agrees is when Wayne began to sound like himself, the superstar, that we know today.
I was too young to witness Lil Wayne’s rise as it happened; I was 8 and listening to ’NSync and other music I don’t remember when Tha Block was released. I’m sure I’d heard “Tha Block Is Hot” by chance before, either leaking out of my older sister’s room or from a passing car, but the first time I actively listened to the title track from Wayne’s debut was as part of a medley. He was performing a tribute to himself during a BET countdown show, anticipating the release of 2008’s Tha Carter III, an album that moved a million in its first week at the height of file-sharing. Wayne is, if you think about it, a five-tool player: During that medley, he croaked, yelped, slurred, shouted, and purred. He moved with the sureness of someone who already had platinum records, of someone who knew he had the rapt attention of people like me the world over, eyes glued to the TV set, wondering what he might do next.
Tha Block Is Hot is not that medley. Whether you saw the album as promising or kind of dull and repetitive was a matter of generosity; now it’s more a matter of perspective. Viewing Wayne’s first album through the prism of Wayne turning out to be one of the most influential rappers of the past two decades is, to put it simply, a trip. Tha Block simmers with nervous energy. Wayne raps like a kid that can suddenly lift 10 times his body weight. How can you reliably stick the landing when you’ve only just been able to clear the gaps between rooftops with ease? While he hadn’t yet found how to best put his talents to use—or even discovered all of them!—the talents are still there. Take “Not Like Me,” on which Wayne sounds noticeably young, almost phlegmy, but still gets off slick couplets like “I’m from uptown, that ain’t no Beverly Hills / you wan’ know what that be like? Well curiosity kills.” Of course, Mannie Fresh then immediately one-ups him, claiming that he has “I know who killed Kennedy” money.
Tha Block does take the familiar shape of a Cash Money release—a Big Tymers intro, a recycled Juvenile single, and plenty of help from the rest of the label roster throughout. Often, Wayne gets lost in the glow of his costars, or in the mix, or in the switchbacks of his own hiccuping tangent. “Kisha,” for instance, is extremely the kind of story that a 16-year-old would tell (“They say she keep it cleaned up, but I don’t want HIV brah”). But still, within the album’s 17 tracks, you can find traces of all the things that would eventually make him so magnetic—even ideas like the ones on “Kisha” would grow and mutate into the strange beauty of one-offs like “Prostitute Flange.” On “Fuck Tha World,” which demonstrates Wayne’s ability as a street archivist, he recounts losing his stepfather and the anxieties of young fatherhood.
Also Wayne, who would go by plenty of cooler nicknames, refers to himself as Lil Rabbit on “Fuck Tha World” as a course of turning tragedy and hardship into nursery rhyme. Remember how good he used to be at stuff like that? I wouldn’t try to convince you that Tha Block is Wayne’s best. I might not even try to convince you it should replace any other Wayne album, in your Wayne album ranking, unless it’s somehow below Rebirth. But—BUT—a feat like The Block Is Hot is almost definitely unrepeatable. Oh, to be young, unshackled, and preternaturally good at your craft.