Lil Wayne, 37, has spent more than half of his life in the spotlight. His career, now in its second decade, can be split into two periods: 1999 to 2009 and 2010 through the present. The difference between the two is striking. During one, the announcement of a new Wayne album was an event. During the other, it became a disappointment for a variety of reasons.
The first portion of his career was a remarkable ascent. Wayne released his debut album, Tha Block Is Hot, in 1999 a little more than a month after his 17th birthday. He was precocious, and the youngest member of the Hot Boys who, just months prior, stole the show on Juvenile’s throw-it-back classic, “Back That Azz Up.” The diminutive teenager with towering potential then became a force as he reached adulthood during the new millennium, catching fire mid-decade with an onslaught of mixtapes and features to complement his defining series, the Carter albums. 2008’s Tha Carter lll was the last hip-hop album to go platinum in a week. By the close of the ’00s, he’d signal-boosted Drake and Nicki Minaj and released yet another mixtape, No Ceilings, as a reminder that he was arguably the most prolific artist of the decade. The irony of No Ceilings’s title is that Wayne had plateaued.
With the 2010s came swift and aggressive change for Wayne, beginning with a stint in jail. In March 2010, Lil Wayne began an eight-month stay at Rikers Island after pleading guilty to felony gun possession charges. On top of that, creative regression that seemed so unlikely just three years prior set in. Rebirth, a dabble in rock released just before his incarceration, was a creative failure. I Am Not a Human Being was cobbled together before he turned himself in and arrived just before his release. Despite commercial success following its 2011 release, the delayed Carter IV paled artistically in comparison to the series’ previous installments. And after Tha Carter V did not meet a December 2014 release date, Wayne entered a bitter legal battle with Cash Money Records, seeking liberation from the label he’d signed to as a child and carried for more than a decade. It was another stunning development in a series of them for Wayne, who also suffered a number of widely reported seizures beginning in 2012. Jay-Z helped him pay his back taxes. An artist infamous for his relentlessness was brought to a screeching halt, festering in stagnation. An artist so brash and brimming with energy had grown weary. Wayne anointed himself the “best rapper alive” in the 2000s, with good reason. But in the 2010s, an artist who insisted he wasn’t of this planet was not only brought down to earth, but also stuck there. As it turns out, he was human all along.
Lil Wayne was a teen star who lived at such a breakneck speed he didn’t get to properly process many of his experiences. Prison has haunted him (“I don’t wish jail on anybody,” Wayne wrote in his 2016 prison memoir, Gone ‘Til November). It interrupted his career at its pinnacle, then his war with Cash Money caused it to stall. Being trapped by the only label he called home and his pseudo-father figure, Birdman, cut deep. The teen star who signed an exploitative contract as a kid was robbed of his autonomy in adulthood. After a 2018 settlement with Cash Money freed him from the label, the long-awaited Carter V revealed he’d channeled years of pain into art. He leaned into his weariness, and it made for his most engaging solo work in years. And although his new album, Funeral, released last Friday, is brighter overall despite its ominous title, the moments when Wayne pauses to examine his scars stay with you beyond the album’s 76-minute duration. He knows by now that you can bury the pain for only so long.
Understanding Wayne’s anger is key to understanding how he got to Funeral. He was flat-out irate just a few years ago, but on this album, he sounds reinvigorated by freedom.
I AM NOW DEFENSELESS AND mentally DEFEATED & I leave gracefully and thankful I luh my fanz but I'm dun— Lil Wayne WEEZY F (@LilTunechi) September 3, 2016
In 2016, Wayne delivered a striking look at his reality with a candid appearance on “Mad,” from Solange’s A Seat At the Table. It contextualized his pent-up frustration. He opened up on the money Birdman and Cash Money owed him; the public’s fascination with his lean consumption; and how he poured himself into something and felt like the love wasn’t reciprocated. It’s one of his best performances of the 2010s and one of the most revealing moments of his career.
I got a lot to be mad about
Got a lot to be a man about, got a lot to pop a Xan about
I used to rock hand-me-downs, and now I rock standing crowds
But it’s hard when you only got fans around and no fam around
And if they are, then they hands is out, and they pointing fingers
When I wear this fuckin’ burden on my back like a motherfuckin’ cap and gown
Then I walk up in the bank, pants saggin’ down
And I laugh at frowns—what they mad about?
‘Cause here comes this motherfucker with this mass account, that didn’t wear a cap and gown
Are you mad because the judge ain’t give me more time?
And when I attempted suicide, I didn’t die
I remember how mad I was on that day
Man, you gotta let it go before it get up in the way
Wayne’s creative process involves him head down in a silo. His world is so insular that, during his recent appearance on the Drink Champs podcast, he didn’t recognize Quality Control Music or Top Dawg Entertainment were record labels when asked about them—even though both Takeoff, a third of Migos and a QC artist, and Jay Rock, TDE’s first artist who he’s previously worked with, appear on Funeral. His battle with Cash Money was jarring because it forced Wayne to address the world outside of the booth. “The difficult part of it was finally having to pull the curtains back and see what the hell was out that window—having to actually care about other things than my music and my lyrics,” he told Billboard in 2018. Wayne’s art began to reflect his life when he was forced to actually deal with the latter. That’s what made “Mad,” and other subsequent music, so piercing: He struggles to function when unable to create.
The shooting incident Wayne refers to at the end of “Mad” took place in 1994. According to Wayne, he shot himself with his mother’s gun when he was 12 because she didn’t want him to be a rapper. Though he’s claimed it was an accident through the years (he said he was “playing with the gun” during his Drink Champs interview), he was clear about what transpired on Tha Carter V and in interviews about the album. “I found my momma’s pistol where she always hide it / I cry, put it to my head and thought about it / Nobody was home to stop me, so I called my auntie / Hung up, then put the gun up to my heart and pondered / Too much was on my conscience to be smart about it / Too torn apart about it, I aim where my heart was pounding,” he reveals on “Let It All Work Out,” Tha Carter V’s final song. “I was ready to get it off my chest,” he told ESPN’s Josina Anderson. It’s the most personal moment on an album filled with them.
Funeral is an attempt at a clean slate—new decade, new album—independent of Cash Money. Like its predecessor, it was released on Young Money and Republic Records. And like its predecessor, it’s a little bloated. (Wayne has one speed, be it album or mixtape.) Regardless, Wayne mostly sounds comfortable and hungry. He’s incisive on “Mahogany” and the soul sample-driven “Harden,” while “Wild Dogs” channels an intensity worthy of the Russell Westbrook name-drops. The menacing “Darkside” features one verse, but Wayne blacks out in the middle of it as his voice picks up that familiar, creaky sense of urgency it gets when he loses himself in his rhymes. That’s the Wayne everyone wants to hear, but there are moments of vulnerability too visceral to ignore intertwined with his trademark braggadocio.
The breezy “Stop Playin With Me” finds Wayne acknowledging his position as a legend, but not without admitting that being doubted left him wounded. “Cause when I was down, you all got lost on me like Bin Laden,” he says. And although living in his head has led to so much great music, being alone with his thoughts has made his demons inescapable. “Closed my eyes last night and had a dream I was dyin’ / When I woke up I was surprised, and I hate surprises / I hate to love, they love to hate, but when it’s all synchronizin’ / It feels just like the flames have died up in this cold state of mind / Promethazine tranquilizers as I say my goodbyes,” he adds later. On the brooding “Bastard (Satan’s Kid),” he calls his father the devil on a hook simmering with resentment: “Daddy used to look at me like, ‘Who the fuck this baby is?’ / Uncle used to say, ‘Your daddy just too young to raise a kid’ / Daddy used to treat my momma like they never made a kid / I’m Satan’s kid.”
Surprisingly, the Adam Levine–assisted “Trust Nobody”—somber with a country twang—strikes a chord. This formulaic pop-crossover stab would be forgettable if not for Wayne’s honesty about the pain he can’t escape.
“I’ve been lookin’ at the cross and it just look like a ‘T’/ Two fingers, I keep ’em crossed, I can’t be lookin’ for peace / I’ve been lookin’ at the stars and they don’t glisten for me / I’ve been lookin’ in the mirror, he don’t listen to me,” he raps on the first verse. “Safe to say I lost my way but I never lost the lead / Safe to say I lost the brakes but I never lost the speed / Wakey-wake, I lost some sleep but I never lost the dream / If you out there at the crossroads lookin’ for me / You gon’ find me with my eyes closed, lookin’ for grief,” he raps on the second verse, diving deeper into his anguish.
Despite insisting that he doesn’t dwell in the past because “the light always green,” Lil Wayne’s past is an undeniable part of who he is. He makes it clear in his lyrics that he carries it with him, even as he forges ahead. And as good as Wayne sounds in Funeral’s best moments, it’s unlikely he’ll revert back to the Wayne of old. What’s normal for a man who, by his own admission, was sexually assaulted at 11, tried to end his life at 12, became a father at 15, a breakout star at 17, a superstar by 23, the biggest rapper in the world by 25, and Rikers Island inmate #02616544L—at his peak—by 27? Considering everything he went through during the 2010s, it’s impossible for him to be the Wayne of the 2000s again. Wayne might be at peace with certain aspects of his life and in a better place with others, but the darkest period of his career has overlapped with the darkest moments of his life. However, Funeral shows he’s adjusted to his status as a legend to the numerous rappers he’s influenced. Funeral also shows he’s working through his trauma by turning it into music, even when obscuring his introspection with bravado.
Julian Kimble has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Undefeated, GQ, Billboard, Pitchfork, The Fader, SB Nation, and many more.