Dwayne Carter: A Lesson in Longevity
In a world filled with one-hit wonders and microwave music, aspiring to have a career as an artist that spans more than a couple of calendar years is often wishful thinking at best. Having a single connect and break into the mainstream is every amateur artist’s dream, but when the stars align and that wish is finally granted its often a double-edged sword. Commercial validation of your art is often accompanied by the expectation to follow up, improve, and capitalize on the momentum of early popularity. Some artists thrive under these conditions, producing the outliers we see leading and inspiring the next generation of producers, engineers, and songwriters; most, however, buckle under the pressure. For every Kendrick Lamar there’re a thousand Lil Xans, which makes it all the more impressive when an artist is able to transcend the fickle cycle of industry trends and achieve the quasi-intangible status of a genre “superstar.” With an ever-changing myriad of external factors that could detrimentally alter an artist’s career trajectory, I can do nothing but marvel at, and attempt to learn from, music’s most unlikely success stories, none being more impressive than the accomplishments accrued by a hungrily ambitious preteen from Hollygrove, New Orleans, who got his start back in the autumn of 1997. Despite coming from humble beginnings, this artist was able to defy all odds, including the often volatile stigma and growing pains that plague children in entertainment, through pure talent and an unrivaled work ethic. He would go on to sell over one-hundred million records worldwide, including eighteen million albums and forty-one million digital tracks, receiving RIAA platinum certifications for five solo albums, winning eleven BET Awards, fifteen BET Hip-Hop Awards, four Billboard Music Awards, two MTV Music Video Awards, and five Grammys out of twenty-three nominations. 1 Along the way becoming the CEO of his own label, and breaking the record for most entries on the Billboard Hot 100; an honor previously owned by the late Elvis Presley. The man I am speaking of needs no introduction but he does go by many names. His family called him Lil Tune or Tunechi, his fans know him as different variants of Weezy F. Baby, and if you ask him he’d probably tell you he was a martian. In 1982 he was born Dwayne Michael Carter Jr., but we all probably know him best as Lil Wayne.
Carter got his start in the music industry very young, signing his first record deal at age eleven after being discovered by fellow New Orleans native, local label executive, part time rapper, and overall Suge-Knight-Type Bryan “Baby” Williams; better known as Birdman. Dwayne Carter would go on to experience an unfathomably lucrative career in hip-hop that continues to this day and, with the release of his most recent album in January of 2020, now spans three decades; rivaling only Vince Carter’s knees in a test of reliability and longevity. Consistent success of this caliber can not be concisely summarized or deciphered in a single breath. It’s only through highlighting the aptitude showcased within the technical nuances of Wayne’s craft that his legendary run can be truly appreciated. In the paragraphs that follow I would like to do exactly that; we’re going to look at Carter’s creative output, touch on his inherent talent and the ways in which he chooses to implement it, consider both his commercial and critical reception, and acknowledge his vast cultural influence in order to provide some definitive justification for his staying power in both the industry and the culture around the music. In doing so I hope to present a sort of archetypal case study for lasting success that, when held up against the contemporary trends of flavor-of-the-month artists, should reveal some notable distinctions; hopefully proving to aspiring artists, writers, producers, and engineers that there is some method to the proverbial madness of the music industry. Before we get too far ahead of ourselves however we should provide a contextual framework so we’re all on the same page, and the best way to do that would be to start at the beginning.
Early Life & Career
By Wayne’s own account he started rapping at age eight 2, writing his first song in the summer of 1991. It was around this same time he became introduced to Bryan Williams, born Bryan Brooks, who happened to be a friend of Carter’s mother. “Birdman,” on whose name I put the utmost “respek,” was working on putting together a label alongside his brother Ronald “Slim” Williams that would capitalize on the bounce subgenre of hip-hop that was rapidly becoming prevalent in the New Orleans nightclub scene. He convinced friend and local DJ Mannie Fresh to become the label’s in-house producer and signed various teenage talents from the New Orleans underground to what would become Cash Money Records.3 Upon discovering what Williams did professionally, a young Carter began calling Birdman frequently, expressing his interest in becoming a rapper and often leaving freestyle verses for Williams to find later on his voicemail. Wayne, who was enrolled in the gifted program of Lafayette Elementary School and the drama club of Eleanor McMain Secondary School, was very talented for his age and Birdman could see he had potential; so, much to the dismay of Carter’s mother, Williams agreed to take the young Weezy under his wing at age nine becoming a mentor and father figure to Wayne over the course of his career. In these early years Birdman was careful about cultivating Wayne’s talent, requiring him to stay in school, and allowing him to occasionally provide features on tracks distributed by Cash Money Records under his original stage name “D Baby.”
After a few years of cutting his teeth Wayne signed his name on the dotted line for the first time at age eleven. A year later he would be given the opportunity at his first full-length project alongside fellow Cash Money signee, fourteen-year-old B.G., who was rapping under the moniker Lil Doogie. The duo released True Story, entirely produced by Mannie Fresh, in the summer of 1995 under the group name “The B.G.’z” (Baby Gangsta’s), moving a respectable twenty thousand units in total. Presumably impressed with the success of the duo, Birdman paired them together with nineteen-year-old up-and-comer Turk, and the label’s most successful act, a twenty year old Juvenile, to form Cash Money’s first supergroup “The Hot Boys” (Sometimes styled as “The Hot Boy$”). Two years later, in 1997, Wayne, who was an honors student at Marion Abramson Senior High, would drop out of school at the age of fourteen to pursue music full time; The Hot Boys debut Get It How You Live! was released in the same year selling four-hundred thousand units throughout the south, predominantly in New Orleans, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Texas, and Georgia, as the region began to make a name for itself in hip-hop.
After another two-year gestation period The Hot Boys would return with their follow up and final effort, barring a compilation album of unreleased tracks recorded between 1999 and 2000 that came out in 2003, Guerrilla Warfare, which rose to number one on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop charts and earned the group a platinum certification. The success of Guerrilla Warfare was lucrative for everyone involved, including the label who were able to secure a thirty million dollar deal with Universal Records; but more importantly it finally positioned Wayne to step out and make his solo debut. An opportunity he capitalized on three months later with Tha Block Is Hot. TBIH debuted at number one on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop charts and went on to sell over 1,400,000 units, earning Dwayne Carter his first solo, and second career, RIAA Platinum Plaque aged only seventeen. With this project he marked the official start of one of hip-hop’s most influential careers.
Now, that you’ve all sat through my prerequisite hip-hop history lecture, we can share a common baseline regarding the origins of Lil Wayne’s career in music. With this synchronized starting point in mind, let’s look at Wayne’s productivity over the last twenty-one years through an analytical lens and collect a few statistics to aid in visualizing Carter’s unrivaled work ethic. MCs simply don’t come much more productive than Weezy; the prolificacy and breadth of his work is unprecedented. According to the crediting database on allmusic.com, Wayne has released a staggering 45 long form projects over the course of his career at an average of 2.14 releases a year.4 I’m sure I don’t need to emphasize how impressive this is in the modern climate, but the same was true in the early 2000s when Wayne was really gearing up. His closest contemporary in terms of consistency during this time was Sean “Jay-Z” Carter, who dropped every year; meanwhile Wayne was busy dropping every season. In both 2002 and 2003, Dwayne Carter would release his career high of five full length projects in each year, followed by three projects in 2004 and four projects in 2005 to reach seventeen long form releases across the four-year time span. These weren’t suboptimal projects, either; Wayne was laying the foundations for what would become his legacy, with seminal franchises like the gritty street influenced Da Drought which would see two sequels, Wayne’s signature sample series The Dedication (which has now surpassed six volumes), and of course the first two installations of his flagship collection Tha Carter and Tha Carter II. Wayne would go on to hit the “three albums annually” mark three more times over the course of his career in the years of 2013, 2015, and 2017; to this date having released at least one full length project in every single calendar year except 2019, 2016, and 2001.
As impressive as these figures are, they still neglect to include the exponentially expanding plethora of singles Lil Wayne has been credited on as a feature artist. Again according to allmusic.com’s crediting database, Dwayne Carter has accumulated a breathtaking 449 feature credits, averaging around 21.3 a year. These numbers spiked dramatically following 2007 when the releases of the third installments of Da Drought, Dedication, and Tha Carter released one after another through 2008. From ‘08 to ‘14 Wayne released over thirty features every year averaging 39.6 features annually across the seven year span, and surpassing forty features in the years of 2009, 2010, 2012, and his pinnacle in 2013; which saw him hand out forty-six guest verses. To put that in perspective in 2010, a year in which Weezy spent ten months incarcerated following his conviction on a weapons violation, he still managed to release forty-three guest verses alongside two studio length commercial albums; his genre bending rock effort Rebirth and the first installment of the I Am Not A Human Being series. While it’s true output began to stagnate post Tha Carter IV due to legal disputes and financial battles between Wayne and Birdman, Carter still boasts a discography that stretches further than Jay-Z and Nas combined; despite Wayne being nearly a decade younger than them both. When asked once in a tour-bus interview when he finds the time to rest Wayne simply responded, “What’s that?”
Artistic Talent & Ability
While it’s true this religious level of persistent output was a key component in Wayne’s success, putting out project after project means nothing if the contents within don’t justify the work’s existence. Thankfully for Wayne, the only thing that can rival his otherworldly work ethic is his own talent for the craft. Over the years, Wayne has developed one of the sharpest pens in hip-hop, even proving a formidable challenge for a lot of backpack rappers in a test of verbal gymnastics. Carter’s use of witty wordplay and utilization of his expansive vocabulary adds an exceptional air of unpredictability to every verse. Through calculated use of enjambment it often feels as if Wayne is pulling from various streams of consciousness as he sets up metaphors which initially seem tangential, just to connect them in an inventive way with the next bar. I look to tracks like Tha Carter IV’s “Nightmares of the Bottom,” which sees Wayne weaving four different narratives together across just two lines, for great examples of this. On the track in question Wayne uses the former lines of the couplet in the third verse to establish an allusion to manufacturing narcotics guised as sexual promiscuity, carrying the latter concept into the next line, which culminates in the pliable use of the word “track.”
“Know how to whip that white girl, I can spank her tail
And I f*ck up any track: trail derail.”
“Nightmares of the Bottom” – Tha Carter IV
As continued from the line prior “track” can be interpreted as a reference to sew in hair extensions, but it could just as easily be read as a stand in for “song” or musical composition; before Wayne infuses an additional possibility with the punchline “trail derail.” Carter often opts to play off of clever, and sometimes on-the-nose, phrases and truisms morphing them into double and triple entendres, as in the example from “Nightmares of the Bottom”, for studious listeners to discover with subsequent playbacks. This multilayered method of thinking when approaching songwriting allows Wayne to ensure he almost always has the standout verse no matter what track he’s on, and that it never gets boring. There isn’t much more I can say about Wayne’s lyricism that hasn’t already been said, so for the sake of brevity here’s a list of some of my favorite quotables to serve as further elaboration:
“The Sun shines on the King and sets on the Prince,
I met the Birdman and I’ve been shinning ever since.”
“Fly In” – Tha Carter II
“I tried to pay attention but attention paid me,
Haters can’t see me: nosebleed seats
Today I went shopping, and talk is still cheap.”
“She Will” – Tha Carter IV
“Same sh*t different air freshner,
I don’t play boy, I ain’t Hugh Hefner”
“God Bless Amerika” – I Am Not A Human Being II
“And I would never stop, like I’m running from the cops,
Hopped up in my car and told my chauffeur to the top!”
“Forever” – Compilation Single
“I’ll seal the heart of your [chick], ‘cause like Bart you a Simp
And your water don’t drip so your garden aint sh*t.”
“Dedicate” – Tha Carter V
“I am not a fraud, YM I’m the God,
They don’t make ‘em like me no more man I’m a Dinosaur!”
Nicki Minaj’s “No Frauds”
“Young Money militia, I am the commissioner
You don’t wan’ start Weezy ‘cause the F is for Finisher
So misunderstood but what’s the world without enigma?”
“6 Foot 7 Foot” – Tha Carter IV
Honorable Mention: The entire first verse of “Abortion” on Tha Carter IV
Bars like this out of sonic context do lose a bit of their power so it should be remembered that in conjunction with Carter’s steep lyrical ability, he also has access to an ever-expanding library of flows and cadences. From Tha Carter II’s “Tha Mobb,” a five-minute onslaught of alternating rhyme schemes and calculated patterns of breath, to Tha Carter V’s “Mona Lisa,” a Kendrick Lamar-assisted narrative endeavor, Wayne seems to be able to lean in and out of rhythmic convention at will. Masterful command of the temporal aspects of each instrumental allow Carter to infuse an additional dimension into his music; adjusting time and meter in order to doctor his own syllable structure. This act of weaving in and out of rhythmic pockets results in the complicating of already complex rhyme schemes adding an additional facet of variety; as Wayne experiments with intonation and different voice inflections to the point of giving words alternate linguistic meanings. In doing so, Carter is afforded the luxury of letting the beat do most of the work. This results in a lot of half-rhymes or “almost-rhymes” that flaunt Wanye’s creativity with each punchline. One of my favorite examples of this sonic diversity is showcased in the second single off Tha Carter II, “Hustler Musik,” which features two standout verses from Weezy; in which he seemingly enunciates his words around the track’s percussion, allowing two separate melodies to coexist across its runtime. A more recent example would be his standout feature verse on Chance the Rapper’s “No Problem,” which would go on to win the pair a Grammy for best rap performance.
So Wayne has a sharp arsenal of tools at his disposal, we can all agree on that, but what makes him truly unique is how he chooses to utilize them. Conceptually Wayne is the definition of original, often bringing ideas to life in his music other artists are either too intimidated to attempt or not aware enough to recognize. He’s a swiss army knife in this department too, touching on serious social issues in tracks like Dedication II’s “Georgia… Bush,” which critiqued the government’s response following Hurricane Katrina, and I Am Not A Human Being II’s “God Bless Amerika,” which plays off the harsh realities of the proverbial American Dream, while simultaneously being responsible for more playful compositions like I Am Not A Human Being’s “Gonorrhea,” whose contents I will leave up to your imagination. Similar range can be displayed when comparing compositions like Tha Carter III’s “Let The Beat Build,” where Wayne purposefully exacerbates the pacing of his verse until around the two minute mark to coincide with a heavily anticipated beat drop, and something like the hyperbolically masochistic verse he gifted to the Suicide Squad Soundrack on “Sucker For Pain.” Two of my favorite concise examples however would have to be his personification of the seasons on Tha Carter II’s “Mr. Carter,” or his play on the dynamics of a family in regard to life, death, time, and nature on “6 Foot 7 Foot.” Carter has also developed the habit of adopting personas, from playing a martian on the hook of The Game’s “Martians vs. Goblins” to the leader of the free world on Tha Carter IV’s “President Carter,” Wayne alludes to the fact he can literally and figuratively do it all. The most dynamic example of Wayne’s originality in my own opinion can be seen in The Carter III, where Wayne goes from playing a surgeon sent to save the rap game by operating on one wack rapper at a time on “Dr. Carter,” to an extraterrestrial entity from planet Weezy on the very next track “Phone Home.”
The final technical tool Wayne wields with artisan prowess is his own method of delivery. Dwayne Carter says he’s been rapping since he was eight, and it shows; no one seems to appear more comfortable and at home on the microphone than Tunechi, often referring to his own voice as an instrument. Being the most malleable aspect of his act, Wayne’s tone and audible mannerisms have been slowly cultivated over years of diligent practice; these days even without the ubiquitous lighter flick, when you hear Carter’s voice on a song you recognize it instantly. While some might disregard this as Wayne being blessed with a naturally unusual vocal timbre, I think it’s more calculated than that. An often overlooked and underappreciated facet of an artist’s professional portfolio is the way in which they choose to deliver their verses. Not to be confused with the aspects of flow and temporal manipulation that we discussed previously, although the two concepts work hand in hand, I’m not referring to patterns of articulation; rather, the purpose for which those patterns are applied. I know I’m speaking in abstract terms so let me pull a couple of examples from Tha Carter IV to elaborate. Tracks four and five on that tape are “6 Foot 7 Foot” and “Nightmares of the Bottom” respectively. Both tracks are over four minutes long and absent of hooks with the obvious intent being to brandish Wayne’s iconic lyrical aptitude, but each song approaches this goal very differently. In “6 Foot 7 Foot,” a bravado-fueled club anthem, Wayne commands an impish energy slightly raising the pitch of his voice and bouncing each syllable off the track’s 808s to give the impression of movement. In “Nightmares of the Bottom,” a vulnerable heart to heart where Wayne laments over the perils of fleeting fame, his voice is deeper and more purposeful; meticulously articulating each word eloquently over a clear and crisp piano melody. Both tracks are from the same man, back to back on the same album, attempt to do similar things, but if you skipped directly from one to another they almost sound like two different versions of Wayne; again his range and versatility impose themselves on our discussion. For a more drastic juxtaposition you can look to the record’s second track “Blunt Blowin,” which is just as braggadocious as “6 Foot 7 Foot,” but with the added benefit of a confrontational hook that slurs its words to the point of making you believe Wayne really will “bust your ass.”
Reception & Influence
With such a large and diverse catalog and immense technical aptitude it’s no wonder Wayne has sold as many records as he has. Dwanye Carter’s commercial success cannot be understated; the numbers speak for themselves. Every single studio album he’s released, barring Funeral, which is only a little over a month old at the time of writing, has been certified at least gold by the RIAA. Wayne is quite literally a walking dollar sign with his five platinum certifications, two of which reached that certification in less than a week. Tha Carter II and Tha Carter III both sold over a million units in less than seven days, the latter during the 2007–2008 financial crisis when physical albums really weren’t selling at all; proving even at a time when consumers were cutting out commodities, a new Lil Wayne album was a household necessity. I’ve spent a lot of time praising Wayne’s rap career, but he’s also a pop superstar in his own right with many of his nearly four hundred fifty features appearing on chart-topping radio hits. He has made songs with everyone from Shakira to Madonna, Chris Breezy to J-Low, Mike Posner to Usher, Blink-182 to Enrique Iglesias, the list goes on and on; generating hundreds of thousands in royalties along the way. Wayne also has an assortment of his own pop hits as well from “Go DJ” and “Shooter” with Robin Thicke, to “Lollipop,” “How to Love,” and an entire collaborative venture with T-Pain. It simply does not matter what genre, sound, our concept a record concerns itself with, once Lil Wayne is attached money is guaranteed to follow. As of writing Wayne’s net worth is estimated at 140 million dollars.5 I’m not one to pocket watch, but a bankroll like that is definitive proof of complete commercial control.
When it comes to critical success, however, Wanye hasn’t experienced the same unwavering embrace. A shot often taken at Carter is the fact he hasn’t had a “critical success” since Tha Carter III back in 2008, and while it’s true his critical reception has been lackluster for the past decade, the perception was much different in the early 2000s. When Wayne was still in the midst of his legendary run, specifically from 2005 through 2008, publications couldn’t put out positive reviews fast enough. Of the entirety of his discography his best critical scores came in during these years, with his most critically acclaimed albums being Tha Carter III, Tha Carter II, and the original Tha Carter in that order; which is probably why these tapes are often regarded as his classics. He also received immense critical praise for the penultimate entry in his drought series, Da Drought III, which released in the summer of 2007 to a charming 8.5 review in Pitchfork and would go on to be frequently referenced in debates about “the greatest mixtape of all time.” Though more recent reviews haven’t been as generous, Pitchfork gave his most recent effort Funeral a 7.3, Dwayne Carter has yet to experience a true critical flop; barring his 2010 rock album Rebirth which was pretty much panned across the board (4.5 via Pitchfork.) That being said, I’ve learned as someone who spends large portions of his free time writing critically about music that you shouldn’t make assessments of quality based on a short paragraph and arbitrary numeric value; in short, take the reviews from music critics with a large grain of salt.
Now that I’ve finally exhausted every tactile credit, statistic, and figure I could get my hands on, let’s round off our analysis by considering Wayne’s laundry list of intangibles. Dwayne Carter has undeniably influenced an entire generation of rappers with everyone from A$AP Rocky to Childish Gambino paying homage to him at some point in their career. In a lot of ways, Wayne should be credited as the father of the modern hip-hop image; with long dreads, face tats, and diamond encrusted teeth becoming so commonplace that it’s easy to forget that Wayne did it all first. Too many artists to list here credit Lil Wayne as a major influence, but two acts I would like to emphasize within this community are that of Future and Young Thug. Both men inarguably lead the current wave out of Atlanta with influence from Wanye that’s nearly palpable in their music; especially in the case of Young Thug who titled his breakout mixtape Barter 6 as a nod to Wayne’s flagship franchise. Though the two aren’t on the best terms currently his influence continues to permeate through Thugger’s own spiritual descendants, from Lil Baby and Gunna to Lil Gotit and Lil Keed, to the point it almost seems fundamentally inescapable. You could go on to extrapolate this further towards the recent trend of artists calling themselves “Lil [Something]” as in reality every “Lil” from Yachty to Uzi can draw their lineage back to the OG Lil Tunechi. Wayne is also directly responsible for providing the platform that would propel both Drake and Nicki Minaj into superstardom with his label Young Money. Drake of course, seeming to use Wayne’s career as the blueprint, would go on to become the head of his own label, try his hand in the pop sphere to expand his audience, and wind up being championed by most of my generation as our representative in the “greatest of all time” discussion. Whereas Nicki Minaj has experienced a similarly lucrative career being widely regarded as the best female rapper in the game for years paving the way for Cardi B, Rico Nasty, and Megan Thee Stallion. Additionally, Wayne is credited with coining the now ubiquitous term “bling-bling” for his role on the B.G. track of the same name back in 1999; a term which has recently been added to the official Merriam-Webster English dictionary. Dwayne Carter has some of the funniest interviews of all time, gave a hysterical performance in his now famous deposition tape, and is responsible for some of the most memorable moments in recent pop culture; like the infamous year-long “is the g in lasagna silent or not” debate. I often see people refer to Wayne as a staple of the game, but he’s much more than that; he’s the glue that binds the whole thing together. I think the tattoo he sports directly above his right eye says everything you need to know. It reads, “I Am Music”; if he’s not, I don’t know who is.
With that I conclude this expansive analysis of the success and longevity of Dwayne Michael Carter Jr. If you’ve made it this far I want to take a moment to say thank you for going on this journey with me, I can not express how deeply I appreciate it. I hope along the way you’ve learned something useful, or at least interesting, that you can apply to your own artistic endeavors. I truly think we could all learn a lot from Tunechi especially when comparing his career to that of more subpar talents. Sure, Wayne is eccentric, and even otherworldly in some facets, but the strength of his work ethic should stand as proof to us earthlings that through persistence and consistency anything is possible; and even if that can’t be directly emulated it deserves to be appreciated. I suppose if I were to instill the audience with a singular modicum of advice when approaching their art, it would be to ask yourself “What Would Weezy Do?” Lil Wayne has dominated as a singles artist, an album artist, and a mixtape artist; the holy trinity that remains elusive to almost everyone else in the industry across all genres. Full disclosure, if you couldn’t already tell, I’m a pretty huge Wayne fan; with his past health struggles between epileptic seizures and known lean consumption coupled with the staggering number of talented artists we seem to be losing on an annual basis, I really just wanted to write this piece to encourage everyone to appreciate the talent we still have here while we can. Wayne is a generational gem, a once-in-a-lifetime talent, and once he’s gone there will never be another like him. Thankfully however, my worries seem to have proved hollow, as while I was developing this piece, in an interview with XXL, Wayne revealed he’s in better health and that he has over twenty albums in the vault with no intentions of slowing down any time soon. I for one cannot wait to hear them and in case anyone was still wondering, I think I finally figured it out:
It’s Weezy F. Baby and the F is for Forever.
God Bless Dwayne Carter
Long Live Lil Wayne
- According to information derived from Carter’s award wiki page which lists all wins and nominations.
- This is according to Wayne himself across various interviews, but for the purposes of citation information here is consolidated from Quincy Jones III’s Tha Carter documentary, QC’s Tha Carter II documentary, and Rap Sheet’s full Lil Wayne documentary.
- Originally founded in 1991 with the late Kilo G as their first signing, Cash Money has since become one of the most successful labels in genre history.
- Figures pulled from AllMusic, a crediting aggregator, averages based on my own mathematics.
- According to Wayne’s wiki.