Lil Wayne's trademark is his laid-back stoner rasp, which often dissolves into an unhurried, offbeat giggle that punctuates or interrupts verses. The laziness of his flow is part of the appeal as if he's hardly performing, or just goofing with himself on the mic, rhyming a word with itself, or with something utterly unexpected but cleverly juxtaposed. Sometimes he hits on a phrase that's just really weird and unrapperlike. ('I'm a venereal disease/ Like a menstrual bleed," goes an odd line from the hit "A Milli.") He rambles. He thinks out loud. He makes a dirty joke and then he laughs again.
It's not an amused laugh, or a maniacal laugh, and though it appeared in nascent form on 2005's Tha Carter II, Lil Wayne's laugh as much a part of his persona now as his long dreads, which also appeared in 2005 didn't really become as pronounced, or as present, until the mixtapes that immediately preceded Tha Carter III, the long-awaited, blockbuster album that came out in May. It is the laugh slow and bubbly of someone who is inordinately pleased with himself.
Between 2005 and 2008, the former Hot Boy released no official albums, except the collaboration Like Father, Like Son with Cash Money founder Bryan "Birdman" Williams. But he still managed to create a monstrous buzz unrivaled by almost any rapper in the game (and maybe any New Orleans artist ever) with a consistent, scarily prolific output of unofficial mixtapes and appearances on other artists' tracks. That cascade of material hasn't halted, even with the release of the big prize, Tha Carter III, which so far has sold more than 2.5 million copies in just four months. (Rolling Stone reports that the cost of a Lil Wayne guest verse runs an artist between $75,000-$100,000.) He's flooding the market. Vibe magazine published a story earlier this year listing Wayne's 77 best songs of 2007. (That's 77 songs in a year in which he didn't release an album. And those are only the best.)
Of course, Weezy could have released a song a day until his dreadlocks were snow white and not have reached the heights he has reached. The mixtape method is genre-wide, and it's fairly routine for artists to put out their own underground material, or release a cappella tracks for DJs to remix. So, although the mixtape avalanche Lil Wayne let loose between 2005 and 2008 helped contribute to his startling fame today, that's not entirely the story. There's something about Weezy.
Part of the phenomenon is a kind of crossover success that's hard to pin down. He's not the first rapper, nor the first New Orleans rapper, to have an album at No. 1 on the pop charts (Mystikal and Juvenile both did it, and the current pop No. 1 this week is T.I.'s Paper Trail.) But the astounding pace at which he has been putting out material seems matched only by the rate at which his style is evolving, in ways that seem odd to the traditional rap community. While Tha Carter III had its share of poppy hip-hop hit singles ('Lollipop," "A Milli," "Got Money" and the latest, the juicy "Mrs. Officer"), it also had its equal balance of utter weirdness. "DontGetIt," the spare closing track, relying heavily on a Nina Simone sample and a minimalist, lullaby-like instrumental track, has no hook just a meandering, giggle-punctuated rant that, among other things, skewers Al Sharpton and has Wayne envisioning himself as a stand-in for Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Motel. "DontGetIt" is also an example of the other side of Lil Wayne's style. When he's not laid-back and meandering, he can be frighteningly intense, almost screaming his lyrics. Both styles ruminative and amused, and my-life-depends-on-it are Weezy trademarks, and in a hip-hop world where the standard is a swaggering, smooth performer, neither one is particularly normal. Both seem utterly, weirdly intimate, in a manner far more common for rockers than rappers. (In one of his rare print interviews, he told Blender that he preferred the music of Kurt Cobain to that of Tupac.)
Online hip-hop communities like hiphopdx.com and rapbasement.com have hosted long forum threads in which hard-core fans have decried Tha Carter III's experimentalism as lame. It's likely that the underground releases (which are more traditional) keep up his street cred, since it's difficult for run-of-the-mill fans to find most of them. But in the mainstream, his increasing defiance of genre norms is getting him lots of work. At this year's BET Awards, Wayne and T-Pain announced they'd soon be collaborating on a record. Fans got a taste of that on the recently released first single "Can't Believe It" from T-Pain's latest, Thr33 Ringz, on which Wayne doesn't rap but sings through the popular warble-inducing AutoTune software. He also collaborated with indie-rock/hip-hop act Gym Class Heroes, is set to appear (along with Blondie) on the upcoming Fall Out Boy album Folie A Deux and has put out a mixtape with an R&B/rock group called Bad Ass Grasshopper. The latest signee to his label Young Money is a pop performer, Kevin Rudolf. And he's been breaking out his new hobby guitar and bass playing at recent shows and at least trying to shred. The phenomenon of Lil Wayne is more than just the next Diddy or Jay-Z, the up-and-coming rapper. He might be a brand-new kind of rapper, impossible to define. Like he says on the track "Phone Home" on Tha Carter III: "We are not the same/ I am a Martian."
Though he's now an international phenomenon more than international, if you believe his Martian claim he still makes a point of repping his New Orleans roots. Until the more philosophical meanderings of most of Carter III (and his most recent stream of mixtapes), Wayne gave a shout-out to New Orleans and Hollygrove (and Eagle Street, in particular) on nearly every track. When he performed and accepted awards at both the 2008 BET Awards and MTV VMAs, he stood up and vocally represented to thousands of A-listers who had never heard of the 17th Ward. From an artist who is one of the biggest things to come out of New Orleans, that's nice to hear. His performance at Voodoo will be his biggest New Orleans solo show ever, and his first in years, not counting a secret One Eyed Jacks show last February during the NBA All-Star Weekend.
As Weezy's breakout year fades into its autumn, it looks like his wave may be yet to crest. New mixtapes started hitting cyberspace and bootleggers' racks when Tha Carter III had barely sold a million most recently, the "official" ones seem to be titled Tha Carter After Tha Carter, Tha Carter IV Forecast and Louisianimal and he's lending those $100K verses here, there and everywhere. His collaboration with T-Pain, the anticipated T-Wayne album, is expected in 2009, as is Tha Carter IV, and even before that there will be a new mixtape with DJ Drama, Dedication 3, that will be part of the DJ's Gangsta Grillz series. On his ESPN blog, Wayne wrote that as soon as that drops, "I'm putting that same mixtape out with twenty extra songs for free on my website." And at presstime, Mississippi rapper David Banner (the other Dirty South superstar on the rise) told MTV he had given Wayne two tracks for Tha Carter IV. The Fall Out Boy album hits the streets on Election Day. Hurricane Season, Wayne's acting debut, hits theaters on Christmas Day. As of today, Tha Carter III is in its 18th week in the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop top 10, and four of the songs on the pop charts' top 50 have Wayne on them.
Naturally, his easy grin and lazy giggle are only increasing their visibility and frequency. So when did Lil Wayne start laughing? Maybe when he realized he was going all the way to the bank.