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Everybody loves a good comeback story. But once that story ends, after you’ve made the grand comeback, then you’re just back. You end up on the first week of The Masked Singer in a robot costume to sell your latest album. It’s a career phase that plenty of rock stars have settled into, and now a generation of superstar rappers is experiencing it as well.
You know how every few years, Bruce Springsteen puts out a new album, and Rolling Stone gives it five stars? A lot of your friends will check it out, but way more of them will go see him next time he tours, because he’s Bruce? That’s the level of comfort Lil Wayne deserves, after enduring contract disputes, legal troubles, and health issues while remaking popular music in his image.
The rapper born Dwayne Carter endured a five-year gap between studio albums following 2013’s I Am Not A Human Being II, possibly due to disputes with his record label. He even released the Tidal exclusive Free Weezy Album in 2015. Following a few mixtapes and false starts, Tha Carter V was finally released in September 2018, debuting atop the Billboard 200 thanks to an adoring public.
A little over a year later, Wayne is back again with Funeral, released Friday, January 31. Funeral is not Wayne’s best work, and it’s a mixed bag at 24 tracks. But the album shows Wayne still capable of great bars and rapping with the same enthusiasm he’s shown off since he was 17 years old, rapping about dodging police on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Wayne can still deliver great verses when he’s on. “I live the American dream / Foreign everything,” he yelps on “Dreams.” On “Mahogany,” he wraps around repetition of the title phrase like producers Mannie Fresh and Sarcastic Sounds chopping up Eryn Allen Kane’s vocals: “Mahogany sand, boy, I start a sand storm / Mahogany skin, touch me, I cut your hands off.” On “Line Em Up,” he raps “Pistol whip you 'til you know the serial number by heart,” a threat that would make Prodigy proud.
The beats on Funeral span styles as well as eras. GQ reports that some beats were made less than a year before release, while the title track’s beat dates back to 2013. “Funeral” begins with drumless melodrama until the second half beat reveals another follower of the Dreams & Nightmares album intro format. The keys and bounce on “Ball Hard” are influenced by the low menace of Memphis beats. “Mama Mia” is built around post-dubstep shrieks from Some Randoms, and Wayne matches the energy with an athletic display of rapping.
On “Clap For Em,” Lil Wayne shouts commands to twerkers over a bounce beat straight from his hometown. Wayne starts the second verse with “Wobble-di-wobble,” a reference to his own verse on Juvenile’s immortal 1998 song “Back That Azz Up”. The line was also included in Big Sean and Nicki Minaj’s 2011 collab “Dance (A$$).” It’s an oddly poignant reminder of Wayne’s longevity, and this allusion reinforces his status as an important figure in the canon of booty-centric rap songs.
Given Wayne’s numerous hits, nothing on Funeral really sounds like a single in the way “Right Above It” or even “Uproar” did. “I Do It,” a collab with the clashing Big Sean and Lil Baby, was dubbed the first “single” via tweet but expect that to change once the streams gravitate towards a favorite.
“Trust Nobody,” the track with an Adam Levine chorus, would have been huge in 2010 as the soundtrack to a Call of Duty commercial. The hook’s fake deep cynical ethos is not far removed from Eminem’s Recovery or Wayne’s own “rock” album Rebirth. Now, it just sounds like a relic, but like Eminem, the anachronism won’t keep Wayne from debuting atop the Billboard 200.
“Wayne’s World” comes close to grating with its obvious Myers and Carvey sample, but the exuberance in their voices works. The track succeeds thanks to the beat by Manny Galvez and Louie Haze; it sounds like a machine ascending at light speed, over huge drums. Hearing Wayne rap “Party time, excellent” is so fun!
Most of the featured rappers accentuate Wayne at his carefree best, including songs with Lil Twist, O.T. Genasis, and Jay Rock. Takeoff sounds fantastic paired with Wayne on “I Don’t Sleep.” The two ping-pong around a P’ierre Bourne-esque beat with nearly audible smiles. “Me without the paper is like Tune without the lean / Or Phil without the rings,” the Migo raps.
2 Chainz appears for a Collegrove reunion on “Know You Know.” Lines like “I’m an ex-drug dealer / Get a rush when the egg sizzle” are enough to boost the song beyond its lazily misogynistic hook.
It’s beyond the scope of one critic, certainly this one in particular, to claim where the line for good taste exists in rap, if indeed it does at all. But the worst lines on the album aren’t just in poor taste; they’re boring, stripped of the jaw-dropping associations that prime Wayne used to generate between breaths.
“Bastard (Satan’s Kid)” shows Wayne adapting to the style of XXXTentacion, an artist he himself influenced, like Earl Sweatshirt with MIKE or Pharrell with Tyler, the Creator, except much worse. Its hook urges mistrust of women with a mean-spirited joke. The bad guy cliches just sound like a surly posturing teenager. XXX appears posthumously on the following track “Get Outta My Head,” and it’s similarly joyless. On “Mama Mia,” Wayne raps “blunt looking Cuban / My eyes look Korean.” It’s not just a racist joke, it’s one that’s been told a thousand times. Wayne’s a better writer than that.
Wayne records constantly, and he narrowed his work down to 72 songs for Mack Maine’s consideration and curation. The Funeral leaks that emerge in the coming weeks will likely include gems that will seem unthinkable to leave off the final project, like Tha Carter V before it. But Lil Wayne’s best work has never been contained by the record label economy. It’s reminiscent of the fiery prolific rapper Sada Baby releasing his New Year’s Day 2020 project on Datpiff.
Knowing that Wayne leaves his tracklists to associates to decide, it’s easy to ponder an auteurist Lil Wayne album, one where the Martian writes to an overarching theme. Wayne takes pride in his ability to stick to the subject in his verses and songs, comparing his early raps to school. “You’d want to be the guy that turns in the best paper, and so I would always try to be the guy who’d stick to the subject the most in my verse because I knew everybody else is about to get on this song and still try to find a way to talk about something they really want to talk about,” he recently told Entertainment Weekly. Could that focus craft a self-important would-be instant classic, maybe condensed into a more manageable package?
But that’s not what Lil Wayne does, and who can fault him with sticking to what he does best, over two decades into his career? Mess with the formula too much and end up with Clapton’s Unplugged or ballet scores by Elvis Costello. The hard drive dumps direct from Wayne’s brain have been vital to rap music for many years, and we can hope there’s many more in our future. Catch Lil Wayne on tour this summer, where a few of the Funeral tracks will sound great next to all the hits.
It became easy to hate on Eminem going into the 2010s. Starting with 2009’s Relapse, his first album in five years after taking time off to recover from drug addiction, the Detroit legend’s peerless mic wizardry became increasingly overshadowed by plodding production and below-the-belt potshots at pop stars. Never mind that that album contained some of Em’s most pristine, conceptually-driven bars; to a maturing fan base, the retreads of previous themes and a liberally-employed new accent missed the mark. And though Recovery seemed to be just that for him, culminating in some noteworthy hits like the Rihanna-assisted “Love the Way You Lie,” Marshall Mathers spent the rest of the last decade releasing a series of uninspiring missteps leading up to 2017’s forgettable Revival. Fortunately, Music to Be Murdered By is an ably produced late-career triumph, with some of Eminem’s most poignant and exquisitely crafted lyrics in in recent memory.
What better backdrop for Eminem’s refocused angst than that which is invoked by the shoveled-dirt sounds and an eerie drop—announcing the album’s macabre title—by a Hitchcockian narrator on the intro? From jump, it’s a way of keeping things fresh and thematically consistent for a potentially daunting 20-song stretch. Suddenly those lazy strays by far too many on Rap Twitter at his supposedly lame “skippity be bop de boo” rhyme patterns seem moot when the 8 Mile representative comes off newly enlivened in his grown-man vent, with one of the best openers since Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares.” Over woofer-caving bass and a dramatic organ, he spits, “They said that they hated the awake me/I lose the rage, I’m too tame/I get it back, they say I’m too angry.” It’s thrilling to hear him sounding this focused—no funny voices or childish slurs—while defending the humorous and reflective aspects of his legacy and persona.
The former aspect is on display on “Unaccommodating,” his link-up with Young M.A, the first of several well-placed features here. Em’s lighthearted lines—in all their hacked-algorithm complexity—about “getting head like a Pillow Pet” blend unusually well with the Brooklynite’s loose, languid flow. And far from the workmanlike thud of past Slim Shady beats, the song’s hypnotic, bells-driven melody adds some much-needed verve and bounce, helping modernize and stabilize a beloved MC whose verbiage tends toward rigid and caffeinated.
“Cause, see, they call me a menace and if the shoe fits, I'll wear it. But if it don't, then y'all will swallow the truth, grin and bear it” #Renegade #MusicToBeMurderedBy pic.twitter.com/2aIFk2kz8a
— Marshall Mathers (@Eminem) January 23, 2020
But those revitalized hijinks of Em’s soon give way to some of the headier material that one one would expect on such a darkly-themed project. “You Gon’ Learn,” with a guest spot from Royce da 5’9”, is a moving meditation on the inevitability of struggle. Whereas his longtime friend recalls his past with alcoholism, Marshall ruminates on the existential dilemma of being white and poor in a Chocolate City: “Didn't have knots, I was so broke/On my last rock, for my slingshot/Better haul ass, don't be no slow poke/Through the tall grass, run your ass off/Oh no, got your pants caught on the fence post/Getting chased, by them Jackboys.” These sepia-toned snapshots, emboldened by world-weary synths and hard snares, bristle with a fuming blue-collar furor, reminding us once again of Em’s remarkable triumphs over adversity.
But what about those well-crafted bars? Not only does Music to Be Murdered By possess them in spades, it also astoundingly manages to bring the ever-illusive third verse back to the forefront. Its inclusion on “Yah Yah” is obvious, if not expected alongside such heavyweight spitters as Black Thought and, again, Royce da 5’9,” though Em makes it indelible: “And I'm like a spider crawlin' up your spinal column/I'm climbin' all up the sides of the asylum wall/And dive in a pile of Tylenol, you're like a vagina problem/To a diabolical gynecologist tryna ball a fist.” More surprising, however, is “Lock It Up,” a hit waiting to happen, which features Anderson .Paak and a third verse whose heading-spinning quatrain (“Get a whiff of the doctor's medicine/Like sedatives you'll get popped, Excedrin/'Cause you can get it like over the counter/Like I just left the damn concession stand”) seems all the more outstanding amid Dr. Dre’s lucid and infectious guitar stabs.
Less a radio-ready earworm than a morbid monologue, “Darkness” is a tragic narrative in the tradition of “Stan.” In under six minutes, Eminem embodies a deranged shooter, self-medicating backstage with Valium and alcohol before opening fire on his audience then killing himself. The song ends, significantly, with Eminem highlighting gun debate loopholes and playing news clips from the 2017 Mandalay Bay Hotel shooting in Las Vegas as well as the 2019 shooting in Daytona, Ohio among others. This is social commentary with the subtle implication that white male privilege in this country far too often hides an unchecked anxiety, along with the observation that these mass shooters aren't as far from us as we may think. It may fall flat with some listeners since just several songs earlier he makes a punchline out of the deadly bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, but for an artist who has previously likened himself to the Columbine shooters, the song is growth.
A more suitable conduit is the punk-rock-like Stepdad,” where Marshall blows up on his guardian for abusing him and and his mom to the point where “I’m startin’ to think I’m psychotic.” What would otherwise serve as a welcome reprieve, “Those Kinda Nights,” a saccharine ode to hitting up the strip club, with Ed Sheeran on the hook, falls flat. It’s not that we don’t want to hear Shady at his ease; it’s just that with such a formulaic setup (not to mention a clunky line about D12 member Bizarre and a lap dance—something no one really ever needs to visualize, no disrespect), it dissipates some of the album’s bullet-point intensity.
That eye-of-the-tiger ferocity is, thankfully, flexed on “Little Engine,” which revisits the zany worldview introduced on his debut some 20 years ago with bars like, “I'm still the one that your parents hate/I’m in your house eatin' carrot-cake/While I sit there and wait and I marinate/I'm irritated, you 'bout to meet a scary fate/And come home to find yourself starin' straight into a fuckin' barrel like Sharon Tate.” Elsewhere, “Marsh” mines a similarly combative mode while showcasing more breathtaking internal rhymes: “A pad and pen'll be great, but a napkin'll do/Return of the whack sicko/Head spinnin' like Invisibl Skratch Piklz/Yeah, Shady's back, see the bat signal.”
But it’s “I Will,” which boasts the remaining Slaughterhouse members, that marks his newfound penchant for score settling. Here, instead of coming for R&B songstresses who are for the most part defenseless against him, Eminem trains his sights, finally, on someone who’s fit for the smoke. In a blistering swipe at former Brand Nubian and frequent VladTV affiliate Lord Jamar, he observes: “Yeah, your group was off the chain, but you were the weakest link.” If it seems like presumption to go at one of the culture’s pioneers like that, it’s thanks to a buildup of bad vibes that have long been brewing between the two. It’s a sentiment he echoes in the aforementioned “Lock It Up,” where he addresses the proverbial elephant in the room, regarding Joe Budden’s exit from Slaughterhouse, degradingly referring to the podcast host as “Trader Joe.” Eminem doesn’t merely get mad here; with Music to Be Murdered By, he also gets even.
Upstart Minneapolis musician Prince Rogers Nelson released an album per year after his 1978 debut, For You, each more sophisticated than the last. But 1999 made Prince a star and solidified his place in music history. After its release in October 1982, the album peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard 200 and became the fifth-best-selling album of the following year. Singles “1999” and “Little Red Corvette” peaked in the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100, and their videos were some of the first by a Black artist to be shown on MTV. Prince’s classic has now been reissued by Warner Bros., with a remaster of the original album and hours of previously unreleased material.
The good news is that the record still sounds as fantastic as it did the first time you heard it. The title track’s synth fanfare heralds your entrance into a new world of grinding machinery and pulsing libido. It’s like Dorothy opening the door to Oz, but everything’s gone from black and white to shades of purple. Across 11 tracks and 70 minutes, Prince uses dance beats, slow jams, ballads, call and response funk, rock guitar solos, all toward one spiritual purpose: sex. It’s not all crude either. He will pretend to be married if you prefer the illusion of propriety, and he uses “Free” to give thanks for a society that allows him to pump out albums worth of filth and funk.
Like the narrator making dedications in bed on “Lady Cab Driver,” each moment on the album points toward a predecessor in pop and funk: James Brown’s yelp, Larry Graham’s slap, Jimi Hendrix’s guitar heroics. Prince threw in the now-iconic sounds he wrung out of a manipulated Linn Drum Computer and pushed American popular music into the future. The warped drum programming was deeply influential on the emerging sounds of Detroit techno and Chicago house, and it’s stayed relevant into the present where the likes of Billie Eilish and FKA twigs top charts and critics’ polls singing over brittle beats.
In line with the other best updates to classic works, the new remaster is hard to notice. In general, the 2019 version of the album is a little clearer and a lot fuller. It’s the equivalent of watching a favorite movie in HD for the first time. The opening notes of “D.M.S.R.” flit across the sides of the song, rather than sitting in the middle of the stereo mix. Rather than blending together, the layers of bass guitar on “International Lover” now curl in on each other like puffs of smoke. Prince’s vocals, like the coos that become shrieks on “Little Red Corvette”’s bridge, are still kept at a remove through reverb, but the effect doesn’t lessen their power.
The reissue’s second part includes B-sides and alternate edits of album cuts. The majority of these tracks would be inessential even if this was their first time available digitally. A mono single edit of “1999” is an interesting relic of another era in major label promotion, but why opt for the watered-down version? The keepers are the B-sides, including one-take studio wonder “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore,” and the eight-minute Special Dance Mix of “Little Red Corvette,” which is a dancefloor filler in addition to a historical artifact; Questlove contends it was one of the first times an artist ever remixed their own track.
For casual fans and completists alike, the heart of the 1999 reissue is the nearly two dozen previously unreleased tracks, recorded between November 1981 and January 1983. Prince was in the middle of an incredibly fertile hot streak, writing and recording songs for himself as well as satellite groups The Time and Vanity 6. As his engineer Peggy McCreary pointed out in a recent interview, without the need for a producer or supplementary musicians, the artist was free to spend his recording budget on studio time. “I think he loved being in that environment, because I know, wherever he was, on tour, if they had a day off he would find a studio in that city,” she said. “That's what he loved to do.”
Listeners can now hear some of Prince’s process at work through these unreleased songs. “Feel U Up” is close to a demo, a groove that runs a few minutes too long and a vocal that’s too sheepish to sound coy. The next track, “Irresistible Bitch” from 1981, builds a new song over the same beat with nimble bass, unfurling synths, and new lyrics. Prince goes all out on his vocals, his voice ragged and hoarse like he’s been driven mad with lust. Those vocals give the earlier version the edge over Prince’s more subdued take of the song, recorded and released in 1983 as the B-side to “Let’s Pretend We’re Married.” It’s compelling to see what Prince found ready to release at any given time, to hear a seed of an idea grow from a rasp to backing vocals from Wendy & Lisa. The artist would regularly repurpose old tunes, none here more obvious than the would-be generational anthem “Bold Generation” morphing into “New Power Generation” eight years after its initial recording.
Prince lays out his own personal manifesto on “Purple Music” over a spare drum loop. “Ain’t got no theory, ain’t got no rules / I just let the purple music tell my body what to do / And I’m high,” he sings, his voice mixed like he’s found an undiscovered altered state. It’s mesmerizing. The song has been widely bootlegged, but the ancestral hiss of copies of copies of cassettes can’t compare to hearing all 11 minutes in high-quality. 1999 was the first time Prince laid claim to the royal color, including reference to his “purple rock” on “D.M.S.R.” and purple stars on “Automatic.” “Purple Music” makes it clear the color was more than an aesthetic affectation, it was ideal to pursue.
Playing with sexual and gender norms was a cornerstone of Prince’s work, and “Vagina” shows that his most transgressive material went unreleased. Prince sings about the titular person teaching him how to dance in a gay bar over gritty guitars. (No drums, but his beatboxing and other vocal rhythmic cues sound a lot like his peer and rival Michael Jackson.) She’s “half boy, half girl, the best of both worlds,” as he sings on the chorus. It’s a simple love story, complicated by a fluidity that still feels novel today.
All the unreleased material sounds fresh, impressive nearly four decades removed from its recording. (“You’re All I Want” is clearly a recycled “Delirious,” but it gets a pass since it was recorded as a birthday gift to longtime engineer McCreary.) “Money Don’t Grow On Trees” is a slice of driving pop-rock with a charmingly anachronistic Fred Astaire reference. On “If It’ll Make U Happy,” hear the artist dabbling in reggae rhythms with a new wave sheen. Released as a single earlier this fall, “Don’t Let Him Fool Ya” sounds like Prince in his funky prime because that’s basically what it is.
Posthumous releases always occupy a moral gray area, but Prince kept a literal vault anticipating that some of his material would see the light of day. Michael Howe, archivist for Prince’s vault, recently stated his goal is to “shine a light on the entirety of Prince’s creative legacy”, and the 1999 reissue succeeds. The remaster preserves the album’s sound for future generations to draw from. Prince’s unreleased material illuminates the creative process of one of the most important pop musicians in American history. Parties weren’t meant to last, but the deluxe 1999 should keep it going a few hours longer.