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.