Lil Wayne — “Hustler Musik”

Released: 1.10.06

Peak: #87

A decade retrospective like this can easily shortchange exuberant non-geniuses like the overactive thugs at Cash Money. The label’s inarguable classics — “Ha,” “Back That Azz Up,” “Bling Bling” – closed out the ’90s; their initial output in the new decade didn’t quite shake the world’s foundations. But workmanlike bangers like Juvenile’s “U Understand” or Big Tymers’ “Number One Stunna” were the sort of unpretentious rap-radio filler that Timbaland and the Neptunes needed to set their auteurist masterworks in relief.

Also, those songs were a blast. True to their label name, the Millionaires blurted with the uncontained excitement of new money, free of the designer-label obsessions that afflict New Yorkers and less belligerent toward the ladies than lots of their Southern kin. Around mid-decade, at a time auteurist masterworks were in short supply, Cash Money caught a second wind with the ghetto pride of B.G.’s bread ‘n’ baloney anthem “Move Around” and Birdman’s high-energy Lil Wayne collab “Stuntin’ Like My Daddy.” And Weezy’s own mid-decade hits — “Go D.J.” with its percolating, hiccupping synth, and “Fireman,” with its two-tiered siren-wail and Dirty South hi-hats — elevated him to first among equals.

“Hustler Musik” is something darker: not the breakthrough of the “mature” Wayne whose Martian absurdity tickled pop fans, but not just another ghetto-got-me-crazy street soldier rant. Phrases metastasize, overlapping into a rhythmic patter of quasi-sequiturs, of observations and allusions that prefer psychological to narrative coherence. Where physically imposing thugs ease into the role of the bully, Wayne croaks with the menace of a creepy little guy, habitually underestimated and forced to prove his mettle, grown unhinged by the constant challenge.

And from that rat-a-tat drum intro, producers TMIX & Batman fashion a track of murky detail, from wah-wah splash to “Backstabbers” orchestration, over a beat less funky than fatalistic. Gangsta rap’s shortcomings have always been as much aesthetic as moral, based on a parasitic relationship with blaxploitation that borrowed a patina of cool and a gauche fashion sense, but “Hustler Musik” is as disjointed and engaging as any of the genre’s landmarks. It’s kinda genius, kind of a classic.

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