Their careers overlap so closely you can forget that Jay-Z (born 1969) and Eminem (born 1972) spring from a much different generation than Lil Wayne (born 1982). The first MCs to become undeniable pop superstars, Gen-Xers Jay and Em shouldered their pioneers’ burdens about as adroitly as we could reasonably ask. Coming up, for them, the big challenge was mainstream success; once achieved, the next goal was … to find a next goal. Jay, viewing the hustler’s life through a smudged ’70s lens, indulged in that Superfly dream of one last big score funding a dignified retirement; Em jerked erratically between sententious pronouncements and drug-numbed horrorcore. Both men have since settled into the traditional role of the aging rock star: providing broad anthems of mass uplift.
Contrast their individual triumphs with Wayne’s success and you’ll hear the difference between “making it” and “getting away with it.” Wayne was free to initiate a new, suitably Millennial rap paradigm: king as trickster. Work when you want, fuck with expectations, owe nothing to nobody. Like that transitional ’00s rap superstar, the willfully thick 50 Cent, Wayne could toy with smugness, indifference, even laziness in his persona, and cast these traits as a form of rebellion against hip-hop orthodoxy. (Compare T.I.’s lean suavity and eagerness to anoint himself Jay’s Southern analogue–a throwback to classic standards.) Eminem only parodied those he deemed his pop lessers; Wayne trolled the rap game itself.
And how better to goose the slick state of chart-rap than to hit big with an offhanded ad lib. “A Milli” wends in and out of coherence with a freestyle’s looseness, and specific lyrics — questioning foes (“What’s a goon to a goblin?”), exhibiting a strange fascination with hair (Sicilian and Nigerian), displaying a marked confusion over female biology (“a venereal disease like a menstrual bleed”) — matter less than the overall swerve and careen of the performance. Wayne doesn’t flow here — he splurts and clots and drools and drips. He scuffs his consonants with a fake patois, and compresses or distends vowels with glottal violence. He shifts rhyme schemes with virtuoso irregularity, and exits to a stifled giggle fit.
“A Milli” was something like a phenomenon, summoning umptillion freestyles from rappers keen to reflect its glory, few genuinely notable, all contributing to the song’s achievement. Who could blame them? That lush introductory string swoop and abbreviated cocktail piano tinkle was like a curtain rising on a bare stage, and the beat itself was MC-flattering in its sparsity: handclaps, rat-a-tat drum fill, resonant bass drop, and vocal sample from “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” screwed to an ominous baritone stutter. All the more reprehensible that producer Bangladesh had to fight to get his share of the profits. That ain’t being a new-school trickster, Wayne — that’s just being an old-school industry dick.