In the realm of popular hip-hop music, it's rare to find an artist who’s been crafting hits for as long as much of his or her core fan base has been alive, yet such is the case with Lil Wayne.
There are those of us who have watched Wayne grow since his Hot Boys debut 19 years ago, but you’re just as likely to hear his name in the top five artist conversation of an average 18-year-old Top 40 listener - a testament to his remarkable longevity and relevance.
Lil Wayne has been making hugely popular music for nearly all of the past two decades. Not only that, but we’ve seen multiple evolutions of his sonic aesthetic throughout his maturation as an artist over that period of time, many of them helping to set the standard for a particular musical phase to follow. Lil Wayne is basically the Majin Buu (shout out all my Dragon Ball heads) of hip-hop: every time he’s expected to disappear forever, he evolves into something even more powerful, threatening the existence of any half-assedness that may have bubbled up during one of his short-lived artistic breathers.
While examining the entirety of Weezy’s musical output would most likely take several Absurdly Detailed Investigations, let’s instead take a look at the many artistic incarnations of the New Orleans-bred superstar...or in other words, The Six Stages Of Weezy.
Hot Boy On Tha Block Era (1997-2002)
Wayne’s marriage to hip-hop actually started in 1992 at the age of 11 with his inclusion in The B.G.’z, but it wasn’t until the breakout of the Hot Boys in 1997, that he was introduced to the world. Even at 15, Wayne’s star power was immediately evident on his work with the group, and especially on standout contributions to the group's mega-hit "Bling Bling" and Juvenile’s solo breakout “Back That Azz Up.” In the following years, Wayne cemented himself as a solo star-in-the-making with his first three full-length albums, Tha Block Is Hot, Lights Out and 500 Degreez, developing within the boundaries of the sounds originating from the New Orleans-based, Mannie Fresh-led movement.
The Birth of Tha Carter (2004-2006)
In 2004, Wayne released his fourth studio album Tha Carter, which signified a full mastery of the sonic style Fresh had helped Wayne and his Cash Money cohorts solidify. The album was certified Gold within three months of its initial release. A year later, on his follow-up LP Tha Carter II - his first without the involvement of Mannie Fresh - Wayne leveled up yet again, releasing what many believe to be the best project of his entire career. Now with multiple critically-acclaimed solo albums and legitimate hit records like "Go DJ" and "Fireman" under his belt, Lil Wayne was already well on his way to a lasting musical legacy, but was still climbing towards the upper echelon of rap’s elite. Enter Mixtape Weezy.
Mixtape Weezy (2005-2009)
This is where the evolution of Lil Wayne took a sharp left turn. While Weezy continued to rack up mainstream successes, he did so with a focus firmly placed on completely owning the internet streets as well. While he had been active on the mixtape circuit for years, with a lengthy series of Sqad Up tapes and two initial installments of Da Drought, among others, it was his first Gangsta Grillz collaboration with DJ Drama, The Dedication, that truly marked the beginning of Wayne's reign as the King of Free Music. During this period, Wayne seemed to be untouchable, rapping with a lyrical ferocity we'd yet to hear and turning industry beats into dinner food that he'd chew up and spit out as better tracks. The next few years produced some of Weezy's most revered work: hands-down classics like Dedication 2 and Da Drought 3, unforgettable collaborative tapes with Juelz Santana (Blow) and the rest of the Young Money roster (Young Money: The Mixtape Vol. 1), and a seemingly endless number of leaked efforts leading up to the release of Tha Carter III, packaged most notably through the unofficial The Drought Is Over series by The Empire.
The Best Rapper Alive (2008-2009)
Following the release of Tha Carter III, Lil Wayne had reached unprecedented heights of mainstream success, underground notoriety, and musical focus. He called himself the Best Rapper Alive, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to argue the contrary. Tha Carter III sold over one million copies in its first week, and Wayne was unavoidable. Listening to any popular hip-hop or R&B song at the time meant there was more than a good chance a Weezy feature would be gracing your ears. Following the success of Tha Carter III, Wayne kept up his mixtape domination with releases like Dedication 3 and No Ceilings - the latter arguably being the last great peak of Wayne’s untouchability, in terms of respect and quality. "Peak Weezy,” if you will.
Tha Rebirth / The Martian Years (2010-2013)
After the incredible success of The Carter III and years of mixtape circuit mastery, Wayne was a bonafide superstar - one of the biggest artists in the world from any genre, still one of the most respected raw rap talents, and a self-proclaimed martian, which few could deny. He was also ready for another artistic evolution. Rebirth saw a near-complete departure from Wayne’s previous sounds in an attempt to dive into the world of rock. The project was received quite poorly, but it did show the world that Weezy was fearless in his sonic ambitions and fully serious about embracing rock star status.
And then legal troubles hit Wayne hard.
After Rebirth, Wayne was sentenced to eight months in prison, during which time his eighth studio album I Am Not A Human Being was slated for release. Suddenly, a decline that for so long seemed to be forever out of reach became a very real possibility. While smash radio successes continued - Top 10 hits like "Right Above It," "She Will," "How To Love" and "Love Me" - the overall quality of Wayne's output began to trend downward, along with the critical reception of following albums (Tha Carter IV, I Am Not A Human Being II). The Auto-Tune was there, and the weed, lean and pussy raps were there, but the spark that Wayne's music once captured seemed to be very slowly dimming.
Free Weezy (2014-Present)
Lil Wayne's reign over popular hip-hop dwarfs entire careers from most rappers, but the last few years have not been nearly as kind to the icon. Label woes have forced years of delays for his long-awaited Tha Carter V album, health scares have signaled various setbacks and sparked rumors of addiction struggles, and solo success has dipped dramatically. His latest album, Free Weezy Album, despite being a step up in quality from other recent efforts, failed to make any real impact on the charts or in the hip-hop community. While he's fallen from his creative peak, an argument can be made that he remains as popular as ever, whether he's gracing televisions nationwide through different advertising campaigns or continuing to appear on high-profile guest features.
With recent threats of retirement, there's a chance we will soon see a hip-hop landscape devoid of Lil Wayne for the first time in over two decades. Even if he's lost a step, the anticipation for Tha Carter V remains high. But years of waiting and wondering if the album will ever see the light of day has fans as exhausted and frustrated as Weezy is himself, justifiably.
Regardless of how the next couple years play out for Wayne, no one can ever take away 20 years of achievements, and even if he were to seriously lay down his microphone for good, his influence will be felt through the next generation of talent for years, if not decades, to come.
He's been The Hot Boy, Tha Carter, Mixtape Weezy, The Best Rapper Alive, The Martian and a man searching for freedom - let's just hope he's not finished.
Original illustration by Joshua Hayden aka JHAY. Follow him on Instagram.