The other night, Kobe Bryant had his Los Angeles Lakers jersey retired at Staples Center in front of the only crowd he ever knew. Watching the experience made me reflect on the last time Kobe suited up to play basketball.
Kobe’s last game was the epitome of his entire career—a chaotic masterpiece of hero ball, too many shot attempts, tried-and-true moves and jumpers that seemed not only impossible but contrarian to smart basketball, and ultimately a victory snatched up by the only man in the game whoever truly controlled its destiny.
Even as a lifetime Lakers hater, I remembered Kobe’s last game so fondly because it reconnected me with the polarizing yet traditional beauty of the mess that he often made and then saved on the court. However imperfect his genius, or however exhaustive and deteriorated it felt over time, traces of that genius were always there.
A few weeks ago, Lil Wayne announced a Christmas release date for the sixth installment of his Dedication mixtape series, and that same memory of Kobe’s final game came back to me. The Dedication series, much like the final game of one of the greatest players of an era that no longer exists, remains the final artifact of the birth, evolution, and reign of Lil Wayne as the once “Best Rapper Alive.”
The Dedication series played as the perfect soundboard for the numerous transformations of Wayne as an emcee, and each of its installments encapsulates a moment in his timeline, for better or worse.
The series’ birth, The Dedication, was released in 2005, just seven days after the release Wayne’s highest-selling and most critically acclaimed album to that point, Tha Carter ll. Considering that album's show-stopping lyricism, magnetic production, and a newfound penchant for hitmaking, it felt easy to overlook the significance of a mixtape full of Lil Wayne writing rhymes over other rappers’ established hits. Yet, for everything that Tha Carter ll did for boosting Wayne’s profile to the casual hip-hop fan, it was his unprecedented command over the adopted instrumentals of his peers and idols that highlighted just exactly who hip-hop was about to turn over its throne to.
Hosted by DJ Drama as part of his ongoing Gangsta Grillz mixtape series, The Dedication was more than just a gratuitous B-side compilation. It was the gritty, unpolished uncovering of the gears shifting within the engine of Lil Wayne’s ever-expanding persona. From the first utterance of “So now I’m buryin' the burner in the bomber / I carry the concerns of my mama,” on the eponymous opening track, to Wayne’s dispersed lamentations on everything from the meaning of the mixtape’s title to an explanation of his record deals, to the echoing, improvisational “Outro,” the entirety of The Dedication displays Wayne honing in on the most eccentric and kinetic parts of his personality without the typical constrictions.
Layered with DJ Drama’s hype man reinforcement and Gangsta Grillz tags every thirty seconds, one got the sense of an artist finding brilliance within the realization that, when given the ball, the boundaries as to what he could do could only be implemented by himself. Over an eclectic selection of instrumentals, from Cam’ron’s “Down & Out” to 8-Ball & MJG’s “Mr. Big,” the stream-of-consciousness rhyme schemes and bottomless gun metaphors delivered in limited doses on Carter II standouts like "Tha Mobb" were now the prime movers of a 29-track mixtape hellbent on claiming the most prized instrumentals in hip-hop for itself. Although the length of The Dedication steered it as close to repetitive and improbably enjoyable as possible, one thing was clear by its end: Lil Wayne was just scratching the surface in terms of where he could go, and what he could take for himself, musically.
It wouldn’t be until a year later on Dedication 2, the series’ crowning achievement, that Wayne began to channel his biggest imperfections into something much grander. If The Dedication proved that Wayne was beginning to find comfort within his own lyrical circus, then Dedication 2 was proof he was ready to be the ringleader.
Dedication 2 not only proved Lil Wayne was capable of levels of unmatched bravado and charisma, but that he was willing to bend and shape each and every rhyme scheme in his path to his will. All Wayne needed was a beat and room to let his rhymes wander, and yet Dedication 2 reached a striking level of proficiency. Weezy F. Baby was truly born, and tracks like "They Still Like Me," “Sportscenter,” “Cannon (AMG Remix),” “Dedication 2,” and “Gettin' Some Head” rose alongside him.
The genius was never just in what Wayne said, but in the way he said it. His gun metaphors, once brazen but unfinished in their lasting effects, felt like Mike Tyson haymakers with lines like “Them boys pussy, born without a backbone / And if you strapped we can trade like the Dow Jones / Wet 'em up, I hope he got his towel on / I aim at your moon, and get my howl on.” The cleverness of “I’m the fireman, she just call me when she steamin' / I wet her up, and put her out, and leave the bitch dreamin'” was never just about how the rhymes looked on paper, but in the newfound, effortless sleekness to each and every verse. For 25 tracks, Dedication 2 demanded its audience’s attention as it pillaged the hits of Wayne’s biggest hip-hop peers and rivals and transformed them into his own creations, effortlessly putting up jumpers no matter the defense in front of him.
Dedication 2 also proved that the series would neither limit itself to feature only Wayne himself, nor weightless subject matter. Wayne knew when to step aside, and songs like “Where The Cash At,” “Poppin Them Bottles,” and “Ridin Wit The AK” allowed slowly burgeoning Young Money talents like Mack Maine and Curren$y deserving opportunities.
As the series transitioned into the third and fourth installments, an uncredited quote about Alexander the Great comes to mind: “When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.” Dedication 3, specifically, which followed Wayne’s most successful album to date, Tha Carter lll, plays like an artist bored with the spoils of victory. If the Dedication series was a career marker that displayed the inner workings of Wayne’s creative process in its most visceral form, then Dedication 3 proved that once one monopolizes all the properties on the board, it’s hard to keep playing the same game.
However, what made the previous two editions in the series so captivating was all but gone. Whether it was Wayne’s incessant, exhaustive use of Auto-Tune—a newfound habit explored successfully on Tha Carter lll—or lukewarm Young Money posse cuts, the moments that allowed him to stretch his legs and dominate the instrumentals like old times were too few and far between. Dedication 3 proved that while Wayne’s focus on developing talent and exploring new creative avenues was important while at the height of his power, his own material would suffer if he did not course correct.
Dedication 4 suffered many of the same issues, while also introducing additional obstacles. Released four years after Dedication 3, in 2012, the series’ fourth installment captured the lowest point of Wayne’s career since becoming one of the biggest musical acts on the planet. In those four years, Wayne unleashed a string of middling releases, from the creative atrocity of Rebirth to the shallow but ultimately satisfactory I Am Not A Human Being, to the polarizing Carter IV. Wayne was searching for the boundless energy and swagger of his late 2000s releases, but he kept coming up empty.
The project showed promise on tracks like “So Dedicated” and “Cashed Out,” when Wayne was paired with instrumentals that best suited his forcefulness, yet on “Green Ranger” featuring J. Cole, he failed to show up when it mattered the most. Lyrics like “Uzi go zit-zit-zit-zit-zit-zit-zit, that’s pimples” were microcosms of an emcee now dependent on hollowed-out versions of the puns and metaphors that boosted his career. As the music industry shifted away from mixtapes, and towards either conceptual projects or serialized singles, Wayne found himself dribbling at the top of the key, going nowhere with dated material and never realizing he wasn’t getting any shots up anymore.
Much like the twilight years of Kobe’s career, Dedication 5 may have proven that our view of the entire Dedication series, in the context of how it defines Wayne’s place in hip-hop, is all that matters. Dedication 5 featured an iteration of Wayne dependent on overcompensating with his cockiness and was more shrill vocally than ever before, with messy and archaic as lines such as “She gon learn tonight, call that shit night school” or “Everything I do turn her on; that’s autostart.”
Still, it allowed us to put enough faith in Wayne that he could keep up with the faster pace of the game. Tracks like “UEONO” and “Cream” aren’t just serviceable freestyles, but legitimate thrill rides from the multi-faceted lyricist we once watched dominate. It also established that Dedication was more than just a series for us to watch Lil Wayne show up and ball out on our favorite hits of the year, like his other mixtape series like Sorry For The Wait and No Ceilings, but rather the last remaining strand of the Weezy F. Baby empire that had vanished.
As the rollout for Dedication 6 begins, with the proper project dropping in a few days, its allure resides in the idea that we are no longer showing up to listen to Wayne to see him dominate the industry or recapture the reign he once had. Like Kobe’s final games, we will continue to show up for Wayne’s Dedication series despite his outdated moves, his efficiency deteriorating, and everything about him feeling like a see-saw of quality at every turn.
Sometimes, for old time’s sake, it’s fun to just watch a once-great player take the ball and get buckets however he can.