The lifeblood of hip-hop has always survived off the pursuit of watershed moments from its most important artists. We as observers demand these types of perfectly crafted cultural shifts, though, we rarely take that same instance to appreciate the genius that created them.
The brilliance of “Juicy” could never be fully realized until years after Biggie’s death as it became the anthemic blueprint for celebrating black opulence in the face of a lifetime of adversity. The College Dropout only grows in its influence the more that cries for the “old Kanye” drown out further conversation. Even the small wick fighting to stay lit at the heart of Kendrick’s “Alright” isn’t as courageous or inspirational without the looming shadow of the Trump presidency surrounding the core ideals that the song is fighting to protect.
An artist’s apex can also trigger a truly special moment. A final form, if you will, of peak creativity and influence, culminated into something transcendent of time and space, its genius forever on loop.
Lil Wayne’s “A Milli,” now 10 years removed from its meteoric impact on hip-hop, will forever be the watershed moment for one of the greatest artistic runs in rap history.
When you hear the words “A Milli,” the sounds come back to you in distinct flashes that piece themselves together into the full narrative. The hypnosis of Bangladesh’s chopped and screwed sample of A Tribe Called Quest’s “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo.” The pulsating snare drums building the anticipation. The elation when the bass drops. The competition between two halves of a production harnessing all of their energy to try and engulf the other side. From the opening Bangladesh producer tag to the final “C3, three peat” mention, “A Milli” never tried to prove its greatness because it lacked the insecurity to presume anything otherwise.
To remember it as a perfect song from its conception, though, is misleading. Bangladesh himself admitted just as recently as last month, that Wayne’s version was initially disappointing (he thought the lack of a hook would limit the song's success). It wasn’t without flaws originally; the unofficial version including a then-unknown Cory Gunz on the second of three verses, and a much less polished Wayne verse closing the song. Even the song’s rollout could be considered less than stellar, with "official" release dates ranging anywhere from February to April.
The greatness of "A Milli" and the insatiable bravado oozing out of the song's every corner were products of a much more complicated equation Wayne had been trying to solve for years. Trial and error were necessary catalysts for what “A Milli” needed as a song, as well as what Wayne needed in order to channel his best self.
Each iteration of Lil Wayne—and every frailty or criticism prior to that moment in his career—found a home on “A Milli.” The gritty, unpolished gun bars of Tha Carter and 500 Degreez accentuate the high-flying ridiculousness of lyrics like, “You pop 'em 'cause we pop 'em, like Orville Redenbacher.” The patience of Wayne’s delivery, and the surgical precision of lines like, “I don’t write shit, 'cause I don’t got time,” reveal a self-awareness of his own criticisms and are direct descendants of the poignancy found on tracks like “Husler Musik.”
Even the structureless, stream-of-consciousness raps that flowed through the veins of “A Milli”’s verses stemmed from a process Wayne practiced and perfected on everything from “Tha Mobb” to “Upgrade.” The end result of those identities merging was a fluid, captivating trilogy of verses destined to assert that Lil Wayne wasn’t just dominating the genre musically, he was enveloping the culture and molding it however he pleased.
Each of the three verses highlighted that notion through different methods. The first verse, using metaphors that felt endless at the time (“leak on the sheet of the tablet in my mind”) and unconventional rhyme schemes (rhyming “copper” and “haha”), serviced as a tone-setter, if the tone was the feeling of being burned alive by a thousand flamethrowers. With Bangladesh’s production hypnotizing the listener in an endless loop of vocals, every lyric became a trick to entrance you a little more, until you finally withdrew any sense of control.
The second verse, the weakest of the three, operated like a team utilizing clock management to maintain an enormous lead. Alley-oops are thrown, crazy crossovers are attempted, and lyrics like “Okay you’re a goon, but what’s a goon to a goblin?” feel like hip-hop getting jumped over and dunked on by Wayne in front of the girl it was trying to impress. Part of Wayne's "A Milli" apex was his ability to time his best material for when it mattered. If the moment wasn’t right, patience would always lead to something even better—like his third verse.
The final verse on “A Milli” was a nuclear bomb on wax. It was a deadly blend of pop culture references (“Boy I got so many bitches like I’m Mike Lowry / Even Gwen Stefani said she couldn’t doubt me”), top-notch braggadocio (“They say I’m rappin like B.I.G., Jay, and 2pac”), and biblical lamentations (“Don’t play in her garden, and don’t smell her flower”) interwoven into one, final haymaker for anyone thinking they were on Wayne’s level. It was chaotic, absurd, and exactly what made Lil Wayne the most thrilling emcee in the world at the time because at no point were you sure if Wayne was the smartest or the most unhinged person in the room.
The importance of “A Milli” wasn’t only in the song's execution, but for what it did to the rest of hip-hop. It spread through the rank and file of those vying for Wayne’s seat on the throne, and it doesn’t take much more than a YouTube search to find everyone from Fabolous to JAY-Z attempting to unsheathe the sword from the stone by rapping over the “A Milli” beat.
The legend of “A Milli” is partly wrapped up in the fact that there was no one who could ever outperform or even emulate the perfection that he had unmasked in those four minutes. It was Lil Wayne’s Excalibur.
“A Milli” is on the shortlist of songs that, if aliens crash landed and asked for one song to understand what rap sounded like, would unequivocally be played. It proved that, regardless of structure or traditional form, both critical and mainstream appeal could be found if the perfect blend of sound and style could be constructed.
It was that peak—birthed from the culmination of artistic failures, successes, and experimentations—that places “A Milli” in the pantheon of great rap songs in hip-hop history.