It’s finally here.
The Carter V is upon us, and one of hip-hop’s all time greats and biggest influencers is returning to the field with the guard of honor he deserves. I haven’t listened enough at time of writing to decide if this is the victory lap I anticipated or not, but until then, here are my 15 essential Lil Wayne tracks.
A brief note: I consider Wayne the single most essential rapper of his generation. Kanye West is a better musician. Kendrick Lamar is a better rapper. But no other hip-hop artist inspired and influenced the next generation more than Wayne.
I believe Wayne’s most dynamic and prolific period was from 2005-2011 (roughly), encompassing Tha Carter II and his iconic mixtape run leading up to Tha Carter III, likely his best album, so this list does not feature early Wayne, or anything from his time with the Hot Boyz. Enjoy tho.
15: Blunt Blowin, Tha Carter IV (2011)
Blunt Blowin is the second track on C4, Wayne’s first album post-prison and one of the most anticipated releases of any genre in recent memory. For many, the album was a mixed bag. But this track, among other high points, epitomized the frenetic energy Wayne injected into the game. The simple, rumbling instrumental lead, Wayne’s charisma, flows, and signature punchlines create an intoxicating runup to one of his most memorable hooks. A hidden gem.
14: Stuntin’ Like My Daddy, Like Father Like Son (2006)
The Watch The Throne of its time, Like Father Like Son was the collaborative project between Wayne and his mentor/father/abuser Birdman. Now, it feels like a relic of a simpler time. But the iconic single from the album, Stuntin’ Like My Daddy is a modern classic. The chemistry between Wayne and Baby, the back and forth cadence, the N’Awlins Bounce infused beat that was so far ahead of its time, and of course, that unforgettable hook. What we doing? Getting money. What they doing? Hating on us.
13: Fireman, Tha Carter II, (2005)
One of the singles from the classic C2, Fireman is Weezy at his peak over a hypnotic beat, driven by fire engine sirens. Once again, we see Wayne rapping at a level far ahead of its time, over an instrumental equally as comfortable on Yeezus as it is seamlessly on C2, almost a decade earlier. Timeless Wayne.
12: Dr. Carter, Tha Carter III, (2009)
The first inclusion on this list from his seminal album, Dr. Carter presents Wayne as hip-hop’s premier surgeon, an apt metaphor. The instrumental is a percussive, jazzy soundscape accented by Wayne’s nurses informing him about his patients: weak flows, lack of motivation, no love for the game. Wayne raps through his surgeries, trying his hardest to revive his patients with his bars and references to rap greats. He loses two patients, but finally, triumphantly, revives the game, as horns swell. Wayne at his peak, surgical with his words.
11: The Mobb, Tha Carter II (2005)
The intro track on C2 is Wayne coming at you in full force, from the opening line: “Cash Money Young Money motherfuck the other side/Niggas can fuck with us if they want, then its drama time.” It’s just bar after bar of Wayne claiming rap’s throne, an undeniable assault on rap’s upper echelon, and it is effective. It is no coincidence that six tracks later, Wayne spells it out for you in plain english: The Best Rapper Alive.
Also, it’s in this:
10: I’m Me, The Leak (2008)
I’m Me is a relic of the album that was supposed to be Tha Carter III. It leaked weeks before the release date, and Wayne went back to the drawing board, creating an entirely new album, despite the pure fire that was the unofficial version of C3. It was at the peak of the mythic “Mixtape Weezy”, and features samples from Wayne classics, some of which will appear further on the list. I’m Me is Wayne at his artistic and confidence apex, and it is intoxicating from start to finish, the kind of energy that gives a chubby 11 year old the confidence to do long division.
9: Me and My Drank, Tha Carter III Leaks (2007-2009)
This was Wayne at his most lucid, and in many ways, his most essential. His love for lean has been well documented and has threatened his life, but during this stunning period of his career, his productive and artistic peak, it was inseparable from his persona and his art. Lean defined Wayne’s idiosyncrasies – his sentence structure, allusions, dynamism – much in the same way they described the sonic landscape of Houston’s Screwed Up Click. It slowed you down, and to slow Wayne down is to hear him at his clearest, even if it is his most fucked up. More on Wayne and Lean later.
8: Cry Out (Amen), Tha Carter III Leaks (2007-2009)
A hidden gem from the album that never was, cry out is a departure from Wayne’s usual repertoire. It’s over a fantastic, soulful, gospel infused beat that sounds like Blueprint era Kanye, with Wayne coming with a lyrical onslaught of stream of consciousness memoir, a never ending verse with no hook, just sparse moments to let the beat, and Wayne, breathe. He opens “I’ma call this one real rap, cuz this rap is real, you know/I hope you ain’t too tired to cry, and I hope you know you never ain’t too alive to die.” The following is that of a man that practices what he preaches. A rare moment of bare vulnerability from a rap legend, and a Soundcloud only gem, as the track was only officially mastered 2 years ago.
7: Mr Carter, Tha Carter III (2009)
The second cut on the defining album of Wayne’s career is a layered one. On its surface, it’s a passing of the torch as Jay Z and Wayne trade verses, and a moment for Wayne to reflect on his own greatness as he leads the listener into his piece de resistance. Beneath that, it is a cheeky reference to Hov and Weezy’s complicated history: occasional rivals with deep mutual respect. There’s even been a recurring rumor of Wayne leaving Cash Money for Roc-A-Fella, and now, Roc Nation. The main content of the track is a dominant Wayne, rapping so far above his peers, so effortlessly, kindly accepting the mantle of rap king from Jay Z on the second verse, who delivers a verse worthy the hype of the collaboration, but ultimately resolving in a third verse that devolves into a gospel choir, the piano melody, the hook (Wayne thought it was a sample until he saw the album credits), and Wayne clearly freestyling, musing on the view from the top, and the inevitability of his rest beneath the bottom.
*This is definitely cheating, but this is essential Wayne, the song doesn’t gotta be his*
6*: His Hook on Duffle Bag Boy (2007), and his verses on Swagga Like Us (2008) and Mad (2016)
Wayne has always been a feature star. During his mixtape era (his career arch startlingly mirrors that of Kobe Bryant, so this is essentially 35 a game, 81 points, MVP, and post-Shaq championships all rolled into one), it was near impossible to not be outshined by Wayne if you put him on your track.
On Playaz Circle’s only hit, an admittedly sick one, Wayne is almost the entire song. His hook is infectious; his delivery, the New Orleans drawl, the conviction in every syllable, and the dynamism and aggression on the final chorus turned a run-of-the-mill mid 2000s rap song into a classic.
On Swagga Like Us, essentially an all-star game of rap in 2008, Wayne comes in with the third verse, after Kanye West and Jay Z already deliver heavy verses. Wayne shatters the song around him completely, coming in snarling one of the most vicious freestyles in recent memory.
The type of shit that make ’em call you Carmelo
Rules as follows: stay true to the ghetto
Write your name on the bullet, make you feel special
Ha! What the fuck you boys talkin’ ’bout?
I know it’s us, ‘cause we the only thing to talk about
He ended the song, even though it’s a T.I, song, who has yet to rap. Unreal.
Finally, on Mad, Wayne came through with the equivalent of Kobe shooting those two free throws with a torn achilles, then walking off the court. In the midst of a lawsuit with rap supervillain Birdman, it seemed like Wayne’s career was in a permanent limbo. He would appear occasionally as a feature, but nothing resembling a complete project appeared attainable. Then, on a song unlike anything he had appeared on in recent memory, his voice rises up on Mad, from Solange’s stellar A Seat At The Table. His first verse is vintage Wayne, and strong enough to make the list on its own. He fits in perfectly on the hypnotic soul, his classic drawl, jazz like delivering developing Solange’s theme of anger and blackness, expressing his grievances with a certain “such and such that still owe [Wayne] bucks.” He perfectly accents Solange throughout the song. It really shows artistic growth, no longer the spotlight stealer he was nearly a decade ago, Wayne is now a veteran, adept at sharing the stage. He closes the song with one of his most memorable verses ever, upping the ante, accelerating his flow and his emotion, reflecting on his lowest lows and dark and moments, expressing the anger that turns Wayne from visionary artist to gangsta rapper in the White consciousness, but finally, and freely, letting it go. We all got a lot to pop a Xan about. Wayne said it for us.
(This is also ESSENTIAL viewing)
5: A Milli, Tha Carter III (2009)
Yes, this is the default essential Lil Wayne track. It’s undoubtedly one of the most important songs in rap history, it was the triumphant culmination of the event that was Tha Carter III. But it is not the most essential Weezy song. It’s Weezy at his best, rapping over a beat that is so simple, Wayne is required to do all the work. This isn’t to say the beat isn’t good, but if you put any of Wayne’s peers over it, they could not have done what Wayne did. Wayne made an anthem out of an axiom: The Carter III was going platinum in the first week. Period. He gives you everything you expect out of Wayne: detailed sentences, prose flows, punchlines, confidence, and that one of a kind voice. But I believe its Wayne’s presence on the track – his vocal inflections, the oozing confidence, the feeling that you are in the king’s court – that define the track more than its memorable verses. It’s not just “Okay you’re a goon, but what’s a goon to a goblin;” it’s the pitching own of goblin, and then the jump cut to his high pitched cadence in the next bar that leaves this song seared in the minds of anyone listening to the radio in 2009. Still, Wayne does these defining qualities in even better ways and on more interesting beats. Four more exactly, according to me.
4: Hustler Musick, Tha Carter II (2005)
It hits you right in the sternum. The most ambitious track on C2, and its crown jewel, Hustler Musick is Wayne capitulating to the archaic standards of “good” rap: a sample driven breakbeat, verse chorus verse structure, and consistent theme. But Wayne’s cookie cutter cuts different. For 5 minutes, Wayne is the live leader of a Jazz ensemble, rapping like the Codeine Curtis Mayfield for three searing verses, moving his voice up and down with the bouncing horns and swelling synths of the beat. He even kills the hook, utilizing that amazing voice fully, delivering a beautifully sung pledge to the life of the hustler, followed by the church like bridge. Young Weezy got that motherfuckin’ hustler music. If you don’t hear this song and immediately need to go get it, by any means necessary, this ain’t the genre for you doggy.
3: I Feel Like Dying, Tha Carter III Leak (2007-2009)
One of the biggest leaks from the infamous recording marathon, I Feel Like Dying is one of the most introspective and experimental songs in Wayne’s catalog. Built largely around one of the most well implemented samples I’ve ever heard, Wayne raps the way they say heroin feels. He raps about addiction. That’s what he’s talking about, that’s what the beautiful hook is saying. But the palpable highness of Wayne’s delivery, and the cleverness about the bars are proto-Future. Future’s best, most strung out banger owes everything to the glorious dismissal of sobriety that is I Feel Like Dying.
2. Sky’s The Limit (Ride For My Niggas), The Drought 3 (2007)
The peak of Mixtape Wayne. Throughout his tape run, Wayne absolutely destroyed any beat he wanted, regardless of who went platinum on it. Here, Wayne bodies Mike Jones’ “Mike Jones” beat, rapping with the determination of a rapper on the beginning of a tear through the industry. The song brilliantly displays Wayne’s singular ability to use his voice and flows to command a song. His bars are sick, the trademark punchline setups and turns of phrase are everywhere throughout the song. But it’s the delivery, seamless to the point that themes and extended metaphors blend together, the same way his voice blends into the beat.
And when I was five my favorite movie was the Gremlins
Ain’t got shit to do with this but I just thought that I should mention
You looking for divine and a little intervention
And them birds don’t fly without my permission
I’m probably in the sky, flying with the fishes
Or maybe in the ocean, swimming with the pigeons
See my World is Different, like Dwayne Wayne
And if you want trouble, bitch, I want the same thang
You know that’s off the dome. I don’t know if we’ve ever seen quite like Wayne at this moment in time.
1: Lollipop Remix (Ft. Kanye West), Tha Carter III (2009)
Perhaps the single most influential song on the sonic landscape of popular music today. This was the collision of Wayne at his most creative, and Kanye at the beginning of his most experimental. C3 Wayne and 808s Kanye are the backbone of rap today. Wayne’s flows, punchlines, melodic inflections and hectic dynamism are the reason Uzi and Thug are redefining rap today. Kanye’s reclamation of the 808 and embrace of electronic sounds and vocal modulation have reshaped popular music entirely. From Travis Scott to The Weeknd, you can trace a defining quality of any popular artist today to this moment in time, the cohesion of these two innovators.
The remix gives Kanye the first verse, one of the best of his career. Drenched in the Autotune that Ye reinvented, Jay Z wanted dead, and radio couldn’t get enough of, Yeezy tears through some of the catchiest, most quintessentially Kanye bars of his career. The Watch so freeze/Nacho Cheese to Frito Lay series over just the drums? Wet. He even ends his verse saying he won’t let Wayne murder him like everyone else. What does Wayne do?
You already know it pimping,
*UNSANCTIONED ESSENTIAL TRACK*
This is a simply astounding from the documentary The Carter (2008) that followed Wayne during the months leading up to the release of Tha Carter III. It prominently featured documentation both of Wayne’s prolific recording process and drug use, specifically, lean. Wayne’s team pulled out, but the documentary made it to Youtube look it up. But this is an untitled, unused freestyle from the documentary that perfectly personifies Mixtape Weezy. Long live the GOAT.