Late career rap releases always seem to fall into two categories that are hard to ignore. They can either show a rapper’s fire going out or a rapper’s fire relit. Its a dynamic that has a lot more to do with attitude than quality. Like Nas’s Life is Good or Jay-Z’s performance on Watch the Throne both showed a seemingly newfound attention to entertainment value and detail on the part of both MCs. It sounded like they cared again, like they had somehow rediscovered why they had started rapping in the first place. A reoriented attitude, however, should not be conflated with a creative rebirth. A rapper can just as energetically rehash old hits as explore new ideas.
Regardless, Lil Wayne’s Dedication 4 is definitely one of these reinvigorated releases. Ever since his stay at Riker’s Island, he’s had a serious attitude problem. To some extent, it was the result of him taking the “I don’t give a fuck” lifestyle much, much too seriously, a bad idea for a man with an extremely addictive and stubborn personality. He developed a kind of deadness behind the eyes and performed with a persona that was somehow both oblivious and anxiously bitter at the same time. He was trying to start where he had left off before the sentence, but he just didn’t have the energy.
While people often overemphasize the spontaneous, savant qualities of many talented rappers, a decades-old trend in the criticism of black musicians, these cliches always seemed to actually apply to Lil Wayne. He once compared his creative process to walking into a test you didn’t study for and somehow knowing all of the answers. After Rikers, he still thought he had the answers, even though it was clear that his famous free-associative abilities had seemed to have lost their kick. On Dedication 4, it looks like he’s realized that he now needs to put in a little bit of work to get the product that he once got seemingly without even trying.
Don’t get me wrong. These songs are still mostly built on the rehashed ashes of Wayne’s former glory, many drawing from the long dry well of his “A Milli” cadence. All rapping is based upon the same set-up and punchline format that he’s been using for years. His attitude can still be obnoxious as well, filling songs like “No Worries” with an almost vengeful sounding bravado. He even features the controversial thirteen-year-old Lil Mouse on his remix of “Get Smoked”, a clearly irresponsible and downright dumb move.
For all of its zombie-like repetition of bad habits, however, Dedication 4 shows a step in the right direction. Many of his new punchlines will actually make you smile rather than groan. Where flows were mind-numbingly repetitive in the past, now he pulls from various areas of his discography, most notably from showstoppers like “Go DJ” and “The Sky is the Limit”. His version of “Cashin’ Out” piles lines on top of one another, linking them together into a slinky-like mound of increasing tension. Sometimes, he even sounds like he’s trying something new. “Green Ranger”, for example, features an increasingly frenetic, out-of-breath Wayne rapping over a jittery, off-kilter loop.
He still hasn’t recaptured the soft, tense raps of No Ceilings‘s “Single” or Dedication 2’s “Welcome to the Concrete Jungle” or the bouncy, Hot-Boyz-style call-and-response of the underrated Like Father, Like Son, but given his current direction, I wouldn’t be surprised if he got there with the next tape. As far as Dedication 4 is concerned, we should be happy that the man who once correctly called himself the best rapper alive now finally seems to have realized that he’s far from it and yet yearns to entertain us.