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(Soundbite of song "It Was A Very Good Year")

Mr. FRANK SINATRA (Singer): (Singing) When I was 21, it was a very good year.

ALISON STEWART, host:

We're taking a look back at some folks for whom 2007 was a very good year indeed. Wow, all I can think of is Sinatra.

Lil Wayne has been held as rap artist of the year by folks at the New Yorker. He didn't even formally release a record. But he made a lot of guest appearances and mix tapes, and as we mention the accolades notably from none other than himself.

Lil Wayne, a.k.a. Weezy F. Baby, has taken to calling himself the best rapper alive, and there are quite a few people who agree. Because at the end of '06, Lil Wayne has recorded incessantly, putting out to tapes which is supposed to be 100 new songs, and has raised his profile without playing along with industry rules.

Kalefeh Sanneh is a pop music critic for the New York Times. He's in studio with us. Kay(ph), how are you?

Mr. KALEFEH SANNEH (Pop Music Critic, New York Times): I'm doing pretty good. How are you doing?

STEWART: I'm doing well. For people who don't know much about Lil Wayne, do you mind just giving us a little bit of the basics, the background - where he's from, when he started because he started really young.

Mr. SANNEH: Yeah. He's from New Orleans and he emerged as a teenager - there's a little debate about his age, but he's maybe 12, 13 years old as part of what was this kind of weird gangster rap boy band called the Hot Boys who are actually really good, and they all had young-sounding name. So he was Lil' Wayne, Young Turk, Baby Gangsta' and Juvenile. And, you know, at first, people didn't really take him seriously, on his first album, maybe his second too. One of his gimmicks was that he didn't swear because he was too young, although, of course, all of the guests of his album swore. But he…

STEWART: Bet somebody do it for you.

Mr. SANNEH: Yeah, basically. But he kept releasing albums from the late 90s to now. His crew kind of fell apart, people started - forgot about him. But along the way, he got really, really good at rapping, maybe because that's all he's done since he was a little kid.

In 2005, which is actually the last year he released an official solo album, he was calling himself the best rapper alive and people, you know, people said oh, that's cute. Well, what are you talking about? But, then they started listening to him, and it turns out he's has started to seem more and more right. And one of the interesting way - things he did was he's proved it mainly on mix tapes, by grabbing other people's beats and rhyming over them, by putting out his own mix tapes. And as you said, he hasn't released an official album since late 2005.

STEWART: It also seems like he's taken on some subject matter. For example, he wrote a song about post-New Orleans Katrina…

Mr. SANNEH: Right.

STEWART: …he's from New Orleans. Let's listen to that. It's called "Georgia… Bush."

(Soundbite of song "Georgia… Bush")

LIL WAYNE (Rapper): (Rapping) So what happened to the levees, why wasn't hey steady, Why wasn't they able to control this? I know some folk that live by the levee that keep on telling me they heard the explosions, Same (bleep) happened back in Hurricane Betsy 1965, I ain't too young to know this, That was President Johnson but now but it's

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Geeoorrggiiaa…

LIL WAYNE: (Rapping) Bush. We from a town where…

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Georgia

LIL WAYNE: (Rapping) Everybody drowned, and…

STEWART: So clearly, you know his music history - you have a little of Ray Charles in there - and his modern history.

Mr. SANNEH: Exactly. And that was something he tucked away at the back of a mix tape he put out in 2006, early 2006 called "Dedication 2." He did it with DJ Drama, who made news this year when he was busted by the feds for selling mix tapes. And this was one of - this was kind of one of the mix tapes that really galvanized opinion and really had people saying, oh, Lil' Wayne just might be the best rapper alive.

The funny thing about that category is it - that - about that title is it always goes to someone who doesn't seem to deserve it. The nature of rap is about the time reach that stature and you're widely acclaimed as the greatest, there's often someone else creeping up. And in the last few years, that person creeping up has been Lil' Wayne.

STEWART: Let me ask just a really basic question for our listeners who are saying like, wait, I don't understand, mix tape as in the mix tapes I use to make for my friends?

Mr. SANNEH: Well, yeah. Once upon a time, mix tapes actually were tapes and now, they graduated to CDs…

STEWART: Right.

Mr. SANNEH: …and basically, they're unauthorized compilations of songs often done without the recording industry's permission. Suddenly, no lawyers are involved, no songs are cleared, no money is paid but often with the artist's permission, which puts the recording industry in kind of a funny place. So you have a Lil' Wayne making these mix tapes and telling fans, hey, go get them however you can and you have the recording industry trying to bust these mix tapes.

STEWART: Got you. All right. So one of the mix tapes you had was called "The Drought 3," and he is rapping over other people's beats.

Mr. SANNEH: Yeah. That came up in the beginning of the year.

STEWART: Yeah.

Mr. SANNEH: It actually includes a spoken word. And in one of the interludes, Lil' Wayne actually says, I hope you got this for free. If you didn't, you're stupid. This is something I just did for fun. And what he basically does his takes, you know, two dozen - it's two CDs and he takes basically two dozen songs that were really hot and just grabs the beats and raps over them. And, you know, these are tracks that couldn't be cleared because you'd have to pay money to whoever's beat you took so this is something you kind of did just for fun and often sounded better over the beats from the original rappers did.

STEWART: Well, he doesn't really hold his tongue as we've heard…

Mr. SANNEH: No.

STEWART: …and he takes on Jay-Z. Let's take a listen to this song.

(Soundbite of song "Show Me What You Got")

LIL WAYNE: (Rapping) This is a public service announcement. Lil' Wayne Weezy F. Baby is the best rapper alive. Hit me. Haaa. Good morning, New York. Good afternoon, New Orleans. Good night, America. Yeah.

Dough is what I got, lil' mama. Doe is what I got pretty lady. Doe is what I got, shawty. Doe is what I got, baby. Come on. I'm paid, I'm paid, I'm paid, I'm paid. Hey. Give a woman none, uh, uh, uh, uh…

STEWART: All right. So Lil' Wayne has gone on to tell Jay-Z that he's old.

Mr. SANNEH: He incited. He didn't quite say it, but he mentioned that there were in old rappers out there.

JOHN FUGELSANG, host:

He brought up his age.

Mr. SANNEH: Yeah, he did bring up the age but they have avoided, actually, having a feud. And, you know, I mean it's probably wise for both of them at this point. There's nothing really to be gained by Lil' Wayne from going at Jay-Z and there's certainly nothing to be gained from Jay-Z by going at Lil' Wayne.

FUGELSANG: Well, Jay-Z just had him as a guest on "The American Gangster" soundtrack.

Mr. SANNEH: Exactly. So Jay-Z has kind of acknowledged. And the thing is a decade ago, Jay-Z was that dude…

STEWART: Right.

Mr. SANNEH: …and people were saying, well, this Jay-Z is just this young guy coming up. He's not respectful to his elders when he was saying look, I'm really good at rapping.

STEWART: What's behind - clearly, he's learned to swear - from all the piece.

FUGELSANG: You have to.

STEWART: What's behind his bravado, do you think?

Mr. SANNEH: Well, I think, he - I mean, I think a lot of it is really justified. He realized that he was reaching a point where he was doing things other people weren't doing. He has that voice. He kind of sounds like a frog, which definitely helps and he can kind of sing and rap. He's got this bluesy(ph) thing that a lot of New Orleans people have when they rap. And, sorry, I think for him, he realized that he was putting words together in a way that other people weren't.

He was making complicated puns that other people weren't, unexpected rhymes. He was drawing observations from, you know, a wide variety of sources. And this is something that happens in hip-hop. One of the things that makes hip-hop so entertaining is that every few years, if you're lucky, someone just gets in a zone where they sound great and they sound as if they're kind of almost doing it unconsciously. And in fact, as the years, in the last few years, his music has kind of gotten weirder and weirder, a little hazier, a little druggier. And, you know, that only adds to the allure of this person that's hardly even in control of his mouth.

STEWART: We're talking to Kalefeh Sanneh from the New York Times. His music critique about Lil' Wayne, who's had a very good 2007. I want to play one of his other songs such a - this when you picked out for us. "Prostitute Flange?"

Mr. SANNEH: Yes. "Prostitute Flange's" named partly after the vocal effect that you'll hear on his voice. And this was something else that people weren't expecting from Lil' Wayne. You know, he's got your - as rappers often do, he's got lyrics about rather gruff meetings with women. But this song, he gets a little emo, which people weren't really expecting from him.

STEWART: Let's take and listen.

(Soundbite of song "Prostitute Flange")

LIL WAYNE: (Rapping) I wouldn't care if you were prostitutin', that you hit every man that you ever knew, see it (bleep) make a difference, if that was way before me and you girl,

Unidentified Man #1: (Rapping) Ha Ha.

LIL WAYNE: (Rapping) see you dont ever have to worry about me, as long as you keep it real, whatever's on yo mind, speak on how you feel, stay truthful to me and never lie to me, and don't ever keep no secrets, don't matter whatever, see they could say wut they want girl, but it would never change my views, 'cuz they will never know you…

STEWART: For the way a lot of people find out about these songs are they find themselves on the Internet - they find their way to the Internet. No, we find its way. I mean, that's an act of…

Mr. SANNEH: Sure.

STEWART: …putting something on him. Is it him, is it other people, is it the record company on the fly?

Mr. SANNEH: Well, he suffered - you might say in a way he suffered a little bit from this because he got this reputation for making mix tapes, especially dedication, "Dedication 2" and the "Drought 3," which were all official mix tapes. And so after that, people thought of Lil' Wayne as the guy who makes mix tapes.

And what he says that's happened this year that people have stolen, stolen master tapes from the studio - as it happens quite often in the rap world - and some have gotten a hold of these thongs and just put them out there on the Internet as unauthorized mix tapes. So oddly enough, this year, he's released a bunch of mix tapes, but only one of them is an actual release. The "Drought 3" is an authorized mix tape and everything else that's come out this year with various - other various titles are all basically bootlegs. But of course, it doesn't really matter to fans because we just want the songs have where we can get them.

STEWART: But it's got to matter to the record company. It's got to matter with Universal, his real label.

Mr. SANNEH: Oh, yeah, it matters a lot to the record company and, you know, it's something that they're trying to figure out. And one of their big problems is that record companies haven't figured out a way to make money from mix tapes. So they just say, well, try to ignore the mix tape and wait for the official album, which, of course, doesn't work if you're an actual hip-hop fan. So they still haven't really come up with a strategy.

FUGELSANG: Are there plans for an official album in 2008?

Mr. SANNEH: Yeah. Well, he kept - he, at first, he was promising that there's going to be a real official album this month in December '07. And then he said there was going to be kind of a compilation of his greatest mix tape hits, you know, '07. And now, he's talking about '08, you know. One of the problems is that if you believe in it some of these songs were stolen from studio and put out without his consent, that kind of set him back because then he had to go in the studio…

STEWART: Right.

Mr. SANNEH: …and record a whole bunch of new stuff.

STEWART: I thought it was interesting one article I read about him. It said that he did his first New York solo show just about five months ago…

Mr. SANNEH: Right.

STEWART: …so can he pull this off on stage?

Mr. SANNEH: Yeah. I mean, he's played New York a bunch…

STEWART: …but just not by himself.

Mr. SANNEH: …just not as a solo show, and that's partly just because Southern rappers don't tend to play a lot of solo shows in New York City. And in fact, the live show isn't considered as make or break. He does it, I mean, you know, you have to be able to do it to some extend but rappers don't usually expect to make a lot of money touring the way rock bands do.

STEWART: All right. Well, let's listen to a little bit of Lil' Wayne live. This is "Gossip" live from the BET Awards.

(Soundbite of song "Gossip")

LIL WAYNE: (Rapping) Drag my name through the mud, I come out clean. Cast away stones I won't even blink. A gun is not a math problem, I won't even think. Just leave you dead like the mink under my sink. Don't believe in me. Don't believe me, I graduated from hungry, and made it to greedy. My flow is like pasta. Take it and eat it. But I'm a need g's if I'm bakin' a zeedy. You niggas want beef? I want a steak and uh, we…

STEWART: Well, it's one of my favorite. So, you know, I was reading an interview with him which is great and the funniest thing he said, I'm single, ready to mingle and I got Pringles. But, you know, there's rumors that he's engaged now, he's already gotten an 8-year-old kid…

Mr. SANNEH: Right.

STEWART: …is he somebody who's living the life and will it catch up with him?

Mr. SANNEH: It's hard to say how he's living and how will it catch up with him. The conditions that are conducive to the production of great hip-hop music have yet to be conclusively studied in the lab. That's a diplomatic way of putting that.

STEWART: Yes.

Mr. SANNEH: So it's hard to say whether the terror that he's on, whether that will catch up to him or not, it does seem to me that you have to produce music at this rate and with this kind of ferocity and all over the place the way he does. He probably have to be a little bit manic. And probably, if you're settled in somewhere, the, you know, nice family and you're not out all the time and you're living a very calm life, you might not make music that's so exciting. And in that sense, in that sense, hip-hop isn't so different from other forms of music, kind of like rock 'n' roll when, you know, often when those guys get really comfortable, things get a little…

STEWART: The boring.

Mr. SANNEH: …bit interesting.

FUGELSANG: Like wings.

STEWART: 2008 for Lil' Wayne, what do you think?

Mr. SANNEH: Well, hopefully, he finally gets it together to put out his long-awaited album, "The Carter 3." Obviously, in this sense, hip-hop is a little bit like politics, which is to say, once you're the frontrunner, ever and all starts taking shots at you, so one of the things you can guarantee is that every rapper who wants to make a name for himself in 2008 is going to be coming at Lil' Wayne because if you can get just a little chink in his armor, you can kind of make your name off of that. So he's going to have to, he's got to find himself how decide whether to respond or not to respond to all the insults that will probably be coming his way.

STEWART: Kalefeh Sanneh, pop music critic for the New York Times, good to see you.

Mr. SANNEH: Good to see you.

STEWART: Happy New Year. Hope to see you in '08.

Mr. SANNEH: Same to you, too. I hope so too.

(Soundbite of music)

STEWART: Yeah, it happens. You've devoted an entire hour of NPR News and THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT.

John Fugelsang, thanks for sitting in this week.

FUGELSANG: What a pleasure. Had a great time.

STEWART: Really?

FUGELSANG: It's a great show, a great staff and…

STEWART: We didn't scare you?

FUGELSANG: Not at all. I mean, with coming in yesterday and the Bhutto news, it's been really a pleasure to see what a tight ship you guys run and how you make it work.

STEWART: All right. Well…

FUGELSANG: And I got to hear Lil' Wayne.

STEWART: You got to hear all you need to know about Lil' Wayne.

FUGELSANG: Holler.

STEWART: All right. We are THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT, available on FM and online, satellite, digital. Do visit our blog at npr.org/bryantpark.

I'm Alison Stewart.

FUGELSANG: I'm John Fugelsang.

STEWART: Thanks for being with us. Have a great weekend and we will talk to you online.

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