Lil' Wayne, Best Rapper Alive?So I finally gave in to my curiosity and picked up Tha Carter III the other day, and…


Hey, it’s not too bad. In fact, it’s actually pretty good.

No, it’s not going to share discussion time with Nas’ Illmatic and Biggie’s Ready to Die beyond the aping of their respective album covers. But it’s far from an absolute waste of polycarbonate plastic, either. So as far as my opinion is concerned, I lay smack dab in the middle of Weezy’s plaudits and dissenters.

I really think proclaiming this guy as “Best Rapper Alive” is a big misnomer. In fact, I never understood why people use that title for him because, in the grand scheme of things, it really doesn’t make much sense.

I mean, “Best Rapper Alive” would denote that, well, all the rappers better than him are presently enjoying dirt naps. And last time I checked, Ghostface Killah, Black Thought (of The Roots), Nas, Common, Talib Kweli, Eminem, hell, his namesake Jay-Z, and a number of other contemporaries, not to mention certain heroes of the late ’80s and early ’90s (most particularly Rakim, Big Daddy Kane and Kool G. Rap) are still breathing. Maybe I missed the memo that all these guys got on a Boeing 747 jet and crashed somewhere in the Himalayas or something. Or offed themselves The Happening style. Take your pick, or make up some other scenario my mind is presently unable to conjure.

Yes, one can argue that the people on this list either don’t sell records, at least anymore; are pretty “boring” (whatever that means!); or have not even released a record, let alone anything of relevance, in a long while. But the fact still remains that, technically speaking, any of these guys I mentioned will readily eat Weezy boy over here for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Plus dessert.

And the verdict is still out whether Wayne can even craft an excellent LP commensurate with the slavish acclaim, let alone own a catalog that rivals that of the previously mentioned MCs. So he has superhuman work ethic, producing a dizzying amount of mixtape and guest spots. So what? If prolificacy is the lone standard of greatness, we might as well jettison Rakim and The Notorious B.I.G. from the hip-hop pantheon right now.

Hell, if someone–anyone— in the rap game was to put out ten times as much material as the rest of the pack, regardless of quality, how easy could it be to equate such work ethic with lyrical proficiency? Thing is, though, in Wayne’s case, while it has yielded some dazzling moments (he stole the show in songs like “We Takin’ Over”; and more famously, “Duffle Bag Boy,” which rendered Playaz Circle totally unnecessary–in their own song), and I do commend this guy’s hustle, it has ultimately stretched him too thin, exacerbating his penchant for repetitive couplets and rudimentary wordplay.

In fact, his croaking delivery, by the time he entered 2008 with guest spots like Flo Rida’s “American Gangster,” was teetering on the brink of self-parody. There was a lot less focus and a lot more self-whoring: one of the few things I can actually agree on with 50 Cent.

Furthermore, has Wayne come up with a record as good, if not better, than his namesake’s Reasonable Doubt, The Blueprint, or even American Gangster? Where is his Ironman or The Marshall Mathers LP, or better yet, Illmatic and Ready to Die? These albums not only had style, but substance as well (After all, God knows I don’t want to be bored to sleep by some pretentious underground rapper “speaking” over glorified metronomes). Mixtapes and guest appearances are not bad per se; it is that, well, they all pale in comparison to focused, disciplined musical statements that will stand the test of time, long after the allure of myriad 16s and haphazard freestyles over previously released beats have faded.

So I don’t exactly fall for the “Wayne-has-swagger” argument. After all, there is a reason why Snoop has never soared higher than his debut Doggystyle; eventually that “swagger” or “style” or whatever these kids call it these days can only take you so far. Look at his latest, Ego Trippin’: fell like a two-ton anchor into the ocean. Meanwhile, “boring” Common, toiling for a decade beyond the radar, is at the greatest visibility of his career, with a far stronger catalog to boot. And guess who will go down in history as the better rapper!

So it seems that I’m bashing Lil’ Wayne. A lot. Well, I’m actually not. If anyone has the balls to call himself the “Best Rapper Alive,” he better back it up such a preposterous claim. All the greats have released at least one great album, a feat Weezy is yet to accomplish. Indeed, he still has some work ahead of him if he wants to be compared to someone like the liver-lipped flow master that slaughtered him in his own song: “Mr. Carter.”

With all that being said, though, at least Lil’ Wayne aspires to be among the greats; and judging from his incredible output between 2007 and 2008, his heart is certainly in the right place. In terms of visibility, Wayne is untouchable. He is easily the biggest figure in rap right now, bar none. Tha Carter III reportedly moved 423,000 copies–in a day. Screw hip-hop; who from any genre is doing that this year? At this rate, Weezy just might have the biggest opening numbers in the music industry for 2008, and possibly have the third studio album from 2008 to scan a million units in the U.S. (At press time, only Jack Johnson’s Sleep Through the Static enjoys that honor, and Mariah Carey’s E=MC2 will more than likely join it within the next week or two).

And hey, I am not saying that Man cannot live on flow alone. And flow so happens to be Lil’ Wayne’s strongest weapon: a polyphonic croak that changes tone and pace every now and then. It’s so beautiful to listen to that the guy can say the most nonsensical or inconsequential of things, and I would just laugh and pay it no mind. It is a trait that not too many rappers today, or ever, possess.

Indeed, Lil’ Wayne reminds me of Method Man. If Rakim invented flow, Meth prioritized it–with his debut, 1994’s Tical. But you know something else? Tical is far from a masterpiece, and that happens to be Meth’s best album. Since then, his track record has been, to put it mildly, uneven. There is a reason why Method Man, as skilled as he was, will never be generally mentioned in the same breath as the greats: beyond his flow, he has little to recommend him. See the history lesson here?

So yeah, with all factors considered, I’m feeling the “Biggest Rapper Alive” title for Lil’ Wayne. It’s a lot more appropriate. “Best Rapper Alive”? Ehh, not so much. In fact, not at all.

Or at the very most, not yet.

Lil’ Wayne should never squander the opportunity he has now; and so far, by just making an album, he seems to be doing fine. Because, who knows, considering any circumstance, his name may not have the same resonance in 2009. Don’t act surprised by me saying that. I mean, look at T.I.’s trajectory from 2006 to 2007–need I say more?

So continue to travel on that path to greatness, Lil’ Wayne. And yes, hold on to that “Biggest Rapper Alive” title while you can. As the people of Ghana say, “No condition is permanent.”

-D. Akinwande