How Lil Wayne Became Hip-Hop's Most Underappreciated Legend

Kevin Winter/Getty Images for iHeartMedia
Kevin Winter/Getty Images for iHeartMedia

17 years ago, Juvenile released “Back That Azz Up.” (“Back That Thang Up” if you were a baby trying to make babies on the dance floor of a high school gymnasium.) The descending chords in the intro cause an immediate pavlovian response. Men crane their necks like a gazelle hearing a rustle in the tall grass and women ready their stances for possibly the lone pity twerk they’re willing to give up for the evening. But, what makes this song so awesome is that it not only became the urtext for all future twerk songs, it also introduced the world to Lil’ Wayne.


Sadly, Dwayne Michael Carter is fast on his way to becoming unrecognized at the ripe old age of 33. Since his prison bid in 2010, Wayne has suffered a steady decline which has included Empire-levels of absurd drama. Wayne has dodged a tour bus shooting, survived airplane seizures, and has been embroiled in a much publicized contract dispute with “his daddy” “Birdman” Baby Williams.

The dispute with Baby has limited Wayne’s ability to release proper albums, but his spiral into irrelevance is nonetheless disheartening.

If you’re not aware, or are simply praise stingy, Lil’ Wayne is a hip hop legend. He’s been around for nearly 20 years, made a successful turn from teeny bopper to adult rapper, has one or possibly two classic albums depending on who you ask, and he’s directly responsible for the careers of both Drake and Nicki Minaj. He’s the Michael Jackson of hip hop. Hyperbole aside, Wayne was plucked from Hollygrove as a preteen, worked on music as part of a group under the the tutelage of a “daddy” with animal like features (Joe Jackson = angry cat, Birdman = self-explanatory), and subsequently sought out juvenile activity as an adult to fill a gaping hole inside due to a missed childhood.

While Wayne’s irreverent squealing can’t compare to beauty of Michael’s voice sonically, this man and his art should be more prominent in the hip hop zeitgeist. Drake, Kendrick, J.Cole, Future, Kanye are the names most bandied about when discussing the current A tier of prominent rappers. The first four names in that list are part of a different generation than Wayne, but Kanye, his contemporary, provides a more apt comparison when discussing influence on the hip hop world.

Objectively, Kanye West has not put out a hot album since 2011. (Editor's note: I disagree. But you knew that already.I had to take a moment to self flagellate with my headphone cable for even allowing that truth to be written, but it's true. Since Watch The Throne, there’s been a series of great one off songs peppered between half finished concepts, dated unreleased tracks, and "fuck it" bars. Yeezus and The Life of Pablo could be condensed into a ten track album while “Send it Up,” “Freestyle 4,” and the remaining basura tracks could be repurposed into GarageBand apple loops for underprivileged struggle producers. Even though the work as been spotty of late, Kanye has built up enough cache that being a Kanye apologist is almost a political statement. We’ve got to create space for our greats to stumble into mediocrity just like White artists do. Well, I'm here to cape for Lil' Wayne because he is just as important in the transition from Jay-Z to Drake as Kanye West despite not fitting a middle class ideal.

In addition to being in the feature artist hall of fame with Ludacris and Busta Rhymes, Wayne's biggest contribution to the current crop of millennial rappers is wordplay. Wayne popularized free association relentless puns in a way that made you listen to the structure of the bars themselves more than the subject matter. This coupled with his warbling kinetic flow gave his songs energy and quotables that are tough to match. They also gave his songs close listen replay ability. Because of Wayne, good lyricists are more prone to include clever eye brow raising nuggets than simply beating you over the head with like a charter school vocabulary test. J Cole, Big Sean, and his protégé Drake all use this style but through the melancholy uber ride home lens of 2016.


Despite being rich for most of his life now, Wayne still represents a southern gangster underclass that doesn’t mesh with modern hip hop. He can't gain the cultural clout of a middle class artsy Chicagoan or even a New York gangster turned art collecting businessman. Considering that this man was raised without his real father, lost his father figure to violence, shot himself in the chest at 12, dropped out of high school at 14, and has only ever rapped for a living for 20 years, I'm more than impressed with the artistic risks he's taken.

Rebirth? Trash. But attempting to learn the guitar? Worthy of respect.

Skateboarding? I too picked Kareem Campbell in the original Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, but the second I fell? I quit.


Collaborations? “Motivation” should win the Rap/Sung Grammy into perpetuity.

Fashion? Okay, maybe this is unredeemable.

Zebra jeggings aside, these are all risks that with the proper support probably could’ve been much more successful. Kanye has parallel steps in his career that have been lauded critically and I can’t help but wonder if Wayne went to high school, or was from the north, or just had a mentor other than a man with a star tattoo on his head, he would’ve had the wherewithal and network to bring these ideas to fruition. (I'm still holding out for a Lil’ Wayne x Kelly Rowland slow jams album.)


This year, Wayne only scored an adjunct Grammy nomination for “Truffle Butter,” but he did manage to keep his profile up by appearing in a Super Bowl commercial cradling some of his famous apple pie.

This special relationship with pie is one of his most important contributions to the culture.


I remember being an oversized timb wearing youth and hearing DMX say, "Make you want to eat bitches, but not me, y'all niggas can eat off the plate, but not D." Between that and every island artist exclaiming what "me don't do," I was under the impression that diving into a woman's nethers was not the move. Recently, Kanye has allegedly pushed the boundaries of sexuality hip hop, but, Wayne did it first.

In the past 15 years, Lil Wayne has flooded the world with a tsunami of oral sex references ranging from the confounding: “I eat that cat, just like a lion” in “Rich as Fuck” to the uncompromisingly bold, in “No Worries.”


“She said sorry I didn't shave so that pussy is a little furry. I put that pussy in my face, I ain’t got no worries.” This man has singlehandedly created a world in which no woman shall ever grow up and have to convince her suitor that oral play is okay. If Lil’ Wayne doesn't worry if it's furry why should you?

Wayne clearly has his flaws. The drugs, the baby mamas, the increasingly lazy metaphors, but he’s done enough. He’s had his best rapper alive days and platinum albums. He’s an OG and he should be respected as such. With all of the drama in his life, songs with vulnerable verses that allowed us into his psyche would make his late career music much more endearing. An upcoming album with 2 Chainz makes me think that won't be the case, but, it would be short sighted to count out Wayne. He came from the mud.

Brandon is washed under 30. He programs short docs at the Brooklyn Film Festival, has a podcast, and eats good charcuterie.



I agree that he's a legend, but he's FAR from under-appreciated. He's just no longer in his heyday. Wayne is his prime was given praise from nearly every sector of hip hop. It's just that when you age in hip hop you fall out of grace regardless of how important or influential you are. Jay Z is the only old artist in hip hop who can drop a record and it still mean something.