From rappers with face tats referencing niche prescription pills to the guitar-driven punk sound that’s currently injecting a much-needed dose of anarchy back into rap and emcees using Auto-Tune to break up their verses, Lil Wayne‘s impact is hard to escape from.
It’s through his nutty turn-of-phrase, stream-of-consciousness flow and fearlessly eccentric spirit that we have the likes of Young Thug, JPEGMAFIA and Ski Mask The Slump God. And even if the name Lil Wayne doesn’t possess the same kind of cultural capital that it did, say, 10 years ago, it’s clear we’re still very much living in Wayne’s world.
This backdrop means Lil Wayne doesn’t really have much to prove with 13th studio album ‘Funeral’, but the lack of expectation (the record was dropped with little marketing hype) or pressure feels like a good thing. He’s free to prioritise a looser sound that’s a lot more psychedelic and unconventional than that of the mostly forgetful stadium rap floor fillers that littered his previous album, ‘The Carter V’.
The warped, acid-baked synths of ‘Stop Playin With Me’, which feel like they’re blooming in and out of life, amount to one of the weirdest sounds Wayne has rapped over in years. And they inspire a riveting piece of self-reflection that proves he’s still very much a compelling lyricist — just when things get too dark, Wayne throws you back into the light with a bar (“Put my foot down in this bitch / These my twinkle toes”) that makes you howl with laughter. He similarly plays with expectations on ‘T.O.’, creating a trap anthem out of a stuttering 16-bit beat that sounds like it was lifted from the Aladdin game on the Sega Megadrive.
By the time Wayne energetically reunites with ‘Tha Carter’ producer Mannie Fresh on ‘Mahogany’, taking you on an open-top victory parade through New Orleans on a sticky day, it’s clear that this is some of the most focused, ferocious rapping that Lil Wayne has achieved in ages. Yet this still doesn’t necessarily result in a great album.
The problem with ‘Funeral’ is that there’s no real thread holding the music together. For every exhilarating left turn (‘Mama’ Mia was made to open up the mosh pits), there’s a soulless radio anthem such as ‘Clap For Em’ – and that’s before we even mention the unspeakable Adam Levine duet ‘Trust Nobody’. At nearly 80 minutes long, Funeral is obviously bloated and an attempt to play into streaming politics, and it’s a real shame that the ambitious druggy swirl of some of the earlier material is replaced with more formulaic songwriting.
There are a few flourishes of introspection (“Never Mind”), but there are also plenty of moments that make you question whether Wayne, who is staring right down the barrel of 40, is scared to grow up. Some of the references to drug-taking feel particularly regressive, especially given all the high-profile fatal overdoses rap has endured over recent years.
Then again, Wayne has always come across more like a surreal character from a comic book than a relatable person with bills to pay. It’s clear that some artists will always be young-at-heart, and are we really wise to expect a shape-shifting rapper, who has spent his whole career telling us he is not a human being, to start rapping about financial literacy and taking his daughter to school?
Some may call the playful immaturity a weakness, but the most successful moments of ‘Funeral’ see Lil Wayne leaning into being a big kid. You should let Wayne be Wayne and enjoy the ride, but just make sure you brace yourself for a few uncomfortable bumps along the way.
Release date: January 31
Record label: Young Money / Republic