Last week, Lil Wayne surpassed Elvis Presley to become the single most charted performer on the Billboard Hot 100, with a total of 109 chartings. Because I like symbols and given my penchant for over-generalizations, I believe this moment speaks volumes about the present state of music and how much things have changed since the birth of rock and roll. And, for better or worse, it may be time to start considering Lil Wayne as the voice of our generation.
The mythologies of rock and roll have gradually dropped out of favor, as indie rock frontmen seem to embrace their everyman status (see Vulture’s recent piece on Grizzly Bear). But as the rock and roll mythology has died, so has risen the myth of hip hop figures. Past and present emcees like Jay-Z, Tupac, Nas and Kanye seem to have filled the void for oversized superstars. And, given his critical acclaim and high sales figures, Lil Wayne has earned his place in this pantheon.
The others each have their own role, (Nas the thug poet, Tupac the fatalist prophet, Jay-Z the cool businessman, Kanye the brooding narcissist) each with impeccable flow, each compelling characters and great storytellers in their own right. Lil Wayne does not fit easily into this mold. His trademark voice somehow simultaneously raspy and squeaky, he barely seems concerned with being coherent. What sets Lil Wayne apart is his way with words, simultaneously irreverent and playful. It is not Lil Wayne’s stories that are compelling but rather the story inside of his head. The man is an enigma. An alternately hilarious and head-scratching enigma.
Comparing Elvis and Lil Wayne is an exercise in contrasts. Whereas in the 50’s, A&R departments groomed magnetic, young and talented stars, today A&R rub off on an ever-increasing list of forgettable Top 40 performers. Amazingly, 67 of the 109 chartings were songs in which Wayne was merely featured. These days A&R guys are practically irrelevant, with the most magnetic performers more likely to make it big off of self-released mixtapes than traditional studio productions (see Drake, 2 Chainz, The Weeknd, Frank Ocean etc.).
Whereas Elvis had an elite team of songwriters, Wayne, though aided by an elite team of producers (and alleged ghostwriters), is rolling out original new material on a regular basis. Elvis’s songs may have all been classics in their own right but Wayne’s songs, particularly his mixtape cuts, are of scattershot quality. Many of these songs wind-up as oddball fascinations, with Tunechi placing himself in a place he knows he doesn’t belong (see “Sorry 4 the Wait”, Wayne’s take on Adele’s Rolling in the Deep). Others are unbearable (see any time anyone let Lil Wayne hold a guitar).
If Elvis was a symbol of rebellious youth than Lil Wayne is the symbol of youth in stasis, the lost generation searching for wireless connection. Lil Wayne’s Apatow-ian blend of hyper-referential quips and scatological humor couldn’t be further than The King’s shaking hips. Wayne’s music feels like the perfect soundtrack for the meme culture, an Occupy Wall Street movement that collapsed after spinning off in a thousand different directions, a generation living in fear of the bath-salts-fueled zombie apocalypse.
There is an excellent scene in the found-footage documentary The Carter that solely consists of Wayne getting high and giggling while watching Animal Planet. This is Lil Wayne at his most concentrated, stalled in his own head and world. It’s moments like that when it’s clear who Wayne is: rap’s Seth Rogen. And when viewed in that context, his success is easier to grasp.
There are probably a lot of people who are appalled by Lil Wayne overtaking Elvis on the Billboard charts. But I think we all can agree that that energy is better spent on decrying the rise of Honey Boo Boo.
Tim Myers is a frequent contributor to Frontier Psychiatrist. His proposed alternate title for this article was “Black and White Diamonds: Fuck Segregation” but we didn’t include it for SEO purposes.