Pissing Off The Parents Case File #11: Lil Wayne’s Rebirth

Pissing Off The Parents Case File #11: Lil Wayne’s Rebirth

It’s hard to become a healthy, functional, stable adult if you didn’t have anything resembling a childhood or adolescence. That’s doubly true if your childhood was sacrificed on the altar of celebrity and fame. Child stars are often doomed to spend their adult lives trying to recapture everything they missed because they were just too famous, rich, and busy to enjoy all the soul-wrenching bullshit civilians go through in making the perilous transition from childhood to adulthood. 

So perhaps Rebirth, Lil Wayne’s ill-fated, much-delayed, commercially underwhelming, critically reviled 2010 “rock” album can best be understood as a successful man’s attempts to experience via music the adolescence he missed while recording iconic songs and releasing platinum albums while luckier kids were busy making out with Suzy Homecoming Queen in the back seat of her daddy’s Camaro, or drinking Thunderbird with their burnout buddies under the bleachers at football games. Lil Wayne had just turned 15 when Cash Money Records released Get It While It’s Hot, the blockbuster debut of the baby-faced gangsta-rap quartet Hot Boys. The group was essentially the hip-hop equivalent of a Lou Pearlman boy band, only with more tattoo tears and longer rap sheets. It had a ragingly homoerotic name equally suited to a Chippendale’s competitor (“All the way from New Orleans come the Hot Boys! So ladies, get out your singles, ’cause these sexy young men came to mingle!”), a propensity for shirtlessness, NAMBLA-baiting monikers referencing their youth (Lil Wayne, Young Turk, B.G (for Baby Gangsta), Juvenile), and a creepy, beefy mentor/father figure (Brian Williams, a.k.a. Baby, a.k.a. Birdman) Wayne was once publicly photographed kissing on the mouth.  

Wayne had just turned 15 when the Hot Boys released their first album (1997’s Get It How U Live!), 16 when he helped popularize the phrase “bling bling” by providing the chorus to the B.G. song of the same name, and 17 when he released his solo debut, Tha Block Is Hot. Wayne dropped out of a magnet school at 14 to embrace his destiny as a rap star, a fateful decision that catapulted him directly from childhood to adulthood without those messy but crucial in-between stages. In that respect, Rebirth is less an album that had to be made or a musical revolution snuffed in its infancy than a rap-star indulgence and a crucial but clunky step in Wayne’s tumultuous musical and emotional evolution. Wayne had to live out his juvenile rock-star fantasies so he could go back to being a rap star. It’s an alternately endearingly and bratty act of willful regression to the bad old days of adolescence, the musical and professional equivalent of scrawling an anarchy symbol on the back of a jean jacket, learning a few basic chords on a cheap electric guitar, and writing terrible poetry about the tyranny of government oppression and/or cute girls who won’t go out with you.

If adolescence is all about making stupid mistakes and terrible decisions as you scramble to figure yourself out amid a hurricane of surging hormones and trembling anxiety, then Rebirth is one of the most adolescent albums ever made. Most of us are lucky enough to suffer through the hardships and humiliations of adolescence in private, but Rebirth represents a profoundly public embarrassment. The album opens with the sound of a guitarist and drummer warming up. Then Wayne kicks things off with a rock-star “Whoa.” It’s supposed to be a stirring statement of purpose: “We’ve got guitars, motherfuckers, and we know how to use them.” Instead, it establishes an all-too-fitting tone of clumsy, overprocessed amateurism and unconvincing role-playing. 

The project’s boneheaded obviousness is reflected in the kick-off track’s title: “American Star.” That’s like sticking a pair of shades on someone to convey their coolness. How fucking cheesy would that be? Oh wait, that isn’t just a groan-inducing dinosaur-rock cliché, that’s also Rebirth’s album cover, which showcases its star splayed out on a gold couch with a phallic electric guitar draped over his lap and cool-dude sunglasses on his face. As if all that weren’t excessive enough in a rock-star-iconography-for-beginners sort of way, Wayne even sports a scarf seemingly purloined from the collections of Steven Tyler and Stevie Nicks. (There’s a lot of overlap between their closets.)

I admire the label’s restraint in not putting Lil Wayne in a Hard Rock Hotel New Orleans T-shirt or dropping a vintage David Lee Roth-era Van Halen poster in the background to convey that, in spite of his previous involvement with the hippety-hop music, now Wayne really knows how to rock out. Did I mention he’s wearing shades? Only cool dudes do rock-star shit like that. 

On the Rebirth cover, the electric guitar, scarf, and sunglasses come across as woefully unconvincing props desperately trying to signify rock ’n’ roll. Putting a guitar in Wayne’s hands (or lap) doesn’t instantly transform him into a contemporary Jimi Hendrix or Eddie Van Halen. It’s more like creative Kryptonite that transforms a megastar at the top of his game into a rank amateur fucking around on an instrument he barely knows how to play, and dabbling in a genre he clearly has enormous affection for, but doesn’t really understand. Lil Wayne was a rock star of hip-hop before he ever picked up an electric guitar. He has rock-star swagger, cockiness, and bravado. As Rebirth attests, he also has rock-star ambition, grandiosity, and perhaps more than anything, eccentricity. 

By the time Rebirth was released to vitriolic reviews and tepid sales, Wayne had ascended to such giddy professional heights that Jay-Z had already anointed Wayne his heir via their Tha Carter III collaboration “Mr. Carter.” And Jay-Z has never been effusive in his praise of anyone but himself and Memphis Bleek. (Kanye West’s entire career can be read as one long attempt to get his professional father figure to finally break down and tell him what a special young man he’s become.) So it wasn’t exactly a big promotion to go from world-conquering rap megastar to beginning guitar player and Auto-Tune-assisted aspiring rock belter.  

On “American Star,” Lil Wayne posits himself as a next-generation rock icon, a paradigm-shattering “dope boy with a guitar,” but his conception of rock stardom, and rock music in general, is more regressive than progressive. Wayne isn’t dragging rock into the 21st century by clumsily fusing it with hip-hop slang, swagger, and braggadocio: He’s dragging it back into some weird alternate 1980s dominated by swampy, heavily-filtered Auto-Tune and head-banging power chords.

The second track, “Prom Queen,” opens with the lines, “I love her fancy underwear / I sit behind her every year” and heads downhill from there. “Prom Queen” and “Paradice” both turn on the same cobwebbed irony: What looks perfect on the outside is often broken and empty on the inside. On “Paradice,” Wayne shouts “Oh no! This ain’t paradise!” in a hoarse, exhausted rasp, but the music is pure Monster Ballads. 

In trading in his microphone for a guitar and hip-hop for some strangulated, newfangled rock-rap fusion, Wayne simply traded in one set of ridiculous clichés for another. 

When it comes to toying with rock ’n’ roll, pop culture, and American archetypes (the touring rock star with an electric guitar, the prom queen, the lovestruck geek, the sneering rebel), Wayne is not Andy Warhol. He’s more like Exit Through The Gift Shop’s Mr. Brainwash, playing a dumb game of creative Mad Libs with the innovations of his creative predecessors. These aren’t archetypes, they’re cartoon cutouts. Wayne is not singing or rapping about real people, he’s playing with Ken and Barbie dolls. 

Rebirth is staggeringly, maddeningly literal-minded. So it is with delicious obviousness that he begins “Knockout,” a duet with Nicki Minaj (an instant icon who knows a thing or two about twisting and contorting pop-cultural archetypes to her advantage), by exuberantly crying out, “Hey Barbie, are you into black men? / Hey Barbie, I can be your black Ken!” 

“Knockout” is my favorite track on the album, because it unabashedly embraces its gooey bubblegum disposability rather than aspiring to the faux-profundity of “Prom Queen” or “Paradice.” Also, because Minaj is infinitely better suited to this bratty new-wave pop-retro silliness than Wayne, who goes hoarse throughout trying to fake punk-rock anarchy through deafening volume alone.

Wayne’s aggressive dilettantism isn’t limited to making a rock album; there’s extraordinary dilettantism within the album as well, as Wayne skips from genre to genre and sound to sound without committing to anything too vigorously. (Such is the curse of the dilettante.) Wayne channels his inner punk by shouting profanely with a cartoon sneer on the bratty “Get A Life,”  “The Price Is Wrong,” and “I’m So Over You.” (That last song only appears on the deluxe version of the album.) Wayne understands punk at least well enough to abide by the old dictum that if you can’t be good or polished, you can at least be loud and energetic. 

Rebirth’s tonal shifts can be bewildering and inexplicable. The hormonally charged, synth-heavy “On Fire” sounds like it was crafted from the raw material of a 1980s Giorgio Moroder soundtrack for a good reason: It was. It’s essentially a remake of “She’s On Fire” from the Scarface soundtrack. There’s something wonderfully perverse about self-professed former drug dealer and gangsta rapper Wayne venturing outside of hip-hop (a genre that has a bit of a thing for Scarface, in the same way Sir Mix-A-Lot has been known to enjoy outsized posteriors) to record a tribute to the Scarface soundtrack. “On Fire” begs to be relegated to some mix-tape of the damned, but Rebirth proved such a bewildering commercial proposition that the song somehow became a single and spawned a moody, portentous video of its own. 

When it doesn’t take itself too seriously or strive too hard to be profound or angry, Rebirth can be dumb fun, from the aforementioned “Knockout” to the overly caffeinated “Da Da Da,” a bewildering but strangely winning hodgepodge of Auto-Tune pop and endearingly cornball pop-culture references that obsesses monomaniacally on the legacy of Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown.

At moments throughout Rebirth, Wayne’s newfangled old-fashioned vision of a hip-hop/punk-rock/cock-rock gumbo feels almost feasible, but collectively, it proves more exhausting than exhilarating. Wayne’s hip-hop albums tend to be bloated, all over the place, and tonally incoherent, but they’re generally redeemed by moments of genuine genius. Rebirth is not. It’s certainly going for something, but it doesn’t seem to have much of a sense of what that might be, or how exactly it plans to get there. So it does what adolescents generally do when they’re confused, overwhelmed, and reluctant to concede defeat: It swears, shouts, shoots a defiant middle finger to authority, and plays its guitar way too loud and way too badly. (That’ll show all those phonies!)

I can’t recommend Rebirth by any stretch, but I’m glad it exists and that Wayne got its adolescent silliness of his system so he could become the sober, functional, mature artist I’ve come to respect. Rock has defeated a slew of hip-hop luminaries, but at least Rebirth fails in a different, arguably more interesting fashion than, say, Chuck D’s Confrontation Camp or Mos Def’s The New Danger.

Cash Money’s recent signing of the backward-baseball-cap-sporting dinosaurs in Limp Bizkit suggests that Rebirth’s critical and commercial failure maimed but didn’t entirely kill Wayne’s fantasy of a kick-ass adolescent rap-rock fusion. (I find it extraordinarily telling that when Cash Money signed a big rock act, it chose a relic of a bygone era.) Dreams have a way of dying hard, even when they’re this spectacularly, ingratiatingly dumb. 

Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Fiasco