CD Review: "Rebirth" by Lil Wayne

With this year’s release of I Am Not A Human Being 2, Lil Wayne returns to solidify his position in the rap world.  Fans will remember his most recent fall from grace (Rebirth) as an utter failure critically, an album so despised that in order to redeem himself, Wayne released another record (I Am Not A Human Being) in the same year.  This was something he had never done before, and has not done since.  Following the release of Rebirth in 2010, Wayne has not strayed from a more traditional hip hop aesthetic.  Rebirth however, is a fascinating album, and its struggles were mostly due to critics’ incomprehension of Wayne’s intentions and the vocal aesthetic that strongly contrasts with Wayne’s previous release, Tha Carter III.

Allison Stewart includes a track by track breakdown of Rebirth in her review for the Washington Post, describing the CD as “profoundly, irretrievably awful…Worse than how it sounds, though, is what it does: It takes the best, and certainly the most self-affirming, rapper in the world and unmoors him, reduces him to an uncertain-sounding amateur on Van Halen karaoke night.”

Jeff Weiss of the L.A. Times is of a similar opinion: “‘Rebirth’ deserves its reputation as one of the worst albums of the year so far.  With luck, Wayne will return to what he does best – and soon.”  Jon Pareles gives some career advice in the New York Times: “Instead of branching out or crossing over, Lil Wayne would be better off guarding his home turf.”

It is astonishing that an album by an artist whose previous release (Tha Carter III) sold one million copies in one week could be met with such violent critical opposition.  Wayne may never be so daring again, but now that we are a few years past the emotional outbursts of these critics, a look back at this short-lived phase of Wayne’s career reveals how critics process music that falls outside an artists’ expected norm.  We can see how critics build a canon of musical expectations around an artist, and are many times unwilling to accept new music that conflicts with their predispositions.  In this case, critics’ expectations for Tha Carter III’s successor were dashed aside by Wayne’s new vocal aesthetic and concept.

Critics’ lack of awareness about Wayne’s motives for recording Rebirth partially explains their disapproval.  Wayne did explain these motives, and his response is particularly illuminating.  Tim Westwood manages a short interview on Wayne’s tour bus.  When Wayne is prompted to discuss recording Rebirth, he says:

“When I said I was doing a rock album, it was about doing a freedom thing.  This album isn’t hip-hop.  When I do my Carter albums, I know I’ve got to rap, I know I’ve got to spit.  I know the words I’ve got to say and the subjects I’ve got to talk about.  I also know the things I shouldn’t say, the things I shouldn’t talk about.  There’s none of those limits on this album.  I say what I want, how I want.  That’s what this album is, a freedom album.  And rock is the avenue that gives you that freedom.”

This album was understood by critics as Lil Wayne’s attempt at creating a genre defying mix of rap and rock, but we can see that this was not Wayne’s intent.  Wayne is clearly quite knowledgeable regarding the aesthetic and stylistic nuances of hip hop; he explains that Rebirth is of a different kind, an album not subject to the rules of hip hop, but to the artistic call to freedom found in some rock music.  Wayne exhibits a willingness to circumvent the strict, projected path of his career in order to create something new and interesting, music absolved from his listeners’ expectations.  Critics’ obliviousness to this notion highlights an important disconnect between Lil Wayne and his reviewers.  However, this disconnect does not fully explain the angry declarations of these writers.  I believe the most deeply seeded opposition to this album resides at a more basic and essential level of the recording: Wayne’s vocal performance.

Critics familiar with Wayne’s raspy, “weezy” vocals from Tha Carter III were unprepared for the vocal experimentations that permeate Rebirth.  These vocal nuances are the central critique of Rebirth, not the genre-bending nature of the album. 

Ryan Dombal of Pitchfork claims that “…instead of rapping we get gurgled Auto-Tune chirps and squeals that often nullify his one-in-a-billion elastic croak.”  Jeff Weiss describes Wayne’s performance on the single “Prom Queen” as a “…frog-like rasp worse than Kirk Van Houten.”  Jon Pareles explains that Rebirth “…often trades away Lil Wayne’s bugged-out wordplay and brilliantly flaky delivery… for annoyingly Auto-Tuned singing…” and that “it’s a relief when Lil Wayne turns off the Auto-Tune and raps…”  Maria Sherman of Vice describes his vocal performance on “Paradice” as “…a weird gasping as if on the verge of tears,” and decides she is “…going to place a lot of blame… on Lil Wayne’s use of AutoTune.”  Alexis Petridis of the Guardian sums up these opinions best: “No great shakes as a singer, he’s slathered himself in Auto-Tune, which turns out to be one of the least appealing conjunctions of technology and human voice imaginable.”

Critics cannot tolerate Wayne’s aesthetic departure on Rebirth, preferring to view his previous work as stagnant canon rather than as a single stepping stone in Wayne’s career.  “A Millie,” a track from Tha Carter III, is discussed by Alexis Petridis in a reverential tone, and perfectly encapsulates the aesthetic critics expected on Rebirth:

“On Tha Carter III, he [Lil Wayne] demonstrated an audacious genius by taking horrible sounds - not least the repetitious sample that drove ‘“A Milli’” - and turning them into inexplicably compulsive listening.”  Petridis holds Tha Carter III as a triumphant, perfect aesthetic statement.  He distinguishes the almost humorous, synthetic bass voice that continuously repeats the words “A Millie” throughout the song of the same name as “compulsive listening,” and an integral part of the aesthetic.  In fact, Wayne is altering the “chopped and screwed” technique, which involves playing a previously recorded song at a much slower tempo than originally intended, resulting in voices pitched much lower than normal.  In this case, Wayne only “chops and screws” the voice, not the tempo of the music.  This effect has become associated often with Wayne, notably on his collaboration with Twista and Smitty, “Gettin’ Money” and the similarly titled “Money on My Mind” from Tha Carter II

There are many more “Wayne-isms” throughout Tha Carter III, musical quirks that have become ingrained in the listener’s mind as part of Wayne’s aesthetic.  Starting around 2:26 of “3 Peat,” we hear another Lil Wayne classic: a sigh that is autocorrected to slide upwards.  This effect almost mimics a flubbed note on trumpet, and produces a surprisingly emotive response.  Wayne’s cartoonish laugh at the beginning of “Mr. Carter” is another trademark, the kind of quirk impersonators use as a signifier (in fact, the laugh was mimicked recently on Comedy Central’s Key and Peele).  Most of all, Wayne’s raspy rap vocals draw praise and aesthetic favoritism from listeners.  In his Pitchfork review, Dombal did in fact mention Wayne’s pre-Rebirth “one-in-a-million elastic croak,” a granular effect that shows up most prototypically at 0:57 of “A Millie.”  Wayne has been perfecting this sound as far back as Tha Carter II in 2005, a quality audible in “Lock and Load.”  These small minutiae of Wayne’s vocal performances have become essential parts of his aesthetic persona, signifiers that define Wayne’s presence in the rap world.  Critics and fans, with repeated listens, have established a canon of vocal preferences or expectations surrounding Lil Wayne based on this legacy, and more specifically, Tha Carter III.

This strict canon is immediately challenged on the first track of Rebirth: “American Star.”  Wayne’s rasp is mostly hidden behind a layer of loose, embellishing AutoTune sprinkled with distortion, a sharp contrast to the aesthetic vision of Tha Carter III.  His notes are almost garbled, snarled around some sort of auto-corrected scale that leaks out several pitches outside of the key.  Tha Carter III contains nothing like this, only using AutoTune to embellish specific notes, like in the verse to “Lollipop.”  Wayne’s voice on “Lollipop” is clearly AutoTuned, but besides the occasional quick trill or embellishment, his sections are spot on.

Wayne’s tightly processed voice on “Da Da Da” is an even stronger timbral departure, flirting with the idea of Marilyn Manson’s grating vocal attack.  In “On Fire,” we hear how Wayne uses AutoTune to plunge his voice unnaturally downwards at the ends of phrases, literally the exact opposite motion that we hear on the track “3 Peat” from Tha Carter III.  These dips break from the key of the song, causing listeners to perk up their ears in disbelief.  At 0:27 of “Knockout” we actually do hear the ascending sigh from “3 Peat,” but this time Wayne’s voice skips upwards to a high squeal saturated with burbling AutoTune.  Perhaps strangest, “The Price Is Wrong” reveals Wayne yelling loudly like a 1970’s punk rocker, completely evading the surly growls and cackles of Tha Carter III.  We hear on Rebirth a looser Wayne, an experimental Wayne who toys with the presentation of his voice far more than on any other record to date.

Lil Wayne has rapped over thousands of different beats and styles, and I do not believe that the “fusion” of Rap and Rock is really the impetus for the critical condemnation of Rebirth.  The true culprits are the manipulations and contortions of his vocal performance, which remain too distinct from Tha Carter III to reconcile within that particular, beloved canon.  Additionally, critics’ lack of knowledge surrounding Wayne’s chosen break from hip hop results in even less understanding and approval.

Acknowledging these realities, we can begin to look past the dominant canon of Tha Carter III and observe Rebirth as it stands on its own.  And it does stand: just try to listen to “Prom Queen” without nodding your head to the chorus.  Check out Wayne’s fantastic rapping on “One Way Trip,” and enjoy Shanell’s bluesy take on “American Star.”  There are plenty of wonderful moments on Rebirth, but this can be difficult to determine when we overly privilege an artists’ past.  When Jim Szantor reviewed Miles Davis’s controversial 1970 record Bitches’ Brew, he claimed: “I’m still uncertain, but this recording will surely demand more of my attention….”  Clearly, Lil Wayne is demanding a similar level of focus on Rebirth.

Dave Sanders is a graduate student of Jazz History and Research at Rutgers University.  He is currently researching the use of blues aesthetics as analytical and conceptual tools under the direction of Lewis Porter.  He holds a B.M. in Jazz Studies from Temple University. 

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