This Is What It Takes to Be a Teen Sensation Like Lil Wayne
It's tempting to compare NBA Youngboy to Lil Wayne, but what exactly are the similarities?
Day 329: "Not Like Me" feat. Big Tymers – Tha Block Is Hot, 1999
If you're smart, you've been listening to NBA Youngboy's new tape AI Youngboy lately (if you haven't, listen to our interview with him on Beats 1 and get familiar here). And if you have indeed been following the 17-year-old Baton Rouge rapper, it may have crossed your mind that he embodies more than a passing similarity to a certain Louisiana forebear. Can NBA Youngboy be the next Lil Wayne? Would it be more accurate to put that mantle on Kodak Black? Will it matter if neither can stay out of jail?
The reality is it will take another decade before you could properly argue that either of those two phenoms is heading for the career impact of Lil Wayne, who in addition to being one of the most influential street rappers of the past two decades also managed to shore up traditionalist hip-hop bona fides and make his mark as a crossover pop figure and experimental innovator. But it is interesting to take those two artists as lenses through which to consider Lil Wayne and, furthermore, to reflect upon Lil Wayne's own legacy as a teen rapper.
This blog has mostly treated Tha Block Is Hot as part of a level playing field with the rest of Wayne's catalog: Sure, he was less developed as an artist here, but he was already preternaturally dexterous on the beat, and, in hindsight, there's no question that he had the raw talent and drive to mature into Lil Wayne the superstar. So it's hard to put a finger on exactly what it is that makes this music less accomplished than Wayne's music from a decade later. It's not that these raps are unsophisticated. Perhaps the hooks are slightly less meaty than in later hits, but the songs still have their own catchiness and logic to them. It's all produced by Mannie Fresh, but there's an impressive level of sonic diversity that foreshadows the twists and turns to come; "Not Like Me" has a reggae tinge to it, and that sound has remained an interest of Wayne's to this day. So why does Tha Block Is Hot feel the way it does? Is it because it's the only Wayne album that feels connected to the Hot Boys oeuvre? Is it just because he's young?
The press at the time pretty much unilaterally approached Wayne with an interest in him as a teen sensation. He was the baby Hot Boy, his career necessarily seen as the less interesting counterpart to Juvenile's and B.G.'s (imagine, say, your interest now in the number three figure in Lil Yachty's Sailing Team). This framing almost made Lil Wayne a novelty, which seems absurd to try to even imagine now. But when Tha Block Is Hot and a couple Hot Boys songs were the only context we had, it wasn't obvious he was important. It was just obvious that a teenager driving fancy cars and living a life of rap star glamor was interesting to talk about.
To me, the defining trait of Lil Wayne's music at this time, the thing that I also see in NBA Youngboy that justifies those comparisons, is a certain flippant cockiness. Wayne sounds like a kid, with a reedier voice than the one we know now. And as opposed to the assured, poised boasting he would grow into by the time of Tha Carter II, there's an insolence to his character here: "I'm just a lil' thug, what? / Belt buckle fall down to my cuffs, what? / And police don't even matter, they can suck (what) / Tha price right if I catch ya slippin', nigga, what what." I'm generally drawn to the idea Lil Wayne would go on to embody later in his career—that through relentless work and out-of-the-box thinking you can become the greatest—but there's something appealing about the idea of him, here, too, where he is just a talented kid who knows he's too good for his age.
The verse on "Not Like Me" is one of the ones on Tha Block Is Hot that best captures that youthful confidence (perhaps the juxtaposition with Mannie Fresh, who has the best line with "I got so much money I know who killed Kennedy," helps). The album is an important document in the history of Lil Wayne, of course, and it's also just a good piece of music. But above all, it holds up because there's nothing quite like hearing a kid who knows he can get away with talking his shit.
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