When Lil Wayne used to claim that he was the best rapper alive, it didn’t really matter whether or not he meant it. It wasn’t like the title came with a championship belt. It wasn’t like the title was even real.
At best, it’s an ephemeral show of respect; at worst, a rap nerd’s dead-end debate. There’s never a consensus. For every Biggie, there’s a Pac. For every Jay Z, a Nas. For every Wu-Tang, a Tribe Called Quest.
But every time Wayne said it, he was forcing himself into the conversation, regardless of who was having it. Whether he was parachuting in for songs with Kelly Rowland or Enrique Igelsias or putting on the gloves with Jay Z or Outkast, he made you consider his worthiness. And then he took himself out of the conversation altogether.
Think about it: When was the last time Wayne said he was the best rapper alive? It feels like a lifetime ago.
Since then, a revolving door of characters has hijacked pop-rap’s attention span, from Kendrick Lamar to 2 Chainz. If they weren’t the best — it’s hard to find anyone that doesn’t swear Lamar’s “Good Kid, M.a.a.d. City” was a contemporary “Illmatic” — they were the busiest. 2 Chainz basically spent a year filling in his absurdly comical verses where Wayne’s used to be.
And then there’s Drake. One reason Wayne faded into the background was to allow Drake to come to the fore. The deferential younger star, signed to Wayne’s Young Money label, might otherwise be unable to step out of his benefactor’s shadow.
It never really added up. Long before Drake went on his scorch-the-earth run, Wayne made it seem as if the idea of rapping made him yawn. Not even two months after “Tha Carter 3” sold a million copies on day one, Wayne dropped a follow-up mixtape, “Dedication 3,” and then essentially declared he was taking a vacation. On “Magic,” a throwaway song on a throwaway mixtape, he rapped, “I ain’t even gotta rhyme/ I just made a hundred [expletive] million dollars.”
And that explained pretty much everything he did from that point on: the weird dives into rock albums, the skateboarding, the arbitrary but entertaining beefs with NBA players.
Rapping wasn’t his primary concern anymore. There were now two different Waynes: the one from before “Tha Carter 3,” and the one who came after.
It felt strange. Generally, the person wearing rap’s yellow jacket doesn’t relinquish it out of boredom. They spazz out at award shows and then go into hiding, like Kanye. They make a debut album that hijacks everyone’s attention, and then never match it, like 50 Cent. They get their lead singles taken for Jay Z’s album, like Jeezy. They get caught buying guns in strip-mall parking lots, like T.I. They die in their prime, like Biggie and Tupac. But they rarely just get bored.
For a long stretch after “Tha Carter 3,” Wayne sounded like he’d done it all before. After nearly two decades, four “Carter” albums, five “Dedication” tapes, and three “Drought” tapes, you could argue that he actually had.
In the meantime, the world blurred past. Upstarts like 2 Chainz and Young Thug took pieces of Wayne’s aesthetic and ran with it. Kanye redeemed himself with the practically flawless “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” raising Wayne’s “best rapper alive” claims to messianic heights. Rick Ross morphed into a mythical Miami drug lord, complete with a team of underlings that helped him dominate both the streets and the radio.
And Drake was piling up platinum albums and making himself entirely too ubiquitous. There’s no denying his hold over the genre; Kanye, Jay, and even Wayne have admitted it. Two months ago, Drake released “O to 100/The Catch Up” for free on the Internet, and you could hear his deference to Wayne dying.
“They say the shoe can always fit, no matter whose foot it’s on/ These days, feel like I’m squeezin’ in ’em/ Whoever wore ’em before just wasn’t thinkin’ big enough.”
But in the past year, it’s started to seem like someone waved the smelling salts in front of Wayne’s face. He’s tweeted apologies to fans. He’s lined up a fifth “Carter” installment, due on Oct. 18. And he’s co-headlining a battle-themed tour with Drake (which stops in Boston on Monday), with the small seed of truth in the professed rivalry making the gimmick work.
Above all, since springing “Dedication 5” from out of nowhere on followers last summer, Wayne sounds genuinely interested in rapping again. A series of mixtapes initially intended to show how dedicated he was to climbing the rungs of rap’s ladder one by one was repurposed: “This is dedicated to everybody who forgot.”
Quietly, Wayne had put himself back into a conversation he walked away from years ago.Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.