Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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10 Years, 100 Songs: #26. “I Don’t Write Nothin’, ‘Coz I Ain’t Got Time…”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on October 20, 2009

Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. The archives can be found here. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.

I never felt entirely comfortable with Lil’ Wayne’s Best Rapper Alive status. There’s not really any question that he has it right now, and that he’s probably earned it with a decade’s worth of albums, mixtapes, freestyles and guest appearances. But to put him in that lineage is sort of difficult for me, because he doesn’t really do the things that I’m used to my Best Rappers Alive–2Pac, Biggie, Jay-Z, even Kanye or Andre 3000–doing. Mostly, he can’t write a coherent song, and appears little motivated to even try. Unless you’re Slick Rick, rap rarely follows a strictly linear lyrical format, but all those guys have proven themselves more than capable of at least writing a whole song on the same subject matter, or at least on the same general theme, or at least with the same general mood or tone. Weezy, on the other hand, could barely even go a couplet without going off on a tangent. He had no knack whatsoever for storytelling, and appeared about as concerned with song structure as Ornette Coleman. Even his cheesiest pop crossover, “Mrs. Officer,” which starts out as a basic narrative, quickly disassembles into a mess of bad puns, needlessly repeated phrases and free-associative ramblings.

None of that is to say that Lil’ Wayne is a bad rapper, though, or even not a great one. He has as much charisma, as much lyrical dexterity, and arguably as much raw talent as nearly any other rapper of the last 20 years. It’s just that Wayne, despite showing a decent amount of respect for those that came before him, still took kind of a Year Zero approach to being a hip-hop legend. More than anything, he felt quintessentially young, in a way that no rapper of significance had since Eazy-E. It helped that despite being 26 around the time of Tha Carter III‘s release, he still sorta looked like a 14-year-old, and likely will for decades to come. But he also basically acted like a 14-year-old, flippant and arrogant, with a ten-second attention-span and a perpetual, almost naive horniness. He made it seem old and boring for a rapper to worry about crafting a perfect single–let alone a perfect album, which despite the preponderance of excellence on Tha Carter III, will likely be forever beyond Wayne’s grasp in strict Blueprint/Illmatic terms. Screwing around for ten minutes in the studio while getting super-high and macking on chicks couldn’t help but seem a little more exciting by comparison.

All of this is why, for me, “A Milli” was the ideal Lil’ Wayne single. At three-plus minutes, without any sort of intro, chorus, breakdown, bridge, or outro sections, it was really very little more than a glorified freestyle–and that’s all it was intended for, really, as it was initially supposed to just show up in different sections and with different guest rappers throughout TCIII. But there was just something so powerful about it that, despite it being about as uncommercial as any song on the radio in 2008, forced its way above ground and into the Top 40. Especially given that “Lollipop,” released somewhat concurrently, was a little bit too crossover-baiting for a lot of people (including me, at least at first) as a lead single, the free-form, almost atonal nature of “A Milli” (the song doesn’t even change chords once the entire time) was new and exciting enough to make it clear that Weezy hadn’t gone soft in his old age.

First and foremost, you have to start with the hook. And of course, I use the term “hook” fairly liberally, given that the musical accompaniment is nothing but a single repeated bass note and an alien voice in the background endlessly exclaiming “A MILLI-, A MILLI-, A MILLI-” (borrowed from the Vampire Mix of A Tribe Called Quest’s “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo”–the sample of which is broken down here, which you really, really should watch). But to say that the effect of the hook is hypnotic would be a gross, gross understatement. It’s an almost retro sort of beat, harking back to the days of songs like “Sucker MCs” and “Roxanne, Roxanne” where a drum beat, a simple bass part and some scratching noises would be all the rappers had to work with. But it also doesn’t really sound like anything that’s ever come before it, with that almost apolcalyptically-low and rumbling bass (which I could hear pumping out of every car from about a mile away for the months that it was popular) and that disembodied, sort of disturbing vocal chant (also made visually unforgettable by that screen in the MTV performance linked to above, with the endless zooming “A MILLI” graphic). Weezy often claimed to be a martian–and he is a legitimately freaky-looking dude–but only a couple of times has he actually sounded this genuinely extraterrestrial.

And over it all, Weezy just let it rip. Without having any form of conventional structure around him to box him in, Wayne went completely stream-of-consciousness, just about emptying his whole aresnal on the freestyle. There’s the split-second thought-process-shifts (“They say I’m rappin’ like Big, Jay and Tupac / Andre 3000, where is Erykah Badu at? / Who dat? / Who dat say they gon’ beat Lil’ Wayne?”), the pop culture references (“Boy I got so many girls / Like I’m Mike Lowry”), the laboring on one phrase (“Man I hate a shy chick / Don’t you hate a shy chick / Had to plate a shy chick / She ain’t shy no more, she changed her name to My Chick”), the strange threats (“He who don’t believe I’ll make dessert of him / Sherbert him”), and the eh-ish puns (“My name ain’t Bic, but I keep that flame”). Weezy approached the whole thing almost like a prizefighter in a ten-round bout, spitting with such unceasing ferocity that you can almost hear a bell ringing for him to take a breather every 16 bars or so. It’s all a rich tapestry, and if you don’t like Mr. Carter, then this would probably be your Exhibit A as to why he couldn’t hold the mantle of the all-time greats. But if you’re willing to take Lil’ Wayne on his own terms, it’s a pretty fascinating ride, to say the least.

Of course, if you don’t like Lil’ Wayne, then pop music was probably a pretty lonely place for you in the last couple years of the Naughty Oughties. He’d been around the entire decade, even popping up at the tail end of the 90s in Juvenile’s “Back That Ass Up,” but no one could’ve been prepared for the onslaught that occured as of about 2007, where Weezy appeared on an absolutely staggering 21 top 40 hits–more than all but a handful of artists had achieved over the course of the whole decade. He even started popping up on sports shows, engaging in some cringe-worthy debate about SEC football and LeBron James with Skip Bayless on 1st & Ten (did these people not listen to “Don’t Get It?” The guy is only slightly more able to maintain a logical train of thought while engaging in intelligent discourse as he is rapping). We can’t be more than a year away at this point from his cameo in XXX3, can we?

I still don’t know if I can call Lil’ Wayne the best rapper alive in good conscience. But I can definitely acknowledge his talent and his importance, and I imagine that a decade or so from now, we might look back to Weezy’s rise to power as a turning point in the normative style of hip-hop lyricism. In the meantime, it’s comforting to have him out there, spicing up otherwise forgettable R&B hits, loosening up the top 40 with his weirdo crossover hits, and likely going down on 5% of the female population of North America. For better or worse, right now, hip-hop just ain’t hip-hop without him.

The List So Far (Now With Links!):

100. Green Day – “Jesus of Suburbia
99. The Ying Yang Twins – “Wait (The Whisper Song)
98. Crazytown – “Butterfly
97. Taylor Swift – “Teardrops on My Guitar
96. The Fray – “Over My Head (Cable Car)
95. Fergie – “Fergalicious
94. Lidstrom – “I Feel Space
93. Chevelle – “Send the Pain Below
92. T-Pain f/ Yung Joc – “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)
91. The Arctic Monkeys – “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor
90. Cassie – “Me & U
89. Nelly Furtado – “Maneater
88. Mike Jones f/ Slim Thug & Paul Wall – “Still Tippin’
87. Bat for Lashes – “Daniel
86. The Darkness – “I Believe in a Thing Called Love
85. Dynamite Hack – “Boyz n the Hood
84. DJ Khaled f/ T.I., Rick Ross, Fat Joe, Birdman, Lil’ Wayne & Akon – “We Takin’ Over
83. Matchbox20 – “Bent
82. The Game f/ 50 Cent – “Hate It or Love It
81. 311 – “Amber
80. 3 Doors Down – “Krptonite
79. Nas – “Made You Look
78. Royksopp – “Eple
77. The Pussycat Dolls – “Don’t Cha
76. DMX – “Party Up (Up in Here)
75. Junior Senior – “Move Your Feet
74. Twista f/ Kanye West & Jamie Foxx – “Slow Jamz
73. The Streets – “Weak Become Heroes
72. Jimmy Eat World – “The Middle
71. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Maps
70. Snoop Dogg f/ Pharrell – “Drop It Like It’s Hot
69. Alice DeeJay – “Better Off Alone
68. Xiu Xiu – “I Luv the Valley OH!
67. Incubus – “Stellar
66. Mariah Carey – “We Belong Together
65. Andrew W.K. – “Party Hard
64. Jurgen Paape – “So Weit Wie Noch Nie
63. Taking Back Sunday – “MakeDamnSure
62. Kid Cudi – “Day n Nite
61. Paramore – “That’s What You Get
60. System of a Down – “Toxicity
59. dNTEL f/ Ben Gibbard – “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan
58. Three 6 Mafia f/ 8Ball & MJG – “Stay Fly
57. Good Charlotte – “The Anthem
56. The Lonely Island – “Lazy Sunday
55. Darude – “Sandstorm
54. Yellowcard – “Ocean Avenue
53. The Killers – “Mr. Brightside
52. Luomo – “Tessio
51. Blink-182 – “Stay Together For the Kids
50. My Chemical Romance – “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)
49. Freelance Hellraiser – “A Stroke of Genius
48. Daft Punk – “Digital Love
47. Snow Patrol – “Chasing Cars
46. Sean Paul – “Like Glue
45. Ludacris – “Stand Up
44. Britney Spears – “Toxic
43. Kings of Leon – “Sex on Fire
42. Jennifer Lopez f/ Ja Rule – “I’m Real (Remix)
41. Lifehouse – “Hanging By a Moment
40. Plain White T’s – “Hey There Delilah
39. MGMT – “Kids
38. Gym Class Heroes f/ Patrick Stump – “Cupid’s Chokehold
37. Franz Ferdinand – “Do You Want To
36. Kylie Minogue – “Can’t Get You Out of My Head
35. Vertical Horizon – “Everything You Want
34. The White Stripes – “Fell in Love With a Girl
33. Jay-Z – “Takeover
32. Maroon 5 – “This Love
31. Silversun Pickups – “Lazy Eye
30. M.I.A. – “Paper Planes
29. Timbaland f/ OneRepublic – “Apologize
28. Beyonce f/ Jay-Z – “Crazy in Love
27. Coldplay – “Yellow
26. Lil’ Wayne – “A Milli”

6 Responses to “10 Years, 100 Songs: #26. “I Don’t Write Nothin’, ‘Coz I Ain’t Got Time…””

  1. MBI said

    My god, man, it’s like you’re on a crusade to include only music I hate from this point on the list forward.

  2. Byron said

    You say that like it’s a BAD thing. If I agree with Andrew’s entire top 25, I’m actually going to be rather disappointed, because he’s making cases for a lot of things that I may dislike but he considers worthy of praise, and that gives me the opportunity to re-evaluate. I would argue that the sheer composition of the list so far is unlikely for most people with set musical tastes to get through without finding a fair number of things they seriously dislike, and that’s part of the charm of the exercise. It’s a particularly well-presented dissenting viewpoint to critical consensus.

    You know what song I hated? “Apologize”. That song was everywhere for two-thirds of a year, and I still don’t care for it; I even thought “Stop & Stare” was better, if painfully generic. But at least Andrew was willing to go to bat for it and say something interesting, and give me something to take with me to the next time I hear it. That’s what I really like most about this list, even though I’m into a lot of the music myself.

  3. MBI said

    “You say that like it’s a BAD thing.”

    I guess it isn’t. I’ve been reading this whole project even though I know eventually he’s going to put Soulja Boy in the top fucking ten, which any decent person would consider the musical equivalent of Holocaust denial. It is going to be painful to read. But I’m gonna read it anyway.

    “A Milli” is just about the worst goddamn song I’ve ever heard. I can deal with Lil Wayne in small doses, but the aforementioned juvenilia just fucking gets on me when it’s an entire song, and combine that with a beat which consists entirely of AMILLI AMILLI AMILLI AMILLI AMILLI and I want to bust some skulls.

  4. MBI said

    And yeah, “Apologize” is just a worthless nothing of a song.

  5. Alex said

    Juvenilia? A beat that makes you want to crush skulls? Insanity. A beat that crushes skulls, perhaps. Nothing quite sums up Wayne’s appeal like A Milli. It’s a distillation of everything that he does best, even if it’s not his best track.

    Were you purposely censoring the My Chick line, Andrew? Or was this a version that actually played on the radio in America? Because I’m pretty sure it was “Man I hate a shy bitch / Don’t you hate a shy bitch / Yeah, I ate a shy bitch / She ain’t shy no more, she changed her name to My Bitch.” I’m not sure if that changes your perception of the line as laboured, but there it is.

  6. intensities said

    I meant to address this in the entry, actually, but there are at least two prominent versions of the song–the one from the album and the clip above, and a cleaner version that I think was used in the video and was more prominent on radio. Not only is the clean version cleaner, but it’s got an entirely different second verse I think. The latter was the one that I heard first and is the one I prefer, maybe just for that reason, but it also has some lines I like that aren’t in the dirty version (“You should see their faces when they see that this robot can move”).

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