Ballad of Rikers Island: Lil Wayne keeps faith with fans ‘outside’

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Lil Wayne's new album. ()
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There was a time when being a Lil Wayne fan meant always feeling sated. For more than three years, from the fall of 2006 until early 2010, there was a constant stream of new music—much of it released for free online—in every style, from blueprint pop-radio singles to free-associative improvisation and even crooning, drug-fueled ballads.

Quality varied greatly, but the quantity was always high, so the duds were disposable and the hits classic. Then, a prison sentence for gun possession disrupted the flow. These days we take what we can get.

But that's greedy. He's in the midst of a year in prison stemming from a 2007 arrest after a performance at New York City's Beacon Theatre, and Lil Wayne has remained a presence on the outside throughout. He's appeared prominently on two chart-topping albums, Eminem's Recovery and Drake's Thank Me Later, and on a number of additional singles that would be considered healthy for any rapper, in jail or out. Before his sentencing, Wayne recorded nine music videos in one weekend.

Today, his eighth studio album, I Am Not a Human Being, hits stores, having been released digitally to celebrate his 28th birthday on Sept. 27. Originally slated as an E.P., the retail version of the album features a full 13 songs—nearly an hour of new material—recorded before he arrived at Rikers Island.

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Anyone doubting Wayne's dedication to music need only consider that he will spend his final month at Rikers in solitary confinement. His infraction? Hiding an MP3 player and headphones. Earlier this year, jealous of his protégé Drake's collaboration with Jay-Z on the song "Light Up," and challenged to match their performances, Lil Wayne delivered a two-minute verse over the prison phone. "First off, I don’t need you second guessing me," he rapped. "Jail is like third base, I’m coming home eventually."

In the meantime, it's just not the same.

Since pleading guilty to the gun-possession charge in October 2009, Wayne has been in something of a slump musically, though only relative to context. The group album We Are Young Money, featuring his still-blooming labelmates, was giddy and ultimately passable, but was meant to promote other artists, not Wayne. Early 2010 brought Rebirth, a failed experiment at making a rock record. It was tinny and tone-deaf.

The new "Human Being" is a combination of Wayne's last two official works, and using unused tracks from each of those two failures, it succeeds.

The difference is timing. While the posse album and Rebirth risked leaving a bad taste before Wayne went away, Human Being has the benefit of new beginnings. Despite the three albums having all been recorded around the same time, it's suddenly acceptable to hear the triumph in Kane Beatz' digital horns and synthesized violins on the lead single "Right Above It" knowing Wayne is scheduled for release on Nov. 4.

The rock-tinged title track is spirited where "Rebirth" was somber. After joking about cunnilingus, Wayne threatens that he'll "pop all the balloons and spit in the punch," punctuating it all with a hearty "Ha-ha." In other words, he's soon going to crash the party, dirty as ever. With syncopated guitars, drenched in distortion, lurching over live drums, it's tough to avoid coming off as a budget version of Jay-Z's Rick Rubin-produced "99 Problems." But the noisy, discordant chorus—unsubtle hints of Rebirth—works juxtaposed with the verse's cymbal-less drum groove.

Earlier in the year, his guitar-driven angst seemed impossible to enjoy and his typical crudeness glib in light of the looming circumstances, whereas now it's welcome. Frankly, he's earned the right to title a song "Gonorrhea."

But the music is better, too. "Hold Up" is buzzing with menace and clicks with melodic metronome sounds over heavy synths, while "Bill Gates" moans with epic keyboards from producer Boi-1da, who hit it big with both Eminem and Drake in 2010. The dark, four-note simplicity allows Wayne to match his peers in braggadocio, though maybe not in the billions. The Nicki Minaj-assisted "What's Wrong With Them" works a faux-Timbaland stutter through the verses, but blossoms into harmony-heavy dance pop for its radio-ready chorus.

The real standout though is "With You," featuring Drake, which finds Lil Wayne exercising his secret weapon: disarming charm. He's hinted at it with come-ons like "I don't think you're beautiful—I think you're beyond it," and even let it fully inhabit him on unreleased songs like "Something You Forgot," but "With You" is a course in hip-hop seduction. It's all in the balance between tired-but-necessary talk of Merlot in the bathtub and realistic, playful honesty. "Smoke a lot of weed, but I could never forget you," is flirting gold, while "I would rip my heart out and hand you the shit" is the sort of shrugging, clumsy poetry that fits with a broken soul sample.

For a rapper who boasts never writing anything down—he points to the posthumous exploitation of the journals of Kurt Cobain, whom he's cited as an influence, as one reason—Wayne's best work from prison has been on paper.

Through the website Weezy Thanx You, the rapper has communicated with fans via letters from prison, revealing a thoughtful humility.

"Because of my new limitations, this unfortunately has to be my last letter," he wrote when news broke about his move to isolation. "Don’t stress over this," he assured. "In 27 days, the ride starts again."

The website also features a countdown clock. And Human Being, though it essentially amounts to leftovers, does sounds better as the hatch-marks proliferate on the wall. It's still heartening to remember that Lil Wayne works best with words in the moment.