Lil Wayne’s ‘Tha Block Is Hot’ Turns 20

Lil Wayne’s ‘Tha Block Is Hot’ Turns 20

“Who am I?” – Lil Wayne (“Best Rapper Alive”)

A child’s ambition can lead to either fleeting passions or lifelong obsessions. Lil Wayne, born Dwayne Carter Jr., is a child cut from the latter cloth. At the age of 8, without outside encouragement, he chose to be a rapper. “I was [an] only child, so whenever anybody came to the house, it was showtime,” the New Orleans-born hip-hop superstar told Rolling Stone in a 2009 profile.

Mark Binelli, who interviewed Wayne for Rolling Stone, explained the mathematics behind Wayne’s mischievous lyricism. “He liked the reactions he’d get from people when they’d hear unexpected things coming out of a little kid’s mouth,” he wrote. Wayne knew instinctively that a rap performance had to entertain not just children but adults too. This was before he signed to New Orleans label Cash Money Records as the youngest member of the Hot Boys, a teenage rap group. Wayne’s shock mentality made him the perfect addition to a team where the lines between adolescence and adulthood were unidentifiable.

Ahead of his present-day immortality, Hot Boy Wayne wasn’t just any kid. He shot himself at the age of 12 and signed his first record deal by 15. Before Wayne was 21, he’d put out hit records, made a child and lost his stepfather. Because his life was so extreme, it was easy to forget Wayne’s age. Although he had the face of a boy, fans never wondered, How could one child go through so much?

In spite of everything, Lil Wayne managed to embody cool. By taking the street image of No Limit and pairing bandanas with bling, the Hot Boys took grandiosity into an imaginary realm — an unreal world, but a world that was cool. This essence first appeared during Wayne’s back-and-forth with fellow Hot Boy member Turk in the music video for their breakout single, “I Need a Hot Girl.”

For a brief second toward the video’s conclusion, a teenage Wayne playfully pushes Turk out of frame as the beat switches. Mannie Fresh’s 808 drums explode like firecrackers, and Wayne begins to flail his arms and perform with exuberance. He looks like a baby 2Pac, all bandana and bravado. For that one singular moment, no one else in the video matters.

I’m Lil Weezy on fire, I’ll snatch yo lady / if you a hot girl, baby slide in my Mercedes,” he raps to close out the song with conviction. Here is a child performer who doesn’t look old enough to possess a driver’s license, proclaiming he’ll take your woman and drive away in a luxury car most Americans cannot afford. Lil Wayne wasn’t the Justin Timberlake of the Hot Boys. He never made you feel as if you were watching a child; you were always watching a rap star.

On November 2, 1999, four months after the release of Guerrilla Warfare, the sophomore album that helped the Hot Boys break commercially outside of New Orleans, Lil Wayne released his debut album, Tha Block Is Hot. Wayne was newly 17, a high school dropout on the cusp of becoming a household name. But unlike other child rappers from his era, there was nothing childish about him. Just look at the album’s cover. Fire is at his feet, the police are at his back and helicopters are flying overhead. Wayne looks like the face of America’s Most Wanted, not the Fresh Prince of Hollygrove.

Early on, blood brothers Bryan “Baby” Williams and Ronald “Slim” Williams, the founders of Cash Money Records, knew the importance of imagery. Cash Money made sure all their artists had a look of big diamonds and bigger T-shirts, or no shirts at all. Nothing cute or cartoonish. “We like to dress in all black up in my residence / ain’t got on no suits ’cause we ain’t tryin’ to be presidents,” Wayne raps on “Tha Block Is Hot.”

That title track resembles the album’s cover. “From the home of that ’caine, jackin’ and crackin’ brains / broadcastin’ live from Tha Block, it’s Lil Wayne,” he raps to close out his first verse. The song is a well-written tour through a neighborhood on the verge of implosion, told from the perspective of a storyteller who calls this chaos home. “Lights Off,” another world-building record, is Wayne at his most intimidating. There’s no Birdman or Mannie Fresh, no Juvenile or B.G.; it’s just the baby of Cash Money illustrating a drive-by while holding the smoking gun.

“Lights Off” shows that Lil Wayne isn’t a storyteller like Soulja Boy. He doesn’t exaggerate details of violence with unnecessary tough-guy details. There are ways to create atmospheres that feel dangerous without bloodstained imagery. “Lights Off” does this with three verses that depict how drive-bys are the method of assault Wayne uses to handle adversaries. “We done left the block quiet,” he says in a tone that is cold and unforgiving. Today, if a 17-year-old black boy were to utter those words, America would piss herself.

It is for this reason that placing Wayne in the pantheon of child rappers is so difficult; he didn’t make kid bops. You will not find a song with the imaginary joy of “Old Town Road” on Tha Block Is Hot. No one knows the name of the town that houses “Old Town Road.” Lil Nas X’s Diamond-certified single was a smash because it exists in a perfect world. The author takes you where spouses cheat with no consequences and no adult can tell the black cowboy what to do. “Old Town Road” is essentially an episode of Nickelodeon’s popular 2000s cartoon The Fairly OddParents. There is nothing cute about Tha Block Is Hot. There are no horses, just creeping Mustangs. There are no outlaw cowboys, only dope-selling millionaires.

Ironically, Tha Block Is Hot reminds listeners that a child is narrating the story on the eighth track, “Fuck tha World.” Wayne’s voice sounds younger here, smaller, as if all the strain of his daily life drained the tough exterior from his soldier disposition. There’s a weight shrinking him. “Prior to him recording the song ‘Fuck tha World,’ I remember seeing Wayne drinking. I was like, ‘Dude, what the fuck is going on? What are you doing?’ He was just like, ‘I’m stressed; I just have a lot going on right now,’” the legendary Cash Money Records producer Mannie Fresh told The Fader in 2017.

I lost my father to the gun and made a little girl / and I’m still thuggin’ with my niggas, trying to keep it real / and I’m still doing for my mother, and I’m paying bills,” Wayne sings on “Fuck tha World.” Even if the threats on Tha Block Is Hot aren’t real, the stress is. The lyrics could start a Shakespearean tragedy. In the second verse, Wayne shows the nightmarish drama of teen parenting without any of the Jerry Springer reality-show sensationalism: “And my lil’ girl whole family tryna lie in court / tryna put me, a child, on child support.”

When Wayne utters his final “fuck the world,” you want to wrap him in your arms and never allow another bad thing to happen to him. As “Fuck tha World” ends and the B.G.-featured “Remember Me” begins, Wayne raps: “All I was taught is murder murder, kill drama, and nothing less.” The block is heated. See, Lil Wayne couldn’t be a child star; he grew up faster than most. Tha Block Is Hot internalizes the spirit of boys who become men before their time.

Even as a child, Lil Wayne was serious. That’s what made him cool. Unlike a mastermind of personas à la David Bowie, Wayne didn’t manufacture a character. He didn’t wear costumes, like Kanye West, or dye his hair to indicate a specific personality, like Eminem. Gradually, the tattoos inking his skin proved a permanent commitment to being a Martian. By the time he reached his fifth studio album, Tha Carter III, Wayne had convinced an entire generation that manhood wasn’t just about growing old; it was also about growing weird.

Michael Jackson is a legend for his music and his moonwalk. The moonwalk made him appear superhuman. That is what Lil Wayne has accomplished throughout his career, the metamorphosis from Hot Boy to a God. Yet nothing about Tha Block Is Hot informs listeners of who or what Lil Wayne will become: a rapper-eating Martian with love for Auto-Tune and oral sex.

Twenty years on, Lil Wayne’s Platinum-certified debut still isn’t a “classic,” whatever that means. Wayne doesn’t have a ubiquitous release all of the hip-hop community agrees on. But that doesn’t matter. He raps the way Allen Iverson played basketball — all moxie and style. A.I. didn’t win any championships, but he was a joy to watch. That’s what Wayne has brought to rap, a 20-plus-year highlight reel.

An entire generation of rappers studied Wayne’s highlight reel and built their worlds. Lil Wayne begets a Kendrick Lamar and a Young Thug; a Kodak Black and a YoungBoy Never Broke Again; a Nicki Minaj and a Drake. He is the All-Father of contemporary hip-hop. Lil Wayne is the American God who started as a kid on a hot block in New Orleans and ended up setting the world on fire.

On November 2, we celebrate his roaring flame.

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