Tenth grade was a strange year for me. I still hadn’t had a girlfriend yet. I had been ditched at the only dance that I had attended. I hadn’t totally hit puberty yet so I was walking around over six feet tall with a Winnie the Pooh pitch to my voice. I also, was getting benched on the basketball team. Everything about tenth grade basketball was objectively terrible for me except for one small aspect: the locker room. I know, a weird answer indeed.
I can’t remember exactly whose bright idea it was to keep a portable stereo in their locker (none of the lockers had locks so either this person wasn’t thinking clearly about leaving their boombox in an unlocked locker or maybe they didn’t really like the boombox that much and just wanted to get a new one), but they changed my life that year and they didn’t even know it. The locker room was a quick 20 minute period of time filled with jokes, fights, slap-boxing, showering in your shorts, and rap music. The only rap music I had really experienced fully up to this point was Eminem and a handful of songs that I knew two or three lines to, to remain cool in front of my peers.
It wasn’t until that tenth grade year that I discovered Lil Wayne. This was 2007 and Lil Wayne had released his album, The Carter II, two years prior. Dwayne Carter had been around for several years prior to me coming across his music, but I doubt any of it had been magnificent or entrancing as the songs that I heard that year. It started as a slow burn with me asking questions to one of my teammates in private about what song that was that had been playing in the locker room, and it slowly turned into late nights on the computer downloading music illegally so that I could listen at my leisure. I became obsessed by the end of tenth grade, that obsession would only grow.
Da Drought 3, Wayne’s mixtape that changed the rap landscape forever, came out that April as basketball was finishing up, and I will never forget those feelings. It seems weird now to describe seeing as how monumental that mixtape became, but, at the time, the genre of rap was something I hadn’t ever quite tried to understand. Hip-Hop wasn’t a culture I had grown up around, and music as explicit as Lil Wayne’s was something I was scared to listen to. Yet, everything that he spoke of in his music fascinated me even though I couldn’t understand the concepts behind the majority of it.
It almost seems made up, looking back, trying to tell someone about how much of Wayne’s music I sought out. There was the time that I convinced my mom to let me buy illegal mixtapes off of a website called “HotMixGame.com,” and it became such a problem that I had her call the “company” so that we could expedite shipping for five of Wayne’s mixtapes. There was the following event where I brought these mixtapes on the bus to one of our basketball games, and one of my teammates found them in my bag. The look of astonishment and respect that he gave me stays with me to this day. Listening to Lil Wayne wasn’t just a personal experience for me; it was a right of passage for any of us at that age if we listened to rap music.
Three days ago, Lil Wayne released a new single titled “Grateful”; I listened for about fifteen seconds before I promptly turned it off. I sat there for a second and thought about that locker room, the boombox, the music blaring, and watching my teammates rapping to every word. It was the energy of that moment that popped into my head, and after listening to Wayne’s new song, that moment felt even farther away.
This isn’t meant to be a critique of Lil Wayne’s entire catalog of music, nor is it meant to be an analysis of his discography to find where it all went wrong for him. The truth is, I don’t know what I want this to be. All I know is that I played a song three days ago by a man who was my formal introduction into a genre of music that would change my life, and all that I heard was emptiness. I sat there and came to the realization that moments like the ones in those locker rooms were long gone.
This is a realization that feels like we have all been trying to come to terms with for several years. We hear about new music, we hear about a possible return of the rapper that we once fell in love with, and we get our hopes up. However, like with every tainted relationship, that hope has failed us time and time again.
This is also not meant to be reprimand on Wayne either, but instead an amicable separation of rapper and fan. There should be no more hard feelings or disappointment; Wayne’s new music shouldn’t anger us or lead us to publicly shame whatever artistic path he has now chosen to take. However, it can lead us to once and for all decide to leave Lil Wayne behind and grieve for the music we once had. Just because we can’t have another moment like the first time we heard “A Milli” or the first moments we had listening to the Carter III, doesn’t mean we have to stop cherishing how great they were. From 2005-2009 Lil Wayne was the best rapper in the world and it wasn’t even close, and he was the first person to ever attract fandom so strong that every single verse he wrote was obsessed over and recited for months.
The memory of Lil Wayne will always live on, but the person we have in front of us now is nothing but a hollow shell, and rather than stay angry at who we see we should instead accept what is and look back. Forgetting what he did for those of us that had those moments is impossible, just as forgiving him for what he ultimately became may be just as difficult. He lost himself somewhere between 2005 and today, and he took a sizable piece of the souls of rap fans everywhere when he did. It’s a hard thing to accept not knowing what could have been, and how many more of those magical moments would have happened had things been different. All I know is that I can still hear that boombox, my teammates in that locker room, and the rumble of the Carter II instrumentals in my head if it’s just quiet enough. That’s something not even Wayne himself could take away.