No rapper has had to work as hard to prove his claim to the “Best Rapper Alive” title than Lil Wayne in 2006. Plenty still disagree with whether or not he ever was. His opposition has always been quite loud. For quite some time, he’s been a longstanding figure of derision for conservative leaning Facebook level memers.
Gauging his, or anyone’s, exact spot on the rap pecking order is tedious. There’s no denying his prolific output, or the impact he had on changing outdated perceptions in the music world as a whole. At the very least, he needs credit for that. Also, who would ever want a title like “Best Rapper Alive?” It’s got such a glaring nostalgia/ghost bias stipulation in it. And considering how wide Hip-Hop has expanded in sound and style, this type of ranking feels a little antiquated at this point. None of what I just said matters. Fans will always be arguing about it and rappers will always be deeming themselves the rightful heir to this throne.
And 10 years ago, Lil Wayne confidently staked his claim to it on the paradigm shifting mixtape, Dedication 2. It was a bold claim at the time. That “Best Rapper Alive” sash was usually meant to be around the waist of a New York rapper. Sure, there’d always be a few west coast exceptions, but never a dirty South guy. Even though the South was way past the era of merely having something to say, they still weren’t being taken seriously as actual rappers, no matter how many albums they were selling. By 2006, it lead to some next-level bitterness from the old guard.
New York Rapper bias was strong in the press, too. Before every indie rock-rooted blog treading water for relevance hired 3 black writers to review all the rap content and nothing more, XXL and The Source were the top influencers in the genre. There’s a reason why Chris Rock was able to go into such detail about a watch Twista had on in one of The Source’s issues. Each issue meant something. And during the rise of Wayne’s dominance, what was XXL’s verdict on Southern rap, you ask? It sucked.
*Sidenote: it’s a damn shame both magazines have such a terrible online database for all their old articles. I know they gave Wayne’s Tha Block Is Hot a Medium, then re-rated it an XL once he got good. There’s just no proof of it anywhere online. And for The Source, it’s kinda reckless for them not to have a better database from a journalistic integrity standpoint, considering their mudslinging past with rappers and how connection-based a lot of their reviews became. Nothing but a 404 page pops up when you try going to their 5/5 mic INSTANT CLASSIC review of Lil Kim’s “The Naked Truth.” Fun stuff, right?*
This is what was up against him and other up-and-coming Southern rappers at the time like Clipse, T.I. and Young Jeezy. To New York rap fiends, none of them were seen as lyrical threats able to compete against guys like Cam’Ron, Jadakiss, Lloyd Banks, Fabolous, or Joe Budden (he’s technically from New Jersey, but still). Each of them were on a different DJ’s mixtape every month rapping over someone else’s beat while trying to outshine the original, or releasing a diss track to keep to a C-level feud going (this one’s a twofer).
Each of the other Southern rappers adeptly infiltrated this world, but Wayne did it better. He was the best equipped to play this odd game of punchline one-upmanship, and was unafraid to go straight at a few of the major east coast figureheads. He obliterated Jay-Z’s “The Game Iz Mine“ (he’d do this again on Drought 3 with “Dough Is What I Got“) and even gave some life to a Biggie sampling beat from that super exploitive Duets album. Then he wound up making a straight-up hit of his own with “Cannon.”
The cherry on top of the Dedication 2 sundae is how unnecessary all of it was for him. He had no other reason to start releasing classic mixtapes other than ego. 50 Cent needed 50 Cent Is The Future to get signed. Papoose would not have become the 1.5 Million Dollar Man without them. And even though they already had a deal, Clipse resorted to releasing We Got It 4 Cheap because the crackers weren’t playing fair (Jive). It was unprecedented for someone in Wayne’s position to suddenly jump into this scene. He already had two of his albums go platinum, and due to a myriad of departures from Cash Money Records, he was also his label’s number one guy. He just wanted to make a statement. It wound up changing the whole game.
Rappers were never supposed to make money from the actual mixtape, but after Dedication 2 actually cracked the Billboard charts, that’s when artists started to see the potential in mixtapes as a true commodity to their career. Without this mixtape, Chance The Rapper doesn’t get a major ad campaign from Apple for Coloring Book.
All of this makes Wayne’s climb to the top so compelling. He forced his way into a conversation that was never meant for him to get a word in, then changed it completely. By toeing the line between not settling for regional tokenism and remaining loyal to his roots, he accomplished what someone like T.I. came up short with.
While T.I. also released a classic of his own in 2006 with King, he kept that claim to royalty strictly within the confines of whatever people consider to be the South. Wayne, on the other hand, never said he was the king of the South. That crown never seemed to be of interest to him. When you’re the “Best Rapper Alive,” that’s all encompassing. Gerrymandering be damned. He still kept his hometown pride. I mean, the city New Orleans has to be mentioned at least 1,000 times throughout this Dedication 2. And the vitriol he felt towards President Bush’s shit job of handling Hurricane Katrina lead to one of his greatest songs ever.
Wayne’s nationalism never wavered while assimilating to, then subsequently taking over the landscape of rap. And that’s crucial, because having a strong tie to one’s hometown has, and always will be, insanely important in rap. Except if you’re from New York. Nobody gives a shit if you’re from New York anymore.
Of the three most relevant rappers out right now, Kendrick and Drake owe a great deal of their identity to their hometown. Drake has basically turned into Toronto’s tour guide as well as the unofficial mascot for each sports team. Nicki Minaj, however, is a Queens native and that’s maybe the 95th thing people think of when discussing her.
As long as there is music to have an opinion on, people will argue about who the “Best Rapper Alive” is. Whether you say Wayne was or was not at some point is something I’ll literally never care about. His impact has already been made whether you like it or not.
Because when you do eventually have the “Best Rapper Alive” argument, there’s no shot that a New York rapper’s gonna be mentioned. That may seem inconsequential after years of this being the case, but when considering how highly perpetuated the allure of a New York rapper was just 10 years ago, it’s truly amazing to see how the mighty have fallen. Lil Wayne played the most crucial role in this dismantling by taking a New York rap staple, the mixtape, and blowing it up.