Tha Carter V Means the South’s Not Dead, Either

On May 6, 2019, Lil’ Wayne announced he was going on tour with Blink-182, and the internet joked about it. The internet wanted to know if it was 2019 or 2009. The internet wanted to know who cared about Blink-182 or Lil’ Wayne. The internet wanted to know the last Blink-182 or Lil’ Wayne song that mattered.

I’m happy that the internet made fun of the proposed tour because if the internet was making fun of a Lil’ Wayne tour that meant Lil’ Wayne was still alive to go on tour.

For the last few years, every time I saw Lil’ Wayne’s name trending on Twitter or in a news ticker, I was sure he was dead. Every time, I would click his name or wait for the story after the commercial break. I was prepared to curse to myself, argue with the nearest person about how Lil’ Wayne never got the respect that he deserved as a Southern artist. Even if the nearest person agreed with me, I’d still argue to make sure I said the words out loud.

I’ve been ready since the first reports of his seizures and codeine overdoses surfaced in 2012. I was ready for Lil’ Wayne to die because I’m a professional wrestling fan along with being a hip-hop fan, and professional wrestling might be the one genre of pop culture that can top hip-hop’s list of artists who’ve died too young. Chris Benoit prepared me for Lil’ Wayne. Davey Boy Smith prepared me for Lil’ Wayne. Seeing Mick Foley find out about the death of one of his friends during a book signing in Tuscaloosa prepared me for Lil’ Wayne.

Lil’ Wayne going on tour was a sign of life. But, especially in the South, a sign of life doesn’t mean the same thing as being alive.

Death doesn’t know a middle ground in the South. Death is either a lightning bolt or a slow stream of syrup making its way to the edge of a plate. When my maternal grandmother died, there was an overheard conversation about a checkup and then a date for the funeral. I never knew my grandmother as sick or sickly. I knew her as my grandmother; she teased me about being too old to hug her. Then I knew my grandmother as dead. There were no visits to say goodbye at the hospital. No pep talks to put on a happy face before we walked into the hospital room. I don’t remember any prayer requests at the church that was two houses down from her old house. She was here with me, and then she wasn’t.

Of course, that’s not true. My maternal grandmother suffered from kidney problems for decades. She died at 57, and she spent almost half of those years dealing with kidney issues. But I didn’t see that. I never knew her as my grandmother with kidney problems. I only learned about her kidney problems from reading her obituary 20 years later. I never knew her as dying. I only knew her as alive and then dead.

It happened the same way with friends from high school. It happened the same way with my brother’s father-in-law. It happened the same way with Rosewood, Florida. Things are here and then they are not. People are here and then they are not.

When the news and rumors of Lil’ Wayne’s overdoses and seizures popped up in 2012, I figured his death would be another sudden Southern death, the kind that’s really not sudden at all. We all knew about the Styrofoam cup. We all know what this country takes out of the South.

He didn’t die, of course, but he did decay. He went from having memorable punchlines in his raps to becoming a punchline. His rhymes became sloppy and predictable. The once shocking stories about seizures and overdoses became just another story about seizures and overdoses.

Lil’ Wayne began to fade into the slow form of Southern death. Lil’ Wayne became the car parked in the yard for a small repair, the car that only needed a tune-up, the car that would get fixed once the income tax came in or the summer job money came in. After a certain number of excuses, everyone knows that car is only going to leave the yard attached to a tow truck, but we still humor our friends or family who tell us the car is going to be on the road again soon.

Lil’ Wayne became the cool mall that becomes the black mall that becomes the dangerous mall that becomes the abandoned mall. Lil’ Wayne became the bank that becomes a check cashing store. Lil’ Wayne became the K-Mart that becomes an abandoned K-Mart that becomes a discount clothing store that becomes an abandoned discount clothing store. Lil’ Wayne became the stores we only know by the names they used to have during our childhood even though people remind us of the new names each time we go home.

This slow form of death brings its own hope and hopelessness. This slow form of death reminds me of my paternal grandparents. They both suffered strokes a few years ago. My paternal grandfather, the only grandfather I’ve known, also suffers from diabetes. My grandfather was a journeyman/hustler who became a pastor. He loved to travel, but diabetes took one of his legs and his children had to take the car keys. He loves to tell stories, but there are times when the words just won’t connect into a narrative. In a lot of ways, I learned storytelling and narrative from him because I watched professional wrestling with him. He knew who was going to win the matches. He knew the secret identity of the masked wrestlers. It was his knowledge of wrestling, not his knowledge of religion, that made his words unquestionable. And that made it even harder to watch him struggle with his words.

And it was hard to watch him struggle with his wife when I was able to visit them during the holidays or when I was back in Montgomery for the summer. My paternal grandmother has a sense of humor built on simple facts and observations. At their 50th anniversary celebration, she told the story of how her marriage almost didn’t happen because she told my grandfather that she didn’t date light-skinned boys. When I visited her in the hospital a few weeks after my own marriage in the summer of 2015, she told me to not worry about my courthouse marriage because people who have fancy weddings break up just like everybody else–they only have more bills to show for it.

Over the years following their strokes, talking with my grandparents became more valuable and more hurtful as their health declined. My first ever family reunion was the lowest point. There were over a hundred of us in a large banquet hall in Montgomery. My family was bought and sold in Montgomery, and now we were gathered in Montgomery as survivors. As engineers, teachers, preachers, doctors. It should have felt like a celebration. My nieces and nephew danced and played together. I remembered to take a picture of my parents so that I’ll have one more picture of them enjoying their recent retirements. I learned my father had an older brother who died as a child. I learned my great-great-great-great grandfather was a slave owner and might have been one of the richest men in Montgomery. But all of the reunions and introductions and new revelations about the family were overshadowed by the dread I felt when I saw my grandparents that night. I couldn’t tell if they recognized me. They looked confused and overwhelmed by the noises and energy in the banquet hall. This could have been the last time I saw them alive. That night hurt. A part of me felt bitter. They lived long enough to make it to our first family reunion, but they weren’t alive enough to enjoy it.

My family history starts with my grandparents, and that means my family history starts in the South. And it’s my allegiance to the South that makes me care about Southern artists like Lil’ Wayne. Lil’ Wayne was never my favorite rapper. I never had a specific love for one of his songs or even one of his lyrics. I’ve never listened to one of his albums with the same attention and intensity that I have when I listen to Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death or OutKast’s ATLiens or Big K.R.I.T.’s Cadillactica. Even during his best run, from 2003-2008, when many people were willing to agree with Lil’ Wayne’s claim of being the best rapper alive, I was more interested in seeing if an artist like Cassidy would ever become more than a punchline battle rapper or if Juelz Santana’s raps would ever move him beyond his status as the class clown of the Diplomats. Even amongst Southern rappers, I had more interest in T.I. and the persona he was working to create as King of the South.

By now, it’s yawn-inducing to mention the connections we make with the art and artists that are part of our youth. We know the biases in place when we claim that our generation made the most memorable music or movies or cultural moments. I was born in 1984, so my adolescence was filled with the rise of Cash Money Records. I remember rolling my eyes when one of the guys from the neighborhood swore he recognized one of the girls in the “Back That Azz Up” video. I’m a fan of every “Cash Money Taking Over for the 99 and 2000” meme. Lil’ Wayne was part of that early Cash Money Records ensemble, but he was only a part of it. He didn’t really establish himself as a solo act until the label started to fall apart in the early 2000s. By default, he became the star of the label when most of the other artists from the late 90s golden age left. “Back That Azz Up” wasn’t his song. “Bling Bling” wasn’t his song. Even with his talent, he became the focus of Cash Money Records simply because there wasn’t anyone else to focus on. And he could’ve faded into hip-hop history like most of his other label mates. He could’ve become a legacy act at the age of 21. He could’ve been a featured artist on any of the “I love the 90s” or “Throwback Hip-Hop” tours that have popped up in the last few years. He could’ve been another artist that died with his label.

Instead, he turned himself into the best rapper alive.

Bravado is nothing new in hip-hop, but Lil Wayne’s claim felt new for me because it was the first time I saw a Southern rapper make a claim that big without a modifier and make that claim stick. UGK were the Underground Kingz. T.I. was the King of the South. Even in a genre that begged artists to be as big and proud as possible, there was still a modifier attached to the South. There was still the stigma attached to the South, even though Southern hip-hop has been the center of hip-hop since OutKast’s Andre 3000 made his claim that “The South got something to say” after the group was booed for winning the best new artist award at the 1995 Source Awards.

The South is second place in America. To be Southern is to be less than. When I tell people I’m from Montgomery, Alabama, some people congratulate me on not having a strong Southern accent. When I tell people I’m from Montgomery, Alabama, people give me stories about their grandparents and great-grandparents who made it out of Alabama. When I went to grad school in Miami, more than a few people congratulated me on making it out of Montgomery. I’ve listened to patronizing conversations about Soul Food and health because someone wants to teach me about how the South eats its feelings.

When Lil’ Wayne was calling himself the best rapper alive, I was working on figuring out what to call myself. I was starting to come to terms with the idea that I was going to end up being a writer for the rest of my life, and being a writer meant that I thought I could do something special with the same 26 letters every other English speaker had at their disposal. It doesn’t take long for me to compare anything to sports, and I found a certain comfort in comparing the confidence of a writer with the confidence of a cornerback or wide receiver on a football field. Football is a team sport, but wide receivers and cornerbacks are left in one-on-one contests more than any other position. Deion Sanders. Terrell Owens. Michael Irvin. Antonio Brown. It’s not surprising that some of the biggest peacocks in sports played wide receiver or cornerback.

As I finished undergrad and moved into graduate school, I had more and more opportunities to introduce myself and introduce my work. I almost soured on graduate school in Miami in the first month after a good night turned into a bad night at a restaurant next to my studio apartment. It was college night, and a group of guys invited me to freestyle with them in the parking lot because they thought poets had to be rappers, too. I was probably more disappointed than they were when I had to tell them that I couldn’t rap, but I nodded my head while I listened to drunk parking lot raps that sounded like drunk parking lot raps. I only remember the night because the last guy who rapped pulled me aside when we were all about to go back into the restaurant. He told me not to worry about the times the nonblack rappers said “nigger” while they were rapping. He said it was all love because “nigger” didn’t mean the same thing in Miami and Alabama.

When you’re from the South, people assume you are dumb. People assume you don’t know every definition of “nigger.”

The same energy carried through workshop sessions where I had to listen to what it meant when a poet from Alabama talked about shackles in a poem. It followed me into happy hour socials where so many people told me how happy I was to be in Miami and out of the South.

I always loved home, but after grad school I realized that nothing I did was going to be separated from Montgomery, Alabama. I realized I didn’t want to be separated from Montgomery, Alabama. If I was the best reader at an event, then the best reader came from Montgomery, Alabama. If I won a book prize, then Montgomery, Alabama, won that book prize. If Montgomery, Alabama, won a book prize, then my parents and grandparents and my whole family won a book prize.

When people learn that I’m from Montgomery, Alabama, I become something exceptional because I am something that’s alive. The popular view of the South is the view of the South as dead, a black and white photograph. I admit, death has a special home in the South. The sudden deaths of Emmett Till, Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Rosamond Robertson. The slow death of school integration. The slow death of voting rights. The slow death of diabetic rot. I’m not the exception. The South is alive and defiant.

“Defiance” was one of the first words that came to mind when I found out Lil’ Wayne was finally going to release Tha Carter V in September 2018. He fought for years with his label and former managers to release the album. While he was fighting to release the album, the music that he did release didn’t give me much room to be excited. His lyrics sounded heavy and slow. His metaphors were telegraphed and forgettable. It felt like he was invited to be a guest on so many songs as a favor or matter of respect. At worst, it felt like pity for what Lil’ Wayne had become after a half-decade of legal and health problems.

I was happy to hear that Lil’ Wayne finally came to a settlement with Cash Money Records and was going to release a new album, but I didn’t plan on listening to the album.

In fact, insomnia pushed me to the album. I was up late writing about what I learned from my family reunion. I was writing to grapple with what it meant to have the name of one of the men who owned and raped my ancestor. I’m sure that part of me wanted to be angry when I put on my headphones and clicked on the album. I wanted another reason to be mad about what this country did and does to Southern black people. I was ready to mourn Lil’ Wayne. The music wouldn’t let me do that.

Tha Carter V isn’t a great album because Lil’ Wayne isn’t a great rapper anymore, but I could hear some of the Lil’ Wayne I grew up with. He sounded like a rapper who would’ve called himself the best rapper alive, but he also sounded like a rapper who knew that “alive” was the most important word in the title. In his most joyful song, “Let It All Work Out,” Lil’ Wayne admits—amongst a collection of inspirational clichés about perseverance, trusting oneself, and trusting fate—that he tried to commit suicide as a child and is thankful to be alive today. In “Let It All Work Out,” the first words from Lil’ Wayne ring: “I’m in this bitch.” He repeats a version of this many times in the song. It’s not a statement of bravado or dominance. It’s a statement of defiance. It’s a reminder to everyone, including Lil’ Wayne himself, that he’s still here.

This past Christmas, I visited my grandparents at their home. When we arrived, we were worried because they were home alone. We were ready to call around and make sure help was on the way, and after talking to my grandparents at the family reunion, I was ready for another difficult meeting that would sit on my soul for weeks, maybe longer.

But my grandparents assured us we didn’t need to call anybody. My grandfather pulled me aside and told me stories about how men from his past came looking for him to settle an old score after he became a pastor. I could see the memory in his face. The men told him they didn’t come to talk to Pastor McCall. They came to talk to Dan. And I smiled nervously, and happily, while he told me about the Creole women he remembered from his days in New Orleans. Later, I went into the other room and listened to my grandmother ask me about teaching. Then she told me and my wife about how she used to love to sing in the church choirs when she was younger. She complained about not being able to cook like she wanted to. She saw me and knew me. My grandfather saw me and knew me. I saw them and knew them again.

We are all dying. I’m closer to death now than I was 3,000 words ago, but we don’t all get to grow old. In Alabama, people complain that there’s only two seasons: summer and not summer. A time of growth and heat, then a time of death. But like most weather complaints, the complaint isn’t true.

There’s a beauty to the fall in Alabama. Maybe I am partial to that beauty because I was born in October. We all know what it means when we have to put on long sleeves for the first time in months. We all know what it means to see our breath when we walk out of the door in the morning. We know the leaves will turn and fall, but there’s a unique beauty to the yellowing leaves in the South. The leaves, stubborn, show off every color before they let go and descend. And there’s a beauty in watching a rapper grow old because that means he’s lived long enough to grow old. And there’s a beauty in watching your grandparents wave death away to tell you one more story.

—Jason McCall (from Nat. Brut)