Reviews: A Milli by Lil Wayne

A Milli is a rap song about so much stuff: Nigerian hair; the power of a ch-ch-ch-ch-chopper; Orville Redenbacher; intimidation, as it relates to the relationship between goons and goblins; a query regarding the location of Erykah Badu; more. It’s when Wayne translated the success his mixtape run had had into aboveground success. More substantially, though: It was when sounding like you were rapping on a mixtape actually became a way to achieve aboveground success. diving around in the folds of his own brain.

A famous story about Lil Wayne is that he accidentally shot himself in the chest when he was twelve years old. He has changed how it happened a few times, but the crux of the story has always stayed the same: He was home alone with a gun, and then a little bit later he was home alone with a gun and also a hole in his body.

He told VH1 during a Behind the Music special in 2009 that the doctors said he missed his heart by less than an inch and that fragments of the bullet were still in there and they could never be removed because it was too unsafe, and that was pretty scary. 

Then he said it was okay because they weren’t going to move—unless, for some reason, he traveled through some sort of very large magnetic field, and when he said that he stretched his eyeballs for dramatic effect and also jutted his teeth forward for dramatic effect, too, and that was pretty goofy and weird.

And that’s Lil Wayne, given we can surmise the entirety of a person’s professional identity in a two-paragraph extrapolation.

He’s an intimidatingly talented technical rapper, and he showed that off early on as a rifle-mouthed marksman in a group called the Hot Boys; particularly on his first solo album, 1999’s Tha Block Is Hot; and especially on “Respect Us,” where the stutter-step of his cadence was matched impeccably by the complexity of the structure of his verses. 

And he’s a rapper who allows himself to be goofy and weird, which he showed off beginning in the second stanza of his career, particularly on 2007’s The Drought Is Over 2: The Carter 3 Sessions, and especially on “I Feel Like Dying,” which sounds like he’s scuba diving around in the folds of his own brain.

When he began to balance out those traits against one another at just the right pitch, he walked toward becoming a superhero, unstoppable, unbeatable. And when he figured out how to turn it all into something consumable beyond mixtape fodder, as he did during 2008’s Tha Carter III, where we find “A Milli,” where he perfected the mixture, he proved to be irreversibly influential.

There was skepticism before Tha Carter III was released, as there should have been, and there was a tremendous amount of excitement before Tha Carter III was released, as there should have been.

Wayne had sold well in the past—Tha Block Is Hot went platinum, and Tha Carter II (2005) went platinum as well. But the success of Tha Block Is Hot was, to a degree, fated and blind, an ancillary effect of the country’s sudden infatuation with Cash Money Records, an independent label in New Orleans that had signed a distribution deal with Universal Music Group and presented a new brand of rap. And Tha Carter II, while well-received structurally, arrived in the shadow of Kanye West’s wonderful Late Registration, and so when it came it was fine, but it also felt a bit like maybe rap had already moved on. That was the skepticism.

The excitement was because of the music Wayne had been creating away from his label during the break between Tha Carter II and Tha Carter III.

Prior to recording Tha Carter in 2004, Wayne purged himself of all of the unused lyrics he had written down. He carried a notebook into a recording studio, clicked record, then rapped everything in the book until there was nothing left. He put it all on one thirty-five-minute song called “10,000 Bars.” That’s a slight simplification of the process, though only barely. But that’s not important. What’s important is what it led to.

With no prepared lyrics, and with an idea not to write anything down anymore, Wayne changed everything. He still had the technical ability to rap, but in the absence of material to reference it became augmented: less burdened, more organic, weirder, more fun. He piled words and phrases up on top of each other, mushed together similes. He spent four mixtapes and twenty-five-thousand guest features practicing it. It was great, and unexpected, and enthralling. 

The only question was: Can he—can ANYONE —do anything like this on a proper album?

And then “A Milli” popped. And it was perfect.

The beat was magical and feverish and instantly intimidating. Wayne’s lyrical sprint, his utter disregard for structure or linear compatibility, was intoxicating. Together, they were massive. 50 Cent was the first guy who showed that a big mixtape buzz could be swapped out for a major record deal. 

Wayne took that idea and advanced it. He showed it could do that, but that maybe that wasn’t the end goal anymore, because rap was heading in that direction now, heading toward a weirdo bonanza and mixtape-as-a-model sound, because that’s where he was taking it, and that’s where it’s been ever since. Perfect examples of what Lil Wayne set in motion are Gucci Mane’s “Lemonade” (2009) and Waka Flocka Flame’s “Hard in the Paint” (2010).

Kelefa Sanneh wrote this about Lil Wayne for the New York Times after watching him in concert in February of 2008, about a week before “A Milli” was released as a single: “Lil Wayne is at the strange, magical point in his career when popular acclaim seems like total freedom, when hyperjudgmental fans suspend judgment, willing to follow their hero wherever he goes, whatever he does.”

The goofy single “Lollipop” was Tha Carter III’s biggest commercial hit, but it had zero gravity. “A Milli” had the density of a neutron star; it pulled everything toward it, and then into it. Wayne had gone pop without losing any of his eccentricities, so he carried them right TF into the room.

When the sales numbers for Tha Carter III were released, Wayne and his team were in Los Angeles. A celebration was ordered. Wayne never showed up. He spent the evening in the tiny recording studio on one of the buses they were traveling in. 

By the time the party was over, by the time the others had returned to the bus, he’d recorded three new songs. This is my second favorite Lil Wayne anecdote. My first is that Wayne wandered into a nightclub one evening not knowing he’d walked into a Stevie Wonder party and Stevie Wonder yelled at him for making too much noise. Stevie Wonder is the greatest.

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