"I swear to God I ain't nervous," pronounces Lil Wayne on "Curtains," his voice wavering under an Auto-Tune effect. Then he adds, "I spent my birthday in jail / I was making bad decisions." For a brief, tantalizing second, it seems like he's making himself vulnerable. But it's just a glimpse, and he quickly buries the impulse: "My n-gg-s got them birds / You ain't even got bird seeds / Your btch ride me like a go-kart / I play that pssy like Mozart."
Still, those moments of clarity are the most interesting aspect of I Am Not a Human Being II, wherein Lil Wayne doggedly sticks to his path as a young, rich and tasteless rhyme animal. Nothing he says here is as shockingly offensive as "It's Good" from 2011's Tha Carter IV, but it's not for lack of trying. "These nggs nag like bitches / Actin' like little fgs like Richard," he growls on "Trigger Finger." He also talks about his, uh, manhood a lot, because, as he claims on "Back to You," "This dck won't suck itself / You know it needs some help." His lyrical spray ranges from thrillingly provocative (as on the title track, "Trippy" and "Gunwalk") to clumsily boorish and ineffective ("No Worries" and "Wowzerz"). Sometimes it sounds like IANAHB II is an hour-plus freestyle exclusively about four- and five-letter words.
As signified by its striking album artwork, designed by Kanye West's DONDA design firm -- a fragile, blood-red butterfly reminiscent of Silence of the Lambs -- IANHB II sounds unrepentantly dark and cynical. (One exception is "My Homies Still," a goofily charming pop rap with Big Sean, included here as a bonus track.) His producers pay fealty to bubbling club trends like neo-trap ("Beat the Sh*t", costarring Gunplay) and chopped-and-screwed beats (the Gudda Gudda-assisted "Gunwalk"), as well as referencing his classic "A Milli" (the kinetic "Days and Days," featuring 2 Chainz). But Lil Wayne's true firewall against irrelevance is his unquenchable teenage female following. He'll be OK "as long as my b-tches love me," harmonizes Drake on "Love Me," which also includes protégé and rising Atlanta star Future.
IANAHB II continues what some critics call Wayne's "sober" period, making snarky reference to his 10-month incarceration in 2010 on weapons charges, and his subsequent announcement that he got clean as a condition of his probation. But recent events give lie to the belief that he "fell off" when he stopped using drugs, resulting in decidedly mediocre albums like I Am Not a Human Being and Tha Carter IV. A week prior to this record's release, the rapper was admitted to a Los Angeles hospital for seizures and was briefly feared to be near death; his representatives claim that stress and exhaustion led to the episode, but several news reports alleged that he overdosed on "syrup," or soft drinks mixed with codeine.
No matter which story you believe, Lil Wayne clearly isn't sober. It's not just "Trippy," where he says, "Don't knock me off my high horse / What I do is my choice," repeating a memorable argument from his 2009 VH1 Behind the Music episode. It's his increasingly self-indulgent approach to his art and insistence that he is a celebrity beyond reproach. Tellingly, "Trippy" also features Juicy J, a member of Oscar-winning (!) ensemble Three 6 Mafia and one of the original celebrants of syrup (via the classic 2000 hit "Sippin' on Some Syrup"). Juicy J has promoted weed, pills, drank, blow and whatever else he can find for two decades while espousing a bloody horrorcore aesthetic. But he has never had his personal and artistic decisions magnified and analyzed like Lil Wayne's.
Rap fans once called Wayne the best emcee on the planet. In 2007, as the Internet burst with mixtapes like his Dedication series and Da Drought 3, with unauthorized demos and other performances testifying to his ingenious use of vocal rhythm and witty punch lines, he seemed poised to remake hip-hop in his dreadlocked, heavily tattooed image, much as The Notorious B.I.G. (via Ready to Die), 2Pac (via All Eyez on Me) and a handful of others had done before.
And so, with 2008's smash hit Tha Carter III, he replicated the florid, heavily orchestrated urban-pop style used by Kanye West with gospel-like flourishes arranged by mentor and vocal coach Betty Wright, slick R&B choruses from Babyface and T-Pain, and his own Auto-Tune-manipulated singing. Despite multiplatinum sales, hardcore fans grumbled, and their complaints grew louder with 2010's botched pop-rock experiment, Rebirth. Perhaps chastened by their criticism, Lil Wayne has subsequently cut the baby in half, chasing the ghost of his Dedication glory years while keeping his mainstream career afloat via hit singles like Tha Carter IV's unexpectedly sweet "How to Love" and IANAHB II's less appealing "Love Me." His vacillations between low-denominator pop accessibility and prideful Dirty South animism would be easier to comprehend if he had a firmer grasp of himself as an artist.
Still, there is money to be made and b*tches to love, so Lil Wayne unveils his inner id here. His IANAHB II taunts would be pro forma if not for a few words of self-doubt: "I saw a butterfly in hell today / Will I die or go to jail today?" he asks on "God Bless Amerika." These are signals that something's not quite right.