As the story goes, it was 2002, and Lil Wayne was coming off the worst-selling album of his career, 500 Degreez. Dissatisfied with himself, he took his notebook and rapped its entire contents in a marathon recording session. Then he destroyed the notebook, and decided that going forward that he would go off the dome, delivering all his lyrics from memory.
Starting with his 2004 album Tha Carter and then 2005's Tha Carter II, he evolved from a teenage horndog sideshow in the Cash Money universe into one of the hottest rappers ever. His rise began just as a long-standing culture of rap geeks trading obscure MP3s and demo tapes reached the mainstream via blogs and chat rooms. Overwhelmingly positive coverage of his mixtapes appeared in outlets that had never paid much attention to that sector before. He'd claim that he didn't leak the hundred-plus demos that briefly fueled a cottage industry in unauthorized bootlegs, but they sure didn't hurt his reputation. Neither did a fleeting controversy surrounding his collaboration with mentor Birdman, Like Father, Like Son, after a picture of the two kissing turned into a meme.
By the end of 2007, interest in him reached a fever pitch. Skeptics like 50 Cent wondered if he could ever score a pop hit, but Wayne proved them wrong with the No. 1 smash "Lollipop." While that Auto-Tuned ode to sex was a deliberate play for female fans -- and it clearly worked – "A Milli" showed that he could lodge one of his patented hardcore freestyles into the upper reaches of the chart, too. Delivering on his promise, the triple-platinum Tha Carter III made him one of the biggest names in the music industry.
Rap fans tend to wistfully recall those salad days. It's not an unusual impulse -- it's the same as when we canonize Nas' Illmatic phase, or Fiddy's 50 Cent Is the Future buzz-building days. We want our stars to stay golden, forever reaching new highs, even when life instructs us that they evolve and grow into new personas different from those of their youth. Not surprisingly, a famous rapper's mature work draws a more complicated response than the earlier, groundbreaking recordings through which we discovered their talents. Lil Wayne is no different.
Luckily, we still have his music. This playlist collects some of the best guest verses and rare cuts from that halcyon 2004-2007 period, when he became king of the Dirty South (no offense to T.I.). It ranges from Bun B's mix show favorite "Damn I'm Cold" to Kanye West's deep cut gem "Barry Bonds"; it even has two standout joints with his Hot Boys crew, Three 6 Mafia's "Hypnotize Cash Money" and Project Pat's "Ballers." So reminisce all you want … and then let Lil Wayne move forward with his career.