"No Ceilings 2" has its fair share of fun moments, but they're too few and far between to save it from its many problems.
After announcing his retirement via a poem the other night, Kobe Bryant took the court to face the Indiana Pacers for the second-to-last time in his career. He alternated between flashes of brilliance and moments that made his decision seem logical, ending up with a 13-point performance that was far cry from his glory days, but respectable for your run-of-the-mill NBA starter. Although Lil Wayne shows no signs of quitting and his new tape No Ceilings 2 wasn't preceded by a poetic resignation letter, his performance on it mirrors Kobe's during Sunday night's game. The fundamental skills have stuck around after two decades of living in the booth or on a practice court-- the charisma and risk-taking that separates stars from sixth men? Not so much.
Among Weezy's many career strengths, unpredictability became his calling card thanks to lurid, absurd non-sequiturs and ravenous beat selection, especially if it's "Mixtape Weezy" we're talking about. Career peaks Dedication 2 and Da Drought 3 had him rapping in accents, beat-jacking from every corner of the game, and declaring open season on pop culture in his lyrics-- no one, from Rapunzel to the Energizer Bunny, was safe. Apart from moments when he opens tracks with Smashmouth lyrics or flips the biggest hook of the year into plastic surgery commentary, No Ceilings 2 is sorely lacking the spit-out-your-drink lyrical moments that once made his every verse a must-listen.
Then there's the beats. Bland originals and obvious choices aside, the most glaring aspect of the tape's tracklist is that it features half of What A Time To Be Alive, and four additional tracks with Drake and Future's fingerprints on them. What are we to make of this? Is it a statement, a sign of jealousy, laziness or an over-the-top homage? Once upon a time, Drake had to fight to get his mentor's attention; now it seems the tables have turned. If that doesn't make NC2 seem a little pitiful, then the fact that many of the non-original instrumentals Wayne raps over aren't actually the album versions should do the trick. Compare most of NC2's back half with the tracks' original versions and it's clear to see that many are karaoke-grade reproductions, most notably "Plastic Bag" and "Diamonds Dancing." Wayne's tapes didn't used to require shoddy post-production, whether that was due to choosing freely-available instrumentals or else having enough clout to get the production from the artist. The resulting versions are serviceable, retaining melodies and basic structure, but any Fake Watch Busta should be able to spot that these aren't A1 Metro Boomin joints. The makeshift "Diamonds Dancing" is particularly offensive, taking the one original bit devoid of rapping (the intro siren sound), and building chintzy horns and paper-thin synth walls on top of it like linoleum over marble floors. All of the nuanced sound design is lost, which wouldn't be the worst thing in the world if Wayne was the show-stopping focal point, but for the majority of the tape, he isn't.
By track five, a bricked opportunity with a subpar Future hook, Wayne's worn out his welcome with unimaginative lines like "These n*ggas ain't even shining, making the sun mad." He lacks the precision and specificity that used to make his quick cuts between subjects interesting-- in its absence, vagueness and clichés run wild. Look at the lyrics to "I'm Nice." All but gone is the random assortment of proper nouns that pepper his most memorable verses, and what we're left with reads more like a jilted boyfriend's drunken phone message:
"Wait a minute, where you going?
Ain't my business where you going
I just want some before you go and
Wait why you in your feelings when I wanna feel something?
Why you in your purse when I'm tryin' to tell you something?
Why you on your phone after 2 in the morning?
Who the fuck you talking to at 2 in the morning girl?"
Elsewhere, his reimagining of songs' hooks gets gratingly Mad Libs-esque, as if he's constructing lines based on rhyme scheme alone and throwing cleverness to the wind. "Poppin'"s "haters" become "skaters," the titular "Plastic Bag" is used as a weapon in one of the most boring murder plots ever recorded ("I don't like that shit, n*gga/ I don't like that bitch n*gga" is the biggest autopilot bar I've ever heard from Wayne), "cell phone" becomes "jail phone" (because what else does it rhyme with?), and in the last track, he attempts a personification of pills that's even clumsier than the two-paragraph-long Genius annotation that tries to make sense of it. His hilarious flips of choruses used to seem so effortless ("If I Ruled The World" to "Get High, Rule The World"??) but now they just feel forced.
No matter what he releases, Lil Wayne will always draw a few wry smiles from his audience, but that seems to be the only thing worth salvaging from his recent music. None of No Ceilings 2's freestyles live up to the originals, and only a few of the verses would be worth tacking on to official remixes. Wayne used to destroy other peoples' songs, effectively ripping the deed right from the hands of lesser rappers (Da Drought 3 is the only reason any of us still have any remnants of Jibbs, Mims, Young Gunz, Unk and YoungbloodZ in our iTunes), but because he took aim at a ton of tracks that don't have disposable verses on NC2, he's mostly riding passenger rather than driving the car off the lot. Even Sorry For The Wait 2, which had plenty of problems of its own, has more definitive versions of hits in its tracklist-- Weezy can still pull the rug out from under mediocre MCs like OT Genasis and OG Maco, but when it comes to top-of-their-game stars like Drake and Future, you can almost hear Weezy's ragged breaths while trying to play catch-up.
Were this tape among a young rapper's first releases, it'd be promising. There are the type of highlights you'd save while deleting the rest of the project: a cheeky rewrite of "My Name Is," the thrilling tag-team of "Destroyed," some memorable guest verses from Curren$y and King Los. For an up-and-comer, that's all you need to get people checking for you. But for the former "best rapper alive," it reads as retreading old ground to increasingly paltry returns. He may still whip out an occasional stutter step that'll baffle everyone, but more often than not, Wayne's lobbing up desperate jumpers that miss their target by a mile.