Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Lil' Wayne Book Proposal

As I indicated earlier in the week, I wrote a proposal for an entry in the 33 1/3 series, which is a pretty awesome set of books if you're into theory-heavy minutiae about albums most people have never heard of. If they picked me up and signed a contract with me, this would be for their 2011 roster, so I would have lots of time to un-AutoCorrect "ho's" and "Birdman." I don't think I have a good chance though. There are a lot of big-time critics who submitted ideas, and 33 1/3 has only started to include rap music recently anyway. We'll see. And don't feel bad if you don't read this all the way through. It's much drier than the actual book would be.

Um, Skip? You forgot to say "no homo." No, wait. You didn't.

When it leaked to the public in 2007, Lil’ Wayne’s Da Drought 3 had no commercial singles or videos, no official release date, no authorized versions, and no official sales figures. Despite—or, as I would like to prove, because of—its underground nature, it is one of the most important and influential albums of the new millennium. It stands as a dividing line in the maturation of Lil’ Wayne as an artist, but, just as importantly, it represents glacial shifts in the pop culture zeitgeist and the rise of mixtapes in general. As a traditional collection of songs, it is a document of a wunderkind realizing his potential and becoming famous in the process, all through word-of-mouth. However, the story of Da Drought 3’s success is as much a story of music consumption via the Internet as it is the story of a rapper.

My entry in the 33 1/3 series would begin with an examination of the musical climate into which Da Drought 3 was released. File-sharing programs and torrents have cut into traditional record sales—that’s old news—but we are just beginning to feel the impact of a culture whose music has none of the tangible media that signified it in the past. For example, in an age in which hip-hop audiences scrutinize Soundscan numbers as the only true measure of rap power (witness the 50 Cent vs. Kanye West battle from last year), it is impossible to calculate the concrete impact of Da Drought 3. We can only measure its sway by how many people quote “yellow diamond ring lookin’ like a little Funyun,” which is exactly what rap currency used to be. As contemporary as it is, the record is still a throwback in many senses. The fact that Lil’ Wayne invites people to get the music for free serves as a dare to any challengers, and the laissez faire attitude associated with the album’s release is the equalizer that shot him to the crossover stardom of Tha Carter III.

Countless sources have interpreted the question of how disposable music has become to the listening public. What they fail to do is negotiate the effects of that culture, and that can be done best through the prism of Lil’ Wayne. Da Drought 3 is not yet as monumental as Illmatic or Enter the 36 Chambers or any other hip-hop album covered by your series, but it is the landmark of an era of pastiche that should be recorded as what Michel Foucault would call “a history of the present.”

At 2:37, Wayne actually uses air quotes.

An analysis of the give-and-take between the artist’s intention and the audience’s reception of the mixtape would also be essential. What kind of balance between those two elements shapes pop culture? For example, Lil’ Wayne planned for the record to be “hosted” (read: shouted over) by DJ Khaled and Birdman. But an early version, sans intros and skits, leaked, and audiences embraced it. Now it’s actually difficult to find that planned final version. There is some irony in the fact that, at least in the case of the most popular mixtape ever, listeners rejected the most common mixtape tropes and popularized an edition without them.

So far, I’ve been using “mixtape” and “album” interchangeably, but a significant portion of my book would be an interrogation of what those terms mean in this new era of recording and promotion. Lil’ Wayne, by bypassing the copyright issues brought up by an official label release, was able to cherry-pick the best beats around and spit often unrelated, free-form rhymes over them. Does this freedom make the work more or less of an accomplishment? Presumably, it would be more difficult to produce a completely original work (and some would argue that no modern hip-hop album is completely original), so does the presentation of Da Drought 3 make it less of an achievement? Or should the listener be grateful that such a perfect marriage has been stacked up over the course of two disks? Inextricable from this point is the fact that Lil’ Wayne claims to freestyle his lyrics in real-time. Should we marvel at the wizardry of this improvisation or should we lament that he could have made the work even more impressive by drafting it out and refining it? Those arguments have been rolling around in the jazz community for decades, but this is a completely different context for them.

Da Drought 3 is a fascinating cultural development, but I haven’t mentioned anything about the experience of listening to the music itself. If I could criticize any aspect of the 33 1/3 books, it would be that the more academic entries don’t get across why people care about the music in the first place. Dai Griffiths’ pedantic OK Computer actually angered me with its refusal to touch on how viscerally satisfying listening to that album is. Above anything else, the music of Da Drought 3 speaks for itself. Into a bland climate of ringtone rappers and self-satisfied superstars, it was an idiosyncratic blast of sunshine. Confident in attitude but hesitant in delivery, Wayne strung together imaginative, hilarious couplets that not only justified the mixtape’s running time but left the listener wanting more. His buoyant flow and singular croak expanded over the aforementioned bass-heavy bangers, arranged in delicate sequence. He delighted in upsetting every expectation we had, and across cars and computer speakers everywhere, he made rap fun again.

Lil’ Wayne is arguably the most popular musician in the world, and he has enjoyed the mainstream media coverage attendant with that title. However, almost none of those crossover articles and interviews go beyond the obvious: a) he’s from New Orleans, b) although he’s only in his mid-twenties, he’s been rapping for a relatively long time, and c) his off-the-wall rhymes are aided by the codeine cough syrup he’s addicted to—which no one seems to have a problem with. These superficial treatments are so interchangeable that one could probably cobble together a coherent piece form isolated sentences of them—something I might do to begin a chapter. I feel as if the 33 1/3 series is the perfect outlet to go deeper into the process of recording the mixtape, as well as the influences and intentions of Wayne. The reason I cherish the books is that, while they’re one of many sources of criticism for an album, they’re always the most thoughtful.

Here, there’s not only a need for a more in-depth, intricate analysis of Da Drought 3, there’s also a commercial opportunity for Continuum Press that goes along with that “most popular musician” tag. If even two percent of the two million people who have bought Wayne’s latest album (and the many other who have illegally downloaded it) buy this book, you will have turned a nice profit. I don’t mean to downplay how much of a departure Lil’ Wayne would be for 33 1/3. The only rap albums considered so far have been unimpeachable classics, and they have some healthy historical distance that this would not. Part of your audience might be alienated by someone as ubiquitous as Wayne as well. But I feel as if what I would try to do with this book is the reason your series exists and is essential. 33 1/3 has a responsibility not only to examine what classic albums have been, but also what they might be.

As for the question of artist involvement, I don’t think I would seek Lil’ Wayne’s cooperation even if given the opportunity. For one thing, he has been interviewed by so many publications that I feel as if readers can find his opinion elsewhere if that’s what they’re looking for. Also—though this sounds arrogant—he isn’t a particularly interesting interview, and I don’t know if there’s anything profound he could add to the proceedings. Furthermore, such a huge focus of the book would be listener response and interpretation, the subjectivity of listening to the mixtape, that I don’t want a final verdict on a song or line, even from the writer himself, to cloud that message. Since Internet buzz was what drove the explosion behind Da Drought 3, I would interview some bloggers and prominent critics as other perspectives on the release.

The main problem I foresee with this project is exposition. I would hope to strike a balance between telling the reader what he needs to know about Lil’ Wayne’s early career and the circulation of mixtapes while staying away from the shallow spoon-fed histories of those magazine articles I mentioned earlier. For someone to pick up a book about a prominent mixtape in the first place, it should be assumed that they have a modicum of knowledge about hip-hop. At the same time, however, I have to explain the spread of mixtapes to be able to argue about them, and understanding Lil’ Wayne the teenaged rapper is the key to understanding Lil’ Wayne the adult rapper. With his 33 1/3 book Achtung Baby, Stephen Catanzarite navigated a similar minefield in dissecting a turning point in U2’s career, and I would use his work as a model in that respect; in a short section of the text, he communicated the backstory he needed and moved on to the social and theological contexts that form the heart of the book. Structurally, I admired Don Breithaupt’s Aja, which he divided into logical, organic chapters focused on the preparation, recording, and aftermath of the album. I would not dedicate as much space to the specifics of recording, but I would strive for his clear organization. As far as tone, I would like to be more personal and warm than some of the more academic entries in your series, but, at the same time, the book is not about me. While my responses to the songs are important, I’m not going to be waxing about how Da Drought 3 stopped me from killing myself or anything. Again, this will be a balance between purely academic writing and, on the other end of the spectrum, the more interior, subjective criticism of something like Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk about Love. It would also share some of his knowing humor, despite how dry this proposal might be.

While I don’t write for a nationally-recognized magazine or website, I have deconstructed hip-hop and Lil’ Wayne extensively on This Ain’t No Bank Robbery, the culture criticism blog I founded and maintain. We have been featured on and welcome about one hundred visitors a day. I have linked some samples that may relate to this proposal. I also have written an as-yet-unpublished novella that, if nothing else, can show that I have the dedication and organization to pull off a work of the length and scope of a 33 1/3 book. I would gladly send that upon request. An important note about my qualifications is the fact that I am, like Lil’ Wayne, a New Orleanian in his mid-twenties, and I believe this commonality affords me certain insights into the specificity of his lyrics. For instance, on “Seat Down Low,” he rhymes, “And I am so so New Orleans/Like eighteen-twenty-five Tulane,” which is a reference to a Rosenberg’s Furniture jingle from late ‘80s local television. No mainstream journalist has bothered to touch that one. Like many of the issues I hope to discuss, it’s something they gloss over.

If published by Continuum Press, I would be an active author on the promotional side. My day job as an English teacher allows a lot of holidays and time off in the summer, when I would be happy to tour in support of the book. I’ll do anything you want really. As Weezy would say, “I’m so hungry I could eat a star.”

Thank you for your consideration.


Reves said...

Wow. I could say something sarcastic here, but I'll leave that to Will. Chris, even if this book doesn't come through, I hope you can publish music criticism somewhere. TANBR just gets better and better.

Will said...

*cough*Have someone other than Andee proofread stuff*cough*

Will said...

But seriously, good stuff. If they pass you over to publish something about, say, the Doors (Jim Morrison? drunken buffoon) they can suck it.

MT said...

Nicely Done. I'm a huge fan of the idea of mixtape as evolutionary while being a nod backwards (in terms of the improv vs. forethought and a return to the prior criteria of rap stardom). That melding is the next wave of post modernism (especially if the steam punk kids have anything to say about it).

Also,way to go hard on the sale. Those last few paragraphs are a pretty solid "Come to Jesus" about the position of the book in the series. I think you make a compelling case.

They should pick this up...and if not, you should write it anyway and archive it.

Bryan said...

I wish there had been some more stuff like this in my non-fiction class next semester. Everything, (including most of what I wrote) was "creative non-fiction".

In a world where online publishing allows everyone to be critical, and academic writing has become increasingly specialized you've managed to keep analysis and personality in your criticism.

Bryan said...

Non-fiction class "last" semester, I mean. This is what happens when you play online when you're teaching study hall.

Michael said...

while drunken reading of your proposal new years eve wasn't really ever gonna happen, i'm glad you put it up

good luck

The King Of New Orleans said...

Bowes, I love it man! I am impressed. Let me know what you think about that article i sent you today.


Anonymous said...

Two people wrote entries for Da Drought 3!!!!! Wow...competition!