A Modern Rapper’s Hidden Genius

What both fans and critics miss about rap’s most misunderstood man

The reasons for Lil Wayne’s genius are many. His delivery is powerful; his verses seem to come down with the weight of a hammer. His grasp of rhythm is impeccable. He’s versatile; his tone ranges from hyped to stone cold.


Some of Lil Wayne’s greatest traits, though, are intangible. It’s hard to describe exactly how he does it, but Wayne has an air of not taking himself too seriously. This renders his music not just exhilarating, but also, oddly hilarious. Other modern rappers talk about shooting up the entire room—and they mean it. It seems as if they actually wish to convey that they plan to do such a thing, or are capable of it. When Lil Wayne talks about shooting up the room, or selling drugs, though, it seems less that he’s attempting to convince us that he does these activities, and more that he’s performing a musical and lyrical routine, which happens to involve these activities but which doesn’t depend on them. Drugs, crime and sex aren’t the subject of the song as much as substrate for his (almost entirely-unrelated) musical act. Indeed, the substrate could be anything, and the result would be just as good.

You f*ckin with a n*gga who don’t give a f*ck
Empty the clip; then roll the window up. [1]

Many rappers talk about drive-by shootings. No rapper, though, would ever talk about rolling the window back up when it’s done. Awareness of these types of details takes Lil Wayne’s music from tired braggadocio to art. His music is highly self-aware. It seems to work on the meta-level. Wayne’s music is less an example of his genre and more a highly lucid parody of it.

If we’d like to consider something more amenable to study, we should look towards the wordplay that pervades Lil Wayne’s lyrics.

Of course, his wordplay shows that lighthearted irreverence we’ve discussed.

All my n*ggas nuts, and I’m a loose screw. [2]

But it also might constitute an interesting subject for more serious study. I found this to be the case when, in studying some of Lil Wayne’s most complicated lines, I started to notice some interesting patterns.

At first, I’d hear a line so mind-blowingly complex that all I could do was laugh, even without fully understanding what was going on.  In time, though, I discovered within these lines three distinct layers of wordplay. I have called these verses tripartite puns. The pattern is as follows.

Weezy creates a sentence that ties two ideas together, and the resulting sentence stands alone. But each involved idea contains its own pun; and each pun alludes to a different outside concept. Finally, the outside concepts that are alluded to, themselves, make sense together, in a way that is distinct from the original meaning of the sentence.

For example, consider the sentence I’m doing A like B, which ties together two ideas: I’m doing A and like B. In a tripartite pun, we will find that:

  1. It makes sense that one could do A like B.
  2. A is a pun on C; meanwhile B is a pun on D.
  3. Finally, it makes sense that one could do C like D.
    1. And this makes sense for a different reason than in (1).

Let’s consider a few examples.

Line 1:

Pocket full of crumbs; I’m a breadwinner [2]

Line 1 contains two independent clauses, linked by semicolon. Each independent clause contains its own idea; the former describes crumbs and the latter refers to being a breadwinner.

  1. One with a pocket full of crumbs is certainly winning plenty of bread. So, Line 1 has a coherent (albeit trivial) meaning, which stands alone.
  2. But each half of Line 1 contains its own pun, each with reference to a different secondary meaning. Pocket full of crumbs refers to crack crumbs. So, Lil Wayne has a pocket full of crack. And being a breadwinner means that he’s a provider, who makes money. So, the first half of Line 1 puns to crack, and the second half to money. Neither of these puns depends on the other.
  3. Finally, given the puns, the first idea logically produces the second. We’ve discussed the fact that crumbs –> crack while breadwinner –> money. Now, we can describe the logical connection between the two. This is that one with a pocket full of crack would earn money. Wayne could presumably sell his crack for money, which would allow him to provide for his family, and which would make him a breadwinner. So, the three levels of meaning are present in Line 1.

Line 2:

I’m consuming grass like a cash cow. [2]

Line 2 links an independent clause, I’m consuming grass, with an adverbial phrase, like a cash cow.

  1. Let’s ignore the word cash for now. One could certainly consume grass like a cow. So, the “bare bones” of Line 2 is a single, coherent, standalone sentence with comprehensible meaning.
  2. Grass is a pun on marijuana. Cash cow, on the other hand, is an expression, which is used to refer to something which generates a lot of money.
  3. The combination of punned meanings in Line 2 make sense together. Substituting C and D for A and B, respectively, we have I’m consuming marijuana like a money-maker. One who makes lots of money would have plenty to spend on marijuana, so Line 2’s punned meanings also make sense together.

Line 3:

No broken mirrors; I can’t see myself broke. [3]

Here, we’re once again combining two phrases: no broken mirrors and I can’t see myself broke.

  1. Not considering puns or entendres, Line 3 makes sense by itself. If Lil Wayne had a broken mirror, he would see himself, but in a broken form. In other words, he would see himself broke. So, with no broken mirrors, Wayne can’t see himself broke.
  2. Each component of Line 3 has a second meaning. Broken mirrors are a sign of bad luck. So, with no broken mirrors, Weezy has no bad luck. Further, broke is slang for impoverished. So, when he says I can’t see myself broke, he’s suggesting that he can’t envision himself being poor.
  3. The punned meanings of Line 3 make sense together, in manner different from the way that the original meanings make sense together. Again, substituting C and D for A and B, respectively, we have No bad luck; I can’t see myself impoverished. And this makes sense: if one’s luck is good, one’s money will be plentiful.

Line 3 gets extra points because both ideas, each of which is discussed in part 2, contains a version of the word to break. Each instance of the word to break refers to a different outside concept, and the outside concepts these two instances refer to make sense together. Genius.

Weezy’s lyrics offer an inexhaustible object of study. I’m just beginning, and I won’t stop listening any time soon.

I’d like to be clear, though. Lil Wayne’s tripartite puns are technically advanced. But what I enjoy most about these lyrics goes beyond just the technical and linguistic skill. It’s not just that Weezy can make a tripartite pun; it’s that he even has the idea to do so. Tripartite puns–like talk about rolling the window back up–aren’t about technical skill. They’re about awareness. Weezy is enlightened enough to talk–and rhyme–in such a way that wouldn’t even occur to others. Tripartite puns are just an example of the general intangible quality of Lil Wayne’s genius.

So, to those out there who doubt Lil Wayne’s genius: some of the best paintings remain mysterious until the second glance.

  1. Lil Wayne ft. Rick Ross: John
  2. Lil Wayne: Bill Gates
  3. Lil Wayne: Hot Nigga
  4. Lil Wayne: Still Got That Rock
  5. Young Jeezy ft. Lil Wayne: Ballin
    N*ggas broke; actin like they got it though:
    I’m with a Spanish b*tch; if she ain’t f*ckin, adios!
  6. Lil Wayne: Started from the Bottom
    Dreads hangin out the ski mask.
    Run up in ya house the couch potato’s gettin mashed.
  7. Lil Wayne: Cash Out
    I’m smokin that Bill Bixby n*gga
    Note: Bill Bixby played the Hulk in one of the original movies. He was both GREEN and STRONG.
  8. Lil Wayne: Throwed Off:
    Pull over on the freeway; throw you off a bridge
    Shit: 3 words you never hear? Let em live
  9. Lil Wayne: Magic
    Gone of the shrooms.
    I’m stoned like tomb.
    B*tch–I do what I do–like the groom.

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