November 8, 2010


Machine or Mannequin

The last single Lil Wayne dropped before his recent release from prison was a peak of confusing aggression in a career that's featured plenty of it. "I Am Not a Human Being," the title track from his recent mixtape-no-it's-an-EP-no-it's-an-album, is a lumbering beast: built around a fragmentary metalloid riff that sounds like a refugee from Rebirth, it's a string of rhymes that have even less to do with each other than most of Weezy's lyrics, stapled together with the stuttering cut-and-paste effects that are starting to be a Young Money hallmark.

So what kind of not-a-human-being is he? If you listen to the video version, Wayne seems to be an electrical ghost in his own song--a half-shorted-out wire that sometimes spits fire and sometimes abruptly goes silent. That has a lot to do with the sheer amount of cussing that goes on in the track, which gets wiped out for the video: "Y'all's a buncha squares like a... grid... with me and get hit..." But there are also hints of it in his lyrics. Right before he brags about how tall he stands, he disappears for a moment: "y'all can't see us, like the bride shoes."

The one artist Wayne actually shouts out by name in "I Am Not a Human Being" is a very different kind of R&B star: Bobby "Blue" Bland, a blues singer who was as much a hit machine as Wayne in his day. In 1973's "This Time I'm Gone For Good," he imagines disappearing himself. Hear its lyrics literally, and it's a breakup song; listen between the lines, and you can imagine him describing himself as another sort of ghost, flickering in and out of reality, regretting both his absence and his presence. (And it's true that he's almost vanished from pop consciousness: he was once one of the most popular singles artists and touring attractions in the world, but Lil Wayne's offhand mention of his name is the most radio exposure he's had in a long time.

Wayne, though, would never threaten to be gone for good: even as he's been locked up for most of this year, his voice has been blazing out of pretty much every computer in the world. What's not human about that? We're not going to get a straight answer from him, but we might get one from someone else who made a record about dehumanization with a great big riff and a similarly baffling video, and had a similar fondness for voice-warping electronic effects, 27 years ago.

Styx's "Mr. Roboto," released in 1983, puts its question right up front: "You're wondering who I am/Machine or mannequin." The opening song from their concept album Kilroy Was Here, it's basically a mini-rock opera itself, a narrative about a "modren man" (sic) who appears to have disguised himself as a robot and has found that he has, in fact, become part-mechanical. It's as corny as they come, and singer Dennis DeYoung doesn't exactly have Lil Wayne's machismo, but it's awfully effective in its way; as anyone who's sung it at karaoke knows, if you can hit the high note in its bridge, you might end up eating the same lunch as Weezy.

Imagine, then, that what "I Am Not a Human Being" is about is Wayne (or the character Dwayne Carter plays on his records — it's always helpful to keep them separate) in the same fix as DeYoung's character: having played the cyborg for as long as he has, masking himself with the domo-arigato-Mr.-Roboto voice for "Lollipop" and "Prom Queen" and beyond, he's turned into a digital glitch himself. The problem's plain to see: too much technology. "I thank God that I am not basic," Weezy seems to be saying at the end of every chorus. But maybe he's just grateful that he speaks a more complicated slang than BASIC — the introductory computer language of Styx's era:

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