|Between the Covers
The Shared Values of Lil' Wayne and Zbigniew Herbert
By James H. Johnson
Jul 19, 2007
For the last three weeks, I’ve been listening to the latest mixtape by rap artist Dwayne Michael Carter, Jr., aka Lil’ Wayne, aka Lil’ Weezy, aka Weezy Goldberg, aka Birdman, Jr. That is, I’ve been listening solely to Da Drought 3, the recently released, free double disc that quickly became an online sensation.
Three weeks ago, I couldn’t have told you who Lil’ Wayne was if he was standing next to me. My hip-hop selection is poor – to even call it a “selection” is a misleading. It includes a dude who always wears masks and raps about cartoon heroes. Lil’ Wayne, I quickly learned, is from another world altogether – in his own estimation, as well as mine.
It took two listens to overcome the whole bitches/money/pop-a-cap-in-your-ass business. In fact, that schtick forms the least convincing element of the album – it’s almost like looking at someone wearing terribly ill-fitting clothes. He’s the CEO of Young Money Entertainment and is supposedly studying psychology at the University of Houston. I mean, please. After I moved on, I discovered a self-conscious musician smitten with metaphor. Metaphor is Lil’ Wayne’s clay; still, once it’s in the kiln and fired, the result is a bizarre, tragicomic mash-up of a self portrait.
Fortunately for me, his nonstop wordplay makes for a fascinating biographical resource. For example, I learned that:
- Lil’ Wayne is colder than the heebie jeebies.
- He makes dough like a bakery.
- He looks slicker than a bowling lane.
- While he shares certain qualities with large cats, such as the panther, the cougar, and the tiger, he is also like a Bengal, by which he means wide receiver Chad Johnson; Lil’ Wayne is not, however, like the cheetah.
- His words are poetic, like Langston.
- He has big balls that jangle, like a lot of keys.
- His bullet-proof ride makes him feel like an armadillo.
- When he peels off in “da Lamborghine,” passersby may recall the rind of a tangerine.
- He’s strapped like a book bag.
- When Lil’ Wayne is high, his eyes slant like he’s from a major Asian port city; he’s got a T-top that resembles a certain revealing woman’s undergarment; and “your” girl treats his manhood like it’s a water pipe – three unrelated facts that somehow rhyme when he explains it.
- His flow, one finds, is (a) nasty, like C. Y. Phillis and (b) similar to Peyton Manning in that it’s all no huddle.
- His pockets are green, like a pot of peas.
As evidenced by some of the metaphors cited above, Da Drought 3 obsesses over a single theme. Food, hunger and especially the act of eating – consumption, in a word – have a meaningful purpose for Lil’ Wayne, and he plays with this theme again and again - sometimes he plays mischievously, and sometimes he's a little rough.
While I’ve been trying my wife’s patience with songs like “Back on My Grizzy” and “We Takin’ Over,” I’ve also been reading the collected poems of Zbigniew Herbert, a Polish master of the form and a writer I’d have missed altogether were it not for Charles Simic’s brilliant review. I don’t read much poetry anymore, but I was thrilled to find Herbert when I did, even if the soundtrack accompanying Herbert’s “The Fathers of a Star” was “Get High, Rule the World.”
Zbigniew Herbert, who died in 1998, lived through three successive occupations of Poland. After the Russians withdrew as part of a non-aggression treaty with Nazi Germany, Herbert joined a resistance movement against the Nazis, while watching his hometown, Lwow, transformed into a concentration camp. The Germans eventually fled from the Red Army, and the Soviets, intent on keeping Poland as a war prize, heavily persecuted Herbert and his comrades as anticommunists.
These experiences informed Herbert’s writing in an unexpected fashion. His work is patient but resolute, encompassing but lucid:
the ears that protrude two fleshy seashells
no doubt left me by an ancestor who strained for an echo
of the thunderous march of mammoths across the steppes
Herbert promoted the ideal of transparency of language. He was concerned that the mechanism of the poem – the elaborate employment of words and their interplay – could obfuscate the actual meaning. In his words, “The word is a window onto reality.”
He always reaches for clarity:
…only false tears are suitable for treatment and regular production. Genuine tears are hot, for which reason it is very difficult to remove them from the face…False tears before being quick-frozen are submitted to a process of distillation…with respect to purity, they are hardly inferior to genuine tears. They are very hard, very durable, and thus are suitable not only for ornamentation but also cutting glass.
Herbert’s desire for lucidity doubles as a desire for authenticity. I don’t want to say “truth” necessarily, because Herbert is more concerned with facing reality than unveiling it. In one poem Herbert considers the afterlife of his poetic double, Mr. Cogito. After entering heaven, Mr. Cogito is confronted by heaven’s “recruiting commission,” whose purpose is to eliminate his five senses. He easily relinquishes his senses of smell, taste, and hearing. But about sight and tactile sensations:
he will merely explain to stern angels…that he still feels in his flesh all the earthly thorns/shudders/caresses…that he can still see…a pine on a hill slope…a stone with blue veins…he will submit to all tortures…but to the end he will defend/the splendid sensation of pain…
Herbert believes in the sincerity of suffering. Suffering doesn’t stand for truth, but rather is truth. Herbert’s work, according to Simic, is “a dramatization of our irresolvable contradictions.”
At the end of his life, Zbigniew Herbert castigated ex-communists, who he held responsible for Poland’s dismal state at the end of the 20th century, and estranged many old friends, including Nobel-prize-winner Czeslaw Milosz, charging them all with “intellectual dishonesty” (Simic). Whether in politics or aesthetics, self-delusion is for Herbert a very dangerous and rampant contradiction.
Lil’ Wayne, I’ve found, is likewise obsessed with authenticity, though his fixation is more direct. As he says in “Walk It Out” (a parody of UNK’s hit song, which, incidentally, is one of the worst things I’ve ever heard ), “These rappers talkin’ ’bout a whole lot of nuttin’/You drop me on Saturday, I sold out on Sunday…” Where being a rapper once stood for a deeply urban oral storyteller, it now represents “simple celebrity,” a false musician who drops prefabricated hits between hyper-branding and self-promoting to sell clothes and perfume.
Wayne loathes simple celebrity. His voice carries the caustic imprint of every bong rip and shot of Patron that he enjoys, and he employs that sandpaper-and-jug-wine instrument in yelps and barks in one song about New Orleans:
They tried to make a brand new map without us/but the tourists come down and spend too many dollars/and no matter how you change it, it will still be ours…I know my whole city is depending on me/and I forget a lot of shit/but I cannot forget the streets.
Dwayne Carter, Jr. grew up in Hollygrove, an infamous New Orleans neighborhood. Though he glorifies the violence and drug abuse that define life there, he believes remembering his origin is essential to his purpose. I don’t doubt that, in his, uh, old-er, wise-ish age, Lil’ Wayne honestly believes that rap has some redeeming function, and that authenticity plays an essential role in that redemption. In fact, before Katrina, a drive through a predominantly black neighborhood on a sultry Saturday evening could very well unveil groups of kids huddled on porches and freestyling with a sense of purpose, and with more than a little laughter.
To a certain extent, Lil' Wayne has actually developed an alternate persona to propel his effort. He says he’s crazy, but whatever the cause, the effect is a tragicomic figure, a cartoonish but malicious Pan . And in Da Drought 3, this character has a single dominant obsession: he hungers.
He makes several direct references: “The only thing on the mind of a shark is eat.” And some basic allusions: “I got more banana clips than chimpanzees.” Others are so indirect as to be opaque: “And when I was 5, my favorite movie was Gremlins/ain’t got shit to do with this, but I just thought that I should mention.” The line seems random, but the mogwai who transform into gremlins do so only if they eat after midnight.
In a recent essay, Dr. Julianne Escobedo Shepherd notes a line that clues Wayne’s real drive: “I’m so high I could eat a star.” The “star” refers to another rapper, and is thus a kind of cannibalism. Elsewhere he makes a direct reference to murdering other rappers with his self-styled “art unique.”
But here Lil’ Wayne’s hard-edged guise wavers under too many layers of metaphor - shedding of the cartoon badass for the caricature of a mischievous aesthete. In his world, he eats lesser rappers for sustenance, the fuel that thrusts him along his own creative trajectory and continues the pursuit of the authentic in an otherwise shallow world.
“Feed me, feed me, feed me,” he says. “I am the rapper eater.”
In Herbert’s most well-known poem, he reinvents a Classical myth in which the satyr Marsyas challenges Apollo to a musical duel with the aulos, a double-piped reed instrument. The challenge represents the opposition of “absolute ear versus immense range.” Of course, Apollo triumphs, and so he bounds Marsyas to a tree and skins him alive. Afterwards, the sun god sits down to clean his instrument while Marsyas screams in the background, an awful howling composed of “bald mountains of liver,” “the wintry wind of bone,” and “rustling forests of lung,” as well as “white ravines of aliment.”
Aliment: that which nourishes and sustains. Nutriment and sustenance.
In his horrific howl – his “splendid suffering” Marsyas’ voice pushes at the threshold of divinity, and so becomes something beautiful in its dreadful reality. Apollo leaves in disgust, wondering “whether out of Marsyas’ howling/there will not some day arise/a new kind of art.” Apollo turns for a last look at the splendidly suffering satyr, only to see:
that the hair of the tree to which Marsyas was fastened
To Lil’ Weezy: May you forever be so cold as to conjure the heebie-jeebies; may your pockets continue to resemble a pot of peas; and may you never forget hunger’s splendid sensation.
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