“Why’s this so good?” No. 70: David Ramsey and Lil Wayne
Like the hook of a catchy song, David Ramsey’s “I Will Forever Remain Faithful,” from the Fall 2008 issue of The Oxford American, lures you in with a promise:
Complex magazine: What do you listen to these days?
Lil Wayne: Me! All day, all me.
As a pick-up line, it works. People uninitiated to Lil Wayne are left wondering whether the rapper can actually deliver. And for those more familiar with his music or his outsize personality, the claim comes as little surprise. What is surprising is the writer’s numbered structure (25 vignettes) and a lede that pulls from a past interview: a strategy that immediately sets the scene for an unconventional narrative.
The story is ostensibly a personal essay about how Lil Wayne indirectly helped the author survive his first year teaching in New Orleans, but it also acts as music criticism and a reported piece. The vignettes by turn expose the reader to Lil Wayne’s appeal, Ramsey’s students, and in the process, New Orleans. Slowly, subtly, slyly, we see what makes Lil Wayne so great, and even more slyly, we fall for him, too – in new ways.
Lil Wayne had already released his sixth studio album, “Tha Carter III,” to critical acclaim by the time Ramsey’s piece appeared in print, and had established himself with a prolific output of mixtapes and a series of guest appearances on songs by nearly every major rapper. As Ramsey explains:
Dwayne Carter, aka Lil Wayne, aka Weezy F. Baby, was in the midst of becoming the year’s biggest rapper, and among the black teenagers that made up my student population, fandom had reached a near-Beatlemania pitch.
More than ninety percent of my students cited Lil Wayne on the “Favorite Music” question on the survey I gave them; about half of them repeated the answer on “Favorite Things to Do.”
For some of my students, the questions Where are you from? and Do you listen to Lil Wayne? were close to interchangeable. Their shared currency—as much as neighborhoods or food or slang or trauma—was the stoned musings of Weezy F. Baby.
That shared currency quickly becomes the reader’s shared currency. Ramsey manages it in two ways:
A “mixtape” approach. Each numbered vignette effectively acts like the track to a CD. (The “montage” has a long history. Janet Malcolm’s New Yorker profile of the painter David Salle is just one example.) In framing his piece as if it were a mixtape, Ramsey sets a rhythm that’s not unlike listening to, well, music. He cuts to 1, 2, then 3 and so on. Snapshots of his time teaching fifth-, eighth-, and ninth-graders filter by in fast takes, and we’re left to piece together the bigger picture. Rather than have us seek out Weezy’s songs, Ramsey does the next closest thing: He brings Weezy to us.
Ramsey leads into this by recounting his own experience, after a student asserts, “it’s all about the mix tapes:”
The following day, he had a stack of CDs for me. Version this, volume that, or no label at all.
And that’s just about all I listened to for the rest of the year.
The pathos of “I Will Forever Remain Faithful” lies largely in the fragments that Ramsey shares of his time in the classroom and, by extension, New Orleans. A reflection about Lil Wayne slips into one about students named Darius or Michael. Poignancy careens to outright laughter, dropping at some points to defeat or swooping to moments of hope.
Each section can stand on its own, but Ramsey doesn’t hesitate to mix genres, going from personal anecdote to analysis to a combination of the two and back again. The framework lets him switch gears repeatedly, leaving room for the piece to function as a tribute to an artist, a profession and a city.
Sampling. Ramsey freely excerpts from other outlets. Some parts incorporate Lil Wayne’s lyrics, others reference early interviews, articles or reviews. In a way, Ramsey co-opts (and plays with) Lil Wayne’s practice of pulling from a pastiche of sources. The singer helped make a name for himself with mixtape songs that were frequently raps over other artists’ hit tracks. Ramsey, in turn, has chosen to describe Lil Wayne’s allure by mimicking the very characteristics that set him apart. Consider this segue devoted to Lil Wayne’s sound:
3. My picture should be in the dictionary next to the definition of definition
Lil Wayne slurs, hollers, sings, sighs, bellows, whines, croons, wheezes, coughs, stutters, shouts. He reminds me, in different moments, of two dozen other rappers. In a genre that often demands keeping it real via being repetitive, Lil Wayne is a chameleon, rapping in different octaves, paces, and inflections.
Sometimes he sounds like a bluesman, sometimes he sounds like a Muppet baby.
Lil Wayne does his share of gangsta posturing, but half the time he starts chuckling before he gets through a line. He’s a ham. He is heavy on pretense, and thank God. Like Dylan, theatricality trumps authenticity.
And yet—even as he tries on a new style for every other song, it is always unmistakably him. I think of Elvis’s famous boast, “I don’t sound like nobody.” I imagine Wayne would flip it: “Don’t nobody sound like me.”
As Ramsey explains, Lil Wayne sounds like everybody (“two dozen other rappers,” “a chameleon, rapping in different octaves, paces, and inflections,” “a bluesman,” “a Muppet baby”) and nobody all at once. He may be copying other people, but that’s not necessarily a limitation. He’s someone who, Ramsey suggests, can invert a boast like Elvis’s (“I don’t sound like nobody”) to something that is still unique (“Don’t nobody sound like me”).
Ramsey uses that idea as narrative inspiration. In “I Will Forever Remain Faithful,” he appropriates wherever he likes. There’s a block that quotes entirely from AllHipHop.com, and another that crystallizes Lil Wayne’s lyrical witticisms by simply listing verses from songs. And there’s Ramsey’s decision to open certain anecdotes with relevant lyrics.
More than just a dissection of Lil Wayne’s popularity, the piece riffs on certain conventions of music criticism, which can insist on identifying the progenitor of a genre and determining the authenticity of a specific sound. Who’s really to assign ownership and does it even matter who got there first? Whether impersonating E.T. or dropping snippets of Rihanna, Weezy himself has demonstrated that imitation hasn’t confined him creatively in any way.
Writers market in a form of thievery, too, and Ramsey uses his framework to clever effect. He widens the scope of his piece because of the range of his references; and setting it up as a string of anecdotes lets him play with voice, style and tone. Brevity doesn’t preclude depth. And as Ramsey – and Lil Wayne – remind us, art takes its inspiration from other art.
Margaret Ho (@mwho) is a copy editor on the business desk of the New York Times. Her first job was as a grant writer at a charter school in Harlem. She lives in Brooklyn and is perpetually hunting for the best sandwich.
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