Lil Wayne was not the first mixtape star — that lofty title belongs to 50 Cent — but he certainly was the first guy to legitimize the form and he is arguably better at it than any other rapper in the world, ever.
Street singles and popped trunks are about as old as hip-hop itself, but Lil Wayne (photographed above during his surprise performance with Juicy J at Red Bull Sound Select: 30 Days In LA) mixtapes were Events. He’d grab the Hot 100, put the beats into his lizard brain, and spit out monolithic two-hour stream-of-consciousness epics that transcended everything we thought we knew about what rap was and what rap could be.
Weezy's career is littered with missteps, sure, but he was untouchable when he was at his best. Mixtapes like 'Dedication 2’ and ‘Da Drought 3’ are so arcane and non-sequitorial, they stack up with James Joyce. In other words, these are classics made by a master artist.
Last week, Weezy released ‘ Sorry 4 The Wait 2,’ a stopgap for the impending ‘Tha Carter IV.' It's arguably the best thing he’s released in years. Wayne’s been making a lot of noise about retiring lately, so we can only hope this list looks a lot different when he finally does decide to hang up his Jordans. Please, Wayne, if you're reading this, don't stop. Never stop.
With all this in mind, we’ve selected the 10 best mixtapes in Wayne’s career, from obvious classics to buried treasures. Check out the list below and tell us why we're wrong.
10. ‘Dedication 3’ (2008)
Why it matters: Yes, 'Dedication 3' is nowhere near as good as the first two installments. Yes, it features way too much of Wayne’s perennially off-key singing voice. However, there’s something undeniably beautiful about his ridiculous hubris. Maybe it’s more of an artifact than an actual mixtape, but it’s still plenty memorable.
Best song: “Still I Rise.” If nothing else, ‘Dedication 3’ is proof that 2008 is a long time ago now. Here, check a young Nicki Minaj spitting hot fire all over T.I.’s immortal “No Matter What” beat. Consider it ground zero for her eventual commandeering of the whole Young Money fleet.
LISTEN/DOWNLOAD: Lil Wayne - 'Dedication 3'
9. ‘SQ4’ (2002)
Why it matters: There are two distinct periods in Wayne’s artistry. You have his monstrous mid-2000s run where he stomped around with that undisputed Best Rapper in the World title, but there’s also all the stuff that came before that. That teenybopper Wayne who earned that “Lil” through very conventional means. ‘SQ4’ is the best of that period, call it an origin story, if you will.
Best song: “Holla At Them Boyz.” A great back-and-forth with Wayne and some guy named J. Gutta. It’s also a novelty because it’s the only time he’s ever laid down a line as modest as “The hottest Carter next to Shawn.”
LISTEN/DOWNLOAD: Lil Wayne - 'SQ4'
8. ‘The Prefix’ (2004)
Why it matters: Wayne and Jay-Z aren’t enemies — but they’ve never been friends, either. 'The Prefix,' which features a fresh-faced Weezy tearing through a handful of Jigga classics, is probably the closest their rivalry came to smoldering; this was ong before they kissed and made up on “Mr. Carter.”
Best song: “December 4th (Freestyle).” It’s mostly a game of “pick your favorite Jay-Z beat,” but Wayne’s throwdown on “December 4th” has always felt particularly carnivorous.
LISTEN/DOWNLOAD: Lil Wayne - 'The Prefix'
7. ‘Sorry 4 The Wait’ (2011)
Why it matters: Despite the presence of the underwhelming 'Carter IV,' Wayne actually had a great 2011. He slayed verses on “Look At Me Now,” and “I’m on One,” and put out “6” 7”,” which might be the greatest Wayne song of all time. Between that, he issued ‘Sorry 4 The Wait,' which was miles better than any studio effort he’s had since.
Best song: “Gucci Gucci.” This song sports the exact sort of low-rent ringtone beat Lil Wayne has routinely savaged all his life. Seriously, we should remember Kreayshawn’s brief moment of fame every day for her offering.
LISTEN/DOWNLOAD: LIl Wayne - 'Sorry 4 The Wait'
6. ‘Sorry 4 The Wait 2’ (2015)
Why it matters: The popular narrative is that Wayne fell off sometime after 'Tha Carter III,' burned out creatively and emotionally after a long prison sentence. But titans of industry only sleepwalk for so long, and the just-released ‘Sorry 4 The Wait 2’ captures a rejuvenated Weezy that we always knew we’d see again. He's back!
Best song: “Coco.” An apology to his fans and a screed against the Cash Money higher-ups. We never expected to witness a Wayne/Birdman feud, but here we are, and it has one of the best MCs in the world motivated.
LISTEN/DOWNLOAD: Lil Wayne - 'Sorry 4 The Wait 2'
5. ‘The Dedication’ (2005)
Why it matters: The calm before the storm. Wayne had been churning out earnest, workman-like hip-hop for years. But it wasn’t until 2005, at the age of 23, where he really started to put everything together. ‘The Dedication’ captures a young man freshly acquainted with his genius.
Best song: “Nah This Ain’t The Remix.” It speaks to the eternal audacity of Lil Wayne that he’d storm into the hottest song of the summer without any phony tact or diplomacy. After all, Snoop Dogg was making millions with “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” and Wayne knew full well that he’d coined that particular phrase years earlier. There were no punches to be pulled. He doesn’t quite steal it, but he comes awfully close. Consider it a warning shot for the rest of his career.
LISTEN/DOWNLOAD: Lil Wayne - 'The Dedication'
4. ‘No Ceilings’ (2009)
Why it matters: ‘No Ceilings’ is one of the more forgotten gems in Lil Wayne’s (admittedly byzantine) mixtape career. Released amidst the scattershot malaise of ‘Rebirth’ and ‘I Am Not a Human Being,’ ‘No Ceilings’ still stands toe to toe with any of his mid-decade classics.
Best song: “D.O.A.” Jay-Z’s original “Death Of Autotune” is among the crankiest, most out-of-touch songs ever written. Here, Wayne comes to its defense, and furthers his beef with HOV which has subtly been the most enjoyable feud in all of hip-hop.
LISTEN/DOWNLOAD: Lil Wayne - 'No Ceilings'
3. ‘The Drought is Over 2 (The Carter III Sessions)’ (2007)
Why it matters: Okay, this is more of a leak than an actual mixtape. ‘The Drought is Over 2’ was released unofficially by an enterprising DJ named The Empire, who managed to pilfer a handful of tracks from the interminably delayed ‘The Carter III.’ But whatever the ethics, this tape still captures Wayne at one of his most creative moments, and not including it on this list just feels wrong.
Best song: “I Feel Like Dying.” The realest meditation on addiction and depression you’ll probably ever hear from Lil Wayne.
LISTEN/DOWNLOAD: Lil Wayne - 'The Drought is Over 2'
2. ‘Dedication 2’ (2006)
Why it matters: ‘Dedication 2’ confirmed that, for all the things troublesome about Lil Wayne, he was still the healthiest thing for a buckling, mid-decade rap industry. Could Jay-Z rap over Sharapova squeaks on a song called “Sportscenter?” Well, probably. But it certainly wouldn’t be as cool. You gotta love it when the weirdos come out on top.
Best song: “Georgia… Bush.” A seasick, broken-hearted reprieve for Wayne’s hometown of New Orleans post-Katrina. It still stands as a better Bush era anthem than anything Eminem or the Dixie Chicks ever wrote.
LISTEN/DOWNLOAD: Lil Wayne - 'Dedication 2'
1. ‘Da Drought 3’ (2007)
Why it matters: This was Wayne at his most powerful — and most excessive. A 27 track, two-hour conquering of every single beat making it’s way across a terrified rap radio. When people talk about Wayne’s blacked-out golden years, they’re talking about ‘Da Drought 3.’
Best song: “King Kong.” Little known fact: “King Kong” used to be a Jibbs song before Wayne tore it apart and jettisoned any mention of the original artist out of history forever.
LISTEN/DOWNLOAD: Lil Wayne - 'Da Drought 3'