A decade ago, Sha-Ron Prescott asked a question that would unknowingly plague rap fans for years: "Hey, Mr. Carter / Tell me, where have you been?" On a dreary Sunday night (June 10) at New Jersey's MetLife Stadium, Lil Wayne emphatically waltzed through the drizzle and said "hello" like he never left. For a brief moment in a turquoise fur coat, I saw the man who made me believe he was "The Best Rapper Alive" emerge like a former welterweight champion. He was rusty but determined to take one more swing at the title.
But Sunday night's Hot 97 Summer Jam was about the newfound freedom of two men. In a week, Weezy went from being reportedly released from a six-year lawsuit that derailed his career to hitting the stage on the 10th anniversary of his classic album Tha Carter III. Assured, confident, and muted, Wayne walked the stage as a man unshackled. That he was sharing the stage with Meek Mill — a rapper who was literally unshackled a few months prior — was serendipitous, to say the least.
Watching Wayne and Mill was bittersweet. Nothing is promised when it comes to black men, especially concerning the privilege to work unabated. The parallels between the two were uncanny. Wayne and Meek both saw gun charges and subsequent prison time halt their careers in 2007. While Wayne has been clear ever since, Meek's been fighting the same fight for over a decade. During both of their sets, Lil Wayne and Meek Mill looked like men content to be workshopping their comebacks in front of their people — yes, black and brown.
When Meek Mill arrived like a bat out of hell with an ATV as his fiery chariot, it felt like this stage was where he always belonged. The pressure of surviving Philadelphia's criminal justice system and the memeification of his image by Drake forced Mill to transform into something else, something better. His entire set, from "Dreams and Nightmares" to "1942 Flows," was about one thing — inspiration.
The cocky MC I remembered performing "Rosé Red" in a University of Delaware auditorium in 2012 was now a preacher who treated the audience like his congregation. Mill was a man giving words of wisdom to people who looked just like him. His dreams were their own, and his fight to avoid a system built to keep him enslaved was a war that ravaged their families and friends as well.
In contrast, the stakes for Wayne were more insular. Ten years removed from the album that cemented his name in the rap pantheon, the New Orleans rapper could easily survey the musical landscape he helped create at his artistic peak in the mid-to-late aughts. The Future, Young Thug, and Lil Baby songs blaring out of the MetLife Stadium parking lot owed part of their existence to the path Wayne forged.
As he crouched to sing "Lollipop" in his signature croak, it shined like the blueprint it was always meant to be. His off-kilter, auto-tuned smothered sex anthem sounded alien in 2008. Now the song could be plugged between the latest Lil Uzi Vert or Gunna song on Rap Caviar, and it would sound at home. Weaving through hits like "A Milli," it was like a talented fighter shadowboxing with himself, earning back goodwill that never should have escaped him.
Hip-hop is fickle. Rap fans have a tendency to forget our stars with the same speed a child forgets a toy a few days removed from Christmas. A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie's "Drowning" got more cheers than Bell Biv DeVoe's "Poison," which is understandable, no matter how much of a jam it is 28 years later. Regardless, Wayne and Mill proved you can't snuff out legends. A decade ago, Sha-Ron Prescott asked where Mr. Carter had been. Lil Wayne replied, "Around the world and I'm back again," and somehow that statement is truer now than it was then.