exene vs. lil wayne: a critical review

November 17, 2009

Between a Lil Wayne documentary screening and an Excene Cervenka show at Alex’s Bar, I experienced the full spectrum of the art/artist-reality/celebrity conundrum in under 6 hours last Wednesday.

First, Quincy Jones III’s renegade documentary, The Carter, was screened in a subterranean auditorium on USC’s campus (with Ice Cube’s student son and Tupac’s first manager in attendance). Filmed with no scripts, plans or interviews (in accordance to Lil Wayne’s wishes), the film eschews traditional rock-doc babble for intimate reality show-worthy footage of the 27 year-old rapper (then at the tipping point of mainstream success) smoking joints, drinking cough syrup and recording impromptu songs out of a bag of studio equipment in his hotel room.

Although the hourly drug use and jetset lifestyle could easily get him lumped in with a hip hop hoodlum stereotype, Lil Wayne’s spontaneous creativity, unabated output and raw, uncensored lyrics (he once compared himself to Russel Crowe from A Beautiful Mind, but it’s probably more like Bob Dylan circa 1965) set him apart from the rest of a genre that is increasingly overrun with prefab “rappers.” While The Carter gives a more personal look at what it’s like to live in the unorthodox realm of “Wayne’s World,” it fails to give new insight to the rapper’s hinted-at deeper emotions and instead demonstrates the ease at which popular musicians avoids internal conflicts by slipping under the cover of celebrity bravado.

Because he would not sit down for direct questions from the producers (and gave vague responses to journalists featured in the film), lyrics splayed over artful live footage served as the closest thing to self-reflective commentary from Lil Wayne. But the rapper’s words are a jumble of pussy-eating semi-rhymes and crack-day reminisces that (like the late MJ) mask sadness with a public persona and prove Wayne is not ready to take off his diamond-crusted teeth and confront some damning truths.

Hours after the documentary’s credits rolled, Alien Lord (and veteran artistic onion) Exene Cervenka (in a move more Tupac than Weezy F. Baby) stripped away another emotional layer by roaring through a batch of subdued folk songs to a surprisingly thin crowd at Alex’s Bar. Flanked by musician-friends Wolfmaiden, Conquering Lion and Black Scorpion 35, the 53 year-old multi-medium artist set aside the last of her angry-punk bombast and presented a set of raw electric-acoustic tunes, many from her latest solo album, Somewhere Gone. Inspired by the last four years of living in Missouri, Cervenka’s new lyrics tackle subjects such as loneliness and isolation with such poetic honesty that there is no need for her signature snarling vocals.

Instead of keeping convention by writing songs in line with her other, louder music projects, Cervenka’s Midwest epiphany helped her do what Lil Wayne could not in The Carter, fearlessly emerge from behind the mask of public expectations and expose your soul to a bunch of drunk Long Beach fans. Somewhere in a pot-and-sizzurp stupor, Young Money is jealous.

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