For most of the 21st century, you could argue that Lil Wayne was the best rapper on the planet without sounding as insane as he usually did. A Cash Money Records foot soldier in his teens, the New Orleans native slowly morphed from an underground sensation into an unlikely pop superstar best known for 2008’s Tha Carter III, which moved an astounding one million copies in its first week alone on the strength of the left-field hits “A Milli” and “Lollipop.” But by then, he’d already won an army of hardcore fans as a mixtape workhorse, and he kept at it even after he topped the charts.

In fact, most of Wayne’s best rapping happened during his especially prolific mixtape run of the mid-to-late ’aughts, building his rep as an emcee who’d reclaim any popular beat as his own with relentless, pummeling lyricism and a tongue-in-cheek wit, driven by a desire to keep his rabid fans fed and definitively prove himself the Best Rapper Alive. His most vicious punch lines, his most tenacious flows, his most colorful storytelling … often, he’d just dump them on the internet and let you download it all for free. The last time he did it was this January, in fact, with Sorry for the Wait II, a title that unfortunately speaks to his difficulties getting an official album released these days. In fact, on July 4th, Wayne released the Free Weezy Album, his first “official” product since 2013, exclusively on Tidal after an ugly public breakup with his longtime label; in keeping with his mixtape modus operandi, it’s a free music dump for fans. The best of Wayne has always come from his insatiable desire to sate us.

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The Lil Wayne mixtape discography spans the vast majority of his career: its highs and lows, the multiple iterations of his Young Money brand, his gradual development into an elite rap power, and the somewhat disappointing comedown of the last five years or so. There are multiple franchises, most notably the Dedication series; regardless, each tape acts as a time capsule, inferring context on an often random-feeling set of tracks. A full 13 years separate his first mixtape from his most recent, and while each one plays a pivotal role in his ever-changing narrative, they aren’t created equal. Here, then, is a ranking of every tape in the Wayne canon.

25. SQ6 (With Sqad Up) (Hosted by Raj Smoove) [2003]

24. SQ5 (With Sqad Up) (Hosted by Raj Smoove) [2003]

23. SQ2 (With Sqad Up) (Hosted by Raj Smoove) [2002]

This was Wayne’s first group under the Cash Money umbrella (only Gudda Gudda and T-Streets are still around), and these are both their worst tapes and the worst Wayne tapes overall, though SQ2 at least has the (reused) “Rock the Mic” freestyle. There’s one moment on SQ6 where Birdman, Wayne’s label-mentor-turned-mortal-enemy, proudly exclaims, “I fuck with this nigga R. Kelly” before badgering Wayne into doing a weird rendition of “Ignition”; Kelly had been arrested that same year for child pornography. The rest of the tape feels equally tone-deaf: Wayne mentions that his 4-year-old daughter is acting like a woman, and then, in the same breath, observes that women in general are all acting like whores these days. Don’t start here, or even end up here.

22. Dedication 3 (Hosted by DJ Drama) [2008]

This home-run trot following that year’s chart-topping Tha Carter III features far too much face-time for the Young Money B-team (including, uh, Gudda Gudda) with occasional but ungratifying cameos from the syrup-fried, AutoTune-abusing main attraction. He’s as disinterested as they are uninteresting.

21. SQ4 (with Sqad Up) (Hosted by Raj Smoove) [2002]

Actually, let’s talk about Gudda Gudda, who’s perhaps best known for his “grocery bag” punch line, and is much more tolerable in his earlier incarnation here, if only because there’s way less of him. Wayne, meanwhile, makes his best technical showing of this whole series with stuff like this:

Don’t even know where to begin that story about ya whoadie

I’m younger than Kobe, vet like Rob Horry

I made it pop bubbly, ya buddy is getting chubbier than N.O.R.E.

Honey saying her hubby getting boring

So honey be by money when you’re snoring

Stuffing from her gummies to her tummy to her ovaries

It’s over, man

20. The Carter Files (Hosted by Raj Smoove) [2006]

This is an archive of leftovers from 2004’s major-label bow Tha Carter, and it mostly sounds like it. He’s pretty charismatic on the choppy “Million,” though, with the sort of chain-reaction approach—”I hop in the truck, I’m dropping the trunk / 25-inch blades, now we chopping it up / My bitch’ arm look naked so I’m dropping a dub / She done ran into your bitch, now she’s dropping a scrub”—that he’d perfect soon enough.

19. Sorry 4 the Wait (No DJ) [2011]

This was an effective prelude to that year’s Tha Carter IV, in that both projects are pretty bad. But since this didn’t even have to meet label standards, it’s much worse: Wayne slings out wan punch lines as if punch-drunk for the duration, and you can almost hear the gears grinding as he continually tries to connect two unrelated dots, only to wind up with stuff like, “Make breakfast, ’cause I’ve got you walking on eggshells.” There’s a Lil B based freestyle, though!

18. Da Drought 2 (Hosted by DJ Khaled) [2004]

No surprise that the worst installment of the Drought trilogy is the middle child, sporadic in tone and quality while lacking even one of those trademark loopy-stroke-of-genius moments wherein Wayne makes a flagrantly out there metaphor work, somehow. Most of the beats sound like stock Fruity Loops presets; the awful hook on opener “Everything Will Be Fine” disproves the title. Wayne’s clearly finding his range, though: He isn’t quite calling himself Best Rapper Alive yet, though he does declare himself “the Jigga of the South.”

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Relevant side note: On “Get Out,” Wayne raps, “I’m living in Cash Money, never dying out / You can’t pull me to the side / You can’t buy me out.” Which is funny, given that he publicly considered jumping to Jay Z’s Def Jam that year; given recent calamities, he probably wishes he had.

17. SQ1 (with Sqad Up) (Hosted by Raj Smoove) [2002]

This blatant early plea for respect from the then-dominant NYC radio cabal opens with three solo freestyles in which our young hero endeavors to drop as many bombs as possible, capped by a great rant following a verse over Tweet’s “Oops (Oh My)”: “All them niggas up there, come holla at ya boy, man. Kay Slay, Clue, Flex—all them niggas. Come holla at ya boy, man! We doing this shit just like y’all doing this shit.” It’s enchanting to hear how much he cared, even then. Wayne was convinced he was the best rapper out before he was even the best in his own camp, and that unwavering self-belief was just starting to manifest itself into something tangible.

16. The W. Carter Collection 2 (Hosted by Mick Boogie) [2006]

The original is much better, as evidenced by the fact that I haven’t mentioned it yet; as for this one, there are way too many flyovers on other rappers’ songs that didn’t need revisiting, from Young Jeezy’s “Ya Dig” to Remy Ma’s “Conceited” to Cam’Ron’s “Suck It or Not” (which is on several Wayne tapes already) or Curren$y’s “Where Da Cash At?” (which should just go away forever). Most of these tracks feel like table scraps.

This sequel does have its triumphs, though, especially in the early going. Throwing a Rakim verse on the Carter II extra “I’m A D-Boy,” which samples the classic beat break from “Paid in Full,” is a very nice, almost sentimental touch, especially since Wayne recycles the God MC’s intro. And the brooding ego check “Feeling Myself”—“I be on the street and on the road getting my paper up / Full, but I ain’t ate enough / I’m good but I ain’t great enough” is a moment of crystal-clear acuity and self-awareness.

15. Dedication 5 (Hosted by DJ Drama) [2013]

14. Dedication 4 (Hosted by DJ Drama) [2012]

The best song on Dedication 5 is by the Weeknd; the best verse comes from Chance the Rapper. It’s also way too long, and the punch lines are all a stretch; Wayne himself cancels out a wave of momentum on “Started” with three terrible bars in a row, and that’s basically a microcosm of the tape: a solid build-up with terrible follow-through. The skits are inexplicably great, though, like the one where he calls rapper Euro—who gets four features on this thing—”Eureka Franklin,” or the one where he openly ponders the idea of being a living legend. This is the best bad Wayne mixtape.

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Whereas Dedication 4 is the worst good Wayne mixtape: tough to sit through, but the song selection is better, there are fewer bad guest verses, and it’s 40 minutes shorter. (Let’s not mention how Weezy gets outrapped by J. Cole, which is the equivalent of getting blown out by 30 in your own gym by a team of scrubs.) “No Worries” is a good original mixtape song, though, even if it should’ve stayed that way, and stayed off the radio.

13. SQ7 (with Sqad Up) (Hosted by Raj Smoove) [2004]

Unsurprisingly, the best Sqad Up tape is the one with no squad: According to rap lore, it’s a blistering, uninterrupted 35-minute solo freestyle. (Which explains its alternate title, 10,000 Bars.) The beat changes 23 times, but Wayne never stops rapping for the span of a full sitcom, plus commercials and previews. A lot of that rapping is even good!

12. Da Drought (Hosted by DJ Khaled) [2004]

This supplement to that year’s official jam Tha Carter blends try-hard rappity rap with youthful exuberance and manages to entertain despite occasional dips in focus and intensity: There’s no big payoff, but no big letdown, either. Wayne would spend the next several tapes trying to strike the right balance between the knotty wordplay of “Dat Boy Weezy” and the slickness of “Won’t Fuck Wit Me,” and when he finally got the mix just right, idiosyncratic stardom was his.

11. Sorry 4 the Wait 2 [2015]

Again, we’re on board with this; despite the ongoing label drama, it suggests that Wayne’s slowly but surely working his way back into prime rapping shape. He’s not there yet: He used to absolutely own the “hijacking a popular song by a mid-tier talent who can easily be out-rapped” genre, but his versions of “Hot Nigga” and “Coco” don’t quite top the originals. He gets some good lines off, though—”I asked her, do she go both ways / She said, ‘You know love is a two-way street’”— and though he shouldn’t have messed with Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares Intro” or Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love,” the Young Thug-esque “No Haters” makes up for it.

10. Blow (With Juelz Santana) (Hosted by Mick Boogie) [2006]

The chemistry between Lil Wayne and Harlem’s own Juelz Santana was so strong that at one point (on a better mixtape than this one, but we’ll get to that), they insulted Jay Z and Nas over their own track: “You dudes gotta stand in the mirror backwards ‘cause you can’t face yourselves.” This shared affinity for oozing self-confidence was such that they almost did an entire “official” album together (the long-since-shelved I Can’t Feel My Face), and the Wayne/Juelz union was generally touted as the North and the South colliding, with regional biases overcome by transcendent rapping. Blow was this movement’s high point, and while it always felt like a precursor to something greater, it works equally well as a time capsule, a nostalgic reminder of what could’ve been.

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Juelz has always flourished as a second banana: He rarely tries to do too much here, and works best as a means against which to measure Wayne’s unpredictable, flippant verses. For his part, Weezy just barely avoids cruise control, but still has his moments, particularly his fluid turn on the mixtape-opening “Get at These Niggaz.” This isn’t quite an MJ/Scottie pairing, but Kobe/Pau isn’t too far off.

9. The Prefix [2004]

Wayne had always been a hungry emcee, but his eyes widened when Jay Z announced his retirement in 2003, giving him a golden opportunity to carve his own space on rap’s Mount Rushmore. The Prefix, wherein he raps over nine Jay beats, was his first order of business, and sent a very clear message. Not every hijacking is a success here (see “Public Service Announcement”), but there’s some tight, knotty wordplay in “Round Here”, and Wayne’s patois raps make the island remake of “Lucifer” an early mixtape-career highlight.

8. Lil Weezy Ana Vol. 1 (Hosted by Raj Smoove) [2006]

The first (and only) volume of Lil Weezy Ana is among the rarer collections of Wayne songs on the internet: It doesn’t even make his mixtape discography on Wikipedia. It is official, though, and a fine reunion with longtime collaborator Raj Smoove, who DJed the Sqad Up tapes and produced songs on Tha Carter. Emboldened, Wayne raps like someone who’s starting to really feel like the best doing it, and on “Show Me What You Got,” he stakes his claim, clear as day: “This is a Public Service Announcement: Lil Wayne, Weezy F Baby, is the Best Rapper Alive.” He then squeezes references to Mortal Kombat, the Triangle Offense, a then-timely Vonage commercial, and Hall of Fame wide receiver Steve Largent into the song’s narrow three-minute window without it feeling cluttered.

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This isn’t peak Wacky Wayne, but he is crazy enough to try and rhyme “crazier” with “gymnasium” as a lead-in to “I ain’t fucking with them bitches with that stadium / That’s no dome / Bitch, go home,” and make it work. (It’s also worth noting that there is a sample of Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles,” though Wayne doesn’t actually rap over it, which in hindsight feels like a major missed opportunity—imagine the endless possibilities for White Chicks references. In any case, this whole thing would’ve ranked higher if it didn’t suffer from a common Wayne mixtape problem: too much Mack Maine.

7. Young Money: The Mixtape Vol. 1 (With Curren$y, Mack Maine, & Lil Boo) [2006]

Surprisingly enough, Wayne had stumbled over a solution to the “too much Mack Maine” problem several months earlier: more Curren$y. The fellow New Orleans native and weed fiend is a huge upgrade as second bananas go; alas, the guy justifiably nicknamed “the Hot Spitta” would leave the Cash Money crew the following year, leaving this as his finest hour in Weezy’s orbit.

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The best songs here play off the duo’s casual chemistry, combining two distinct brands of New Orleans drawl: If Wayne is syrup, then Curren$y is molasses. The latter gets a legit solo outing on “Ashanti Remix,” where he pairs an unorthodox first verse with a monosyllabic second, to fascinating results: His flows can be hard to follow, but at least they’re never boring. But despite that showcase, Wayne is still the main attraction here, as proven by “Politician,” wherein the two trade freestyles, and the Young Money boss raps his protégé out of the booth. Maybe he shouldn’t have, though.

6. The W. Carter Collection (Hosted by Mick Boogie) [2006]

A mostly forgotten entry in the canon, the first installment of The W. Carter Collection is a pleasant surprise that threads a diverse assortment of freebies with cuts from 2005’s Tha Carter II cuts and some of Weezy’s notable recent features. He was just on the cusp of being truly great, and this was his bookmark.

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There’s a lot of character-enhancing drug talk here, though Wayne isn’t trapping like Jeezy or using dope-moving as a resume-builder like T.I. Drugs are never at the center of his narrative—instead, they’re accent marks used to exaggerate Wayne’s kingpin-esque lifestyle with hard white that looks marble under a certain light under the constant threat of “run-on” sentences from criminal judges. The goal here is to simply create an aura: On “Ain’t Got Time,” a Cool N Dre production that flirts with stringy Spanish guitar riffs while Wayne raps that he “rode through the city with the metal on my back,” he’s painting a picture of indestructibility like a knight protected by a suit of armor. In the next bar, they give him a shot, but he sends several of them back. He’s invincible.

The resulting oceanic calm radiates through tracks like “Oh No” and “When You See Me” (the latter featuring ad-libs by an animated Birdman), and Wayne teeters just on the brink of apathy throughout; when he raps, “I’m riding with a body on the shotty / Stretch a nigga out like Pilates,” it’s less of a threat and more of a casual reminder. It sounds like a zen way to kill a man, and it’s supposed to.

5. Dedication (Hosted by DJ Drama) [2005]

The first Dedication marked the official beginning of Lil Wayne’s ascent. He had just released Tha Carter II—his most commercially and critically successful album to that point—a week earlier, and was only starting to enjoy the cachet that comes with being an A-list rapper. Capitalizing on the momentum, this rides the wave and delivers a deluge of built-for-mixtape bars: street raps spit with venom by a still-underrated rapper getting his due but hungry for even more. It’s The Prefix on steroids.

4. The Suffix (Hosted by Hurricane Se7en) [2006]

“Money in my pants, god damn / I’m the muthafucking man now”: This is the earliest incarnation of Peak Mixtape Weezy, the guy who jacks hit songs’ beats and then eviscerates them with complete disregard for ownership; it’s also the (obvious) sequel to The Prefix and Wayne’s third mixtape with the then-unknown DJ Khaled. There are plenty of successful jack moves—“Get ‘’Em Off Me,” “Diamonds on My Neck,” and “Young Money Nigga,” just to name a few—but The Suffix sets itself apart with its deep cuts, tracks that don’t attempt to punch you into submission. The songwriting is far more visceral on “Damage Is Done” and “Blowing Up Fast,” which boast an unexpected emotional depth: When Wayne implores, “Mr. Bush, rebuild the city,” it resonates as the outcry of an entire Hurricane Katrina-ravaged community.

3. No Ceilings (No DJ) [2009]

This was the last time it felt like Wayne could rap on an infinite loop: bar after bar after bar of ferocious punch lines packed with quotables. It’s 71 minutes of Hagler-Hearns, except everyone wins; it’s Wayne’s last great mixtape chronologically, at least for now; it was his last project before spending a year in prison and coming out an entirely different artist. But it’s also a monument to his legacy as a mixtape rapper.

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Part of what’s so impressive about No Ceilings is it’s a classic beat-jacking tape that managed to thrive in the era of the studio mixtape: free (or not!) releases curated like albums and geared more toward an indie mindset where the web is simply free A&R. That same year, Drake, then an unknown actor-turned-rapper, released So Far Gone, a heavy, atmospheric collection of introspective new music he’d repackage and sell as an “official” EP before year’s end, whereas Wayne, a multi-platinum, Grammy-winning recording artist, was content just rapping on whatever beat he could get his hands on, just because.

That will be his legacy. Lil Wayne really loves rapping. He loves rapping for rapping’s sake. He loves being the best at rapping. You can feel that all over this: He’ll flip your fitted cap back like Fred Durst; he’s in love with her grill, George Foreman; he makes the pussy micro-soft like Windows Vista; he’s rolling with his dogs like a motherfucker hunting while his goons tote thumpers then pump them like krumpers. And while that sort of abstract thinking has hurt him on everything he’s put out since, it’s sensational here.

2. Dedication 2 (Hosted by DJ Drama) [2006]

The greatest Gangsta Grillz mixtape of all time is only the second-best Lil Wayne mixtape of all time, but it’s still Peak Wayne, capped by the seven-minute, two-sided opus that brings his whole career to a head. The track is split into two halves: “Georgia ... Bush” is a solemn dedication to the president in the wake of his bumbling response to Hurricane Katrina: It’s basically this, just more eloquently phrased, though just as blunt. On top of that, it provides concise, levelheaded criticisms of the way the media often depicts black tragedy and institutional racism in police departments, all set against a backdrop of government misconduct and negligence. It’s better commentary on classism than most “conscious” rap songs.

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In contrast, the second half, “Weezy’s Ambitions,” is braggadocio in its purest form. It’s Wayne sipping his own Kool Aid, rapping with his chest out:

Young Tune, yeah, that’s what my people call me

50,000 for the cross, tryna keep the Reaper off me

I drink a lotta syrup, bitches say I’m sleepwalking

Big money for the grill so I’m never cheap talking, yeah

Keep talking and the flame’ll leap off the hip

And keep sparking, pap-pap, sleep softly, yeah

Yeah, nap nap nap sack, three 40s like

Fuck another nigga, nigga just don’t be the target

Young New Orleans nigga, nigga just to be retarded

We done lost everything and you looking like a bargain

Purple weed, purple drank, Purple Heart sergeant

I’m the best rapper in the game, no arguing

The two songs together serve as an epic and fitting conclusion to one of the best mixtapes ever, one that helped re-legitimize the format as a shaper of careers.

1. Da Drought 3 (Hosted by DJ Khaled) [2007]

It’s fitting that the best Lil Wayne mixtape ever also preceded his biggest commercial success ever: the following year’s absolutely massive Tha Carter III. There’s definitely a correlation between the two. Da Drought 3 is a front-to-back masterpiece of virtuoso rapping: This was his absolute apex, in which he made seismic leaps other emcees wouldn’t dare attempt. This was the Wayne who was the illest because he could pull of rhyming illest with C-Y-philis without provoking ridicule. He paints pictures of excess in creative ways on “Forever” (“Bet that V.V.S. ice will bite ya face off”; “I’m riding in the peppermint / Even my leather got leather trim”), throws some punches on “Put Some Keys on That,” gets weird on “Crazy,” gets clever on “Walk It Out,” and puts it all together on “Ride 4 My Niggas”:

I’ma ride for my muthafucking niggas

Most likely I’ma die with my finger on the trigger

They tell me, “Don’t get high” and “I should try to make a living”

I tell ‘em, “I’m a hustler and I’d rather make a killing”

My eyes get so wide as it rise in the skillet

I let my bitch bag and if she stealing I’ma kill her

I bulletproof the ride, now I feel like armadillos

And fuck your hospital, Young Money, we the illest

This tape also has the added benefit of being the Young Money debut of one Nicki Minaj, and talk about making an entrance: Wayne announces her signing on “Upgrade,” and three songs later she arrives on “Don’t Stop Wont Stop,” hopping out the air in a blue and white Lear, lit with her ear on glare and a pussy that taste like mango. It’s easy to see why a few years later, she’d refer to herself as the Female Weezy: She has the same eye for flair, and you can see her future growing brighter with every bar she raps here. Add that to the list and it’s clear why Da Drought 3 sits at No. 1: It’s Lil Wayne at his most dynamic, and it’s the best mixtape he ever made.


Sheldon Pearce is a writer living in Washington, D.C. He has written for TIME, SPIN, Wondering Sound, Noisey, HipHopDX, Consequence of Sound, and XXL. He’s on Twitter.

Illustration by Sam Woolley.

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