Lil Wayne Deserves The Super Bowl, And So Do We

(Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images)

Next year, Super Bowl LIX will be in New Orleans during Mardi Gras parade season, and before Usher had hung up the mic for what was a tremendous halftime show performance, people were nominating New Orleans’ all-time greatest rap star and native son, Lil Wayne, to take the honors next year. Wayne is one of rap’s most visible and vocal sports fanatics, so it was no surprise he came out immediately to get behind the idea, stating he has been praying for the opportunity. While overall support for the nomination is high, even in the face of an impending second year of Taylor Swift as the NFL’s first lady, there was some pushback, both on X (formerly known as Twitter) and in the streets of New Orleans over whether Wayne was “mainstream” enough, and whether he in fact had enough “mainstream hits” to fill a Super Bowl Halftime Show. So for fun, let’s take a few minutes to dismantle this notion.

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The kernel of the argument against Wayne is present above, repeated several times by Charlemagne in this video (which, of course, is endorsing Wayne for the show in a “Wayne and Friends” package) when he says, dismissing the No Limit and Cash Money artists that preceded Wayne: “It’s the NFL guys.” What he’s saying is the NFL Halftime stage is the arbiter of American taste, one that accounts for the coasts, but also middle America, the deep red states. The subtext is to perform at the Super Bowl, you can’t just be “Rap Famous,” you have to be a household name across generations and demographics. Racist grandparents need passing familiarity with your likeness. Essentially, you need to be U2 famous, Shania Twain famous, Taylor Swift famous. These arbitrary barriers of entry are a polite way of saying, “white famous.” It’s an acknowledgment of the fact that somehow, 50 years in, with rap billionaires, with rap as the dominant force in popular music over the past 30 years- if not always directly, then in influence over the white washed pop infused with its sensibilities- rap is still ghettoized, still considered apart from mainstream culture. If you want evidence of this, consider last month, rap specific Grammy awards were not handed out on television. During that same ceremony, NFL halftime show partner/producer Jay-Z referred to this longtime cultural blindspot with the acceptance speech for his honorary award the show at least had the decency to televise. Shortly thereafter, Taylor Swift beat out Sza for Album of the Year

There’s also a perception that a rapper whose best known hit might be a song about oral sex can’t play to middle America. But over the past 25 years, many headliners have had their own controversial pasts and sexually explicit moments: Madonna, Prince, and The Weeknd. It’s hard to imagine the country being scandalized, in our current doom spiral, by “Back That [Thang] Up.” He is also one of the most decorated, charting popular artists in the history of Billboard Top 100. Wayne has had three number one hits, 25 Top 10 hits, and 186 songs that have made the chart. Between physical and digital, he’s sold over 120 million records worldwide. So I’d argue, yes, Lil Wayne is that famous.

The pushback, that there is in fact no controversy here, would be citing Dr. Dre’s ‘headlining performance’ in 2022. But as the NFL patted themselves on the back for their progressive stance featuring a (legendary billionaire) rapper as their headliner, he shared the stage with four other artists and performed three of his own songs. It was more of a rap review than a proper Dre set, harkening back to the corny and clueless old days when the show would feature genres rather than major artists (A Salute to the Caribbean, A Salute to the Big Band Era, “Rockin Country Sunday”, etc.) and would bleed ratings to savvy counterprogramming from In Living Color and Celebrity Deathmatch

But one thing Super Bowl LVI got right was it tied the performance to place, that is to say Dre was the choice because the game was played at a stadium in Inglewood. This historically hasn’t always been a factor (See: A Motown Tribute in San Diego, Beyonce not performing in Houston, Usher not in Atlanta, Bruce Springsteen in Tampa, etc.) probably because the game has often been played on a neutral, warm weather site between two teams that are on the road, with very rare exceptions, and the NFL wanted to downplay its obvious benefits to that warm weather city so as not to be seen playing favorites. But as the NFL expands its roster of acceptable venues for the game, it would be wise to ground the event as a citywide celebration of the culture of its home for the year. Few artists in any genre are tied to a place like Wayne is to NOLA, having grown up in the public eye with the city as a constant in his music and persona. 

Lil Wayne is not just the most deserving, but most logical nominee for next season, and at the moment, that’s even reflected in the Vegas odds. But remember, this is the NFL. It would’ve also made sense to not blackball a talented young quarterback for speaking out against police brutality, years before it became a national crises the league belatedly attempted to respond to with limp wristed gestures like involving a Black billionaire in their entertainment programming (while keeping Colin Kaepernick out in the cold in favor of…..Trevor Siemian). It would also make sense to have a single Black majority owner in a 75 percent non-white league

Despite all appearances and Vegas prognosticating, don’t be surprised in the Fall if we discover Morgan Wallen, or Justin Bieber, or Miley Cyrus, or Noah Kahan, or……Taylor Swift gets the spot. He would, and should be rap’s first “true” Super Bowl headlining artist. Proof that these barriers, and hierarchies in popular taste, only exist as long as gigantic corporate entities use their platforms to gate keep.

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