Lil Wayne: prince of the gift economy

Lil_wayne_i Since his last LP, Lil Wayne has been working the gift economy.  In the words of Jonah Weiner,

[T]he New Orleans MC struck upon a music-distribution model so radical it made Radiohead look like Thomas Edison shipping wax cylinders by Pony Express.

Step 1: Rap about whatever pops into your head, over any beat you please–copyright laws be damned. 

Step 2: Flood the Internet with material, compiled on mix tapes or leaked a la carte. 

Step 3: Say yes to anyone who invites you to guest star on a track (anyone: meaning Enrique Iglesias and Gym Class Heroes).

Step 4: Repeat at an inhuman clip, not merely keeping pace with the relentless blog cycle–in which MP3s ping from studios to iPods to trash cans in a matter of days, but leaving the blog cycle face down on the racetrack, turf in its teeth, gasping for air. 

The big question:

How can [Carter’s new album, Tha Carter III] be anything but arbitrary and incomplete next to the gigabytes of beat he’s been dropping?

Specifically: who’s going to buy this album when they have been so generously gifted with Carter’s work for free? 

There’s no question that Tha Carter III is good. Weiner says it’s "all but a lock for hip-hop album of the year."  But the industry couldn’t help wondering whether his fans might by Cartered out, or, at least, so well supplied with Carter’s genius that buying the new album was gratuitous. 

The good news: Tha Carter III sold 156,000 copies in the week ending July 6 which brought its first-month total to 1.68 million.  This allowed Lil Wayne to displace Coldplay at number one and surpass G-Unit, John Mayer, Usher, Rihanna, and Disturbed on the charts.

It may be that Lil Wayne has succeeded here because he is, in the opinion of Rolling Stone, the "best rapper alive."  If you are this good, ubiquity and generosity have no penalty.  Free for all or fee for all, it doesn’t matter.  We have to listen.  But intuitively this seems wrong.  Surely the incentive for "giveaways" should be more pressing for lesser talents. 

But that’s the problem, isn’t it?  The economics of the "gift economy" are still a little vague.  The general idea is that gift economies spring from acts of generosity.  We create value by releasing value.    The idea is not to engage in "tit for tat" exchange, but to gift the world with our best efforts.  Think of this as a benign variation on "what goes around comes around."  What we give freely will come back to us.

This is an idea in its first blush.  The romance is still strong.  No one seems to care that the gift economy detaches producers and consumers.  No one minds that it replaces the notion of "interest" with whim and self indulgence.  I think if we posit a "wisdom of crowds" emergence theory, we might take care of this problem.  What producers want to produce might be what consumers want to consume.  This certainly is the case in Lil Wayne.  On the other hand, I can’t help wondering who’s going to produce that aluminum siding I have my eye on.  (I believe it’s safe to say no one makes aluminum as a reckless act of generosity.)

How and why this economy runs depends on your point of view.  People with New Age proclivities have a very clear idea of the mechanics of the marketplace, the celestial scales that see to the return of acts of goodness.  Others, and this seems to apply especially, to new-media, new-economy, social-networks types, seem to suppose that it’s "just gonna happen." (Funny that the real-world types should be vague, when the romantically inclined should be specific.  More mysteries for the anthropology of contemporary culture.)

The key book for most people seems to be the one by Hyde (as below).  Henry Jenkins is doing some work in the area, and this is very good news.  We could use Marshall Sahlins’ idea of  "generalized exchange," I think, but this term is just not provocative enough as a title to take the day. The virtue of Sahlins’ approach is that it encourages us to replace mystery with an appreciation for new and more circular acts of exchanges that see to the movement of  new and more various kinds of value. 

Prince or no, Lil Wayne is a wonder.  He is fantastically gifted, fabulously inventive, a veritable Shakespeare who comes to us from a New Orleans that no longer exists dripping in tats and attitude.  This is a guy who styles himself a Martian and threatens with his relentless creativity and productivity to make good on the metaphor.

And this makes Carter a cultural actor who has taken his leave of the usual grammars.  As Weiner puts it,

There’s an exhilarating, disorienting sense of freedom to the album, the rush of rules being ignored. 

And here anthropology, the economics aside, really has its work cut out for it. 

Two videos from Lil Wayne:

Wayne, Lil.  2008.  Lollipop.  here

Wayne, Lil.  2008.  A milli.  here.

[There is no grasping Lil Wayne from two tracks.  Listen to Tha Carter III in its entirety to see the wealth and vastness of this talent.]


Cheal, David J. 1988. The gift economy. London. New York: Routledge.

Hasty, Katie.  2008.  Lil Wayne knocks Coldplay from top of U.S. chart.  UK  July 9, 2008.  here.

Hermann, Gretchen M. 1997. Gift or commodity: what changes hands in the U.S. garage sale. American Ethnologist. 24. 2. pp. 910-930.

Hyde, Lewis.  1983. The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property.  New York: Vintage Books. Available from Amazon here.

Mauss, Marcel. 1925. The Gift: Forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies.  translator Ian Cunnison. London: Cohen and West.

Pollard, Dave.  2005.  The Gift Economy. How to save the world.  April 17, 2005.  here.

Sahlins, Marshall.  2003.  Stone Age Economics.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Available from Amazon here.

Weiner, Jonah.  2008.  Makeit Wayne.  Blender.  August.  pp. 79-80. 

7 thoughts on “Lil Wayne: prince of the gift economy

  1. Chris Brogan...

    Very thoughtful post, and I’m really excited to hear the story. I know Lil Wayne, and know a few of his songs, but wasn’t aware of his body of work. As he follows a very similar model to me (give tons away and hope for value on the parts where you ask for money), I’m excited to see the comparison.

    By the way, long time reader, first time commenter. 🙂

  2. Steve Cunningham

    Grant – I’ve got what is admittedly a sample of one (me). But perhaps two other looks at the issue for discussion. I’m both a music lover and a musician, and here’s what I see from both sides of the table.

    Music lover – when you find an artist that you fall in love with you’ll do everything your power to get your hands on ANYTHING the artist has created (for me, it’s not Lil Wayne, but many others). Especially when you’ve made that artist part of your identity. In fact, you’ll pay any amount to get your hands on the stuff, from free to seemingly astronomical figures. SO, if you’re the best rapper in the world, its quite likely that you have a long list of those people willing to take in both the free stuff and pay for the “official” albums. Perhaps Lil Wayne realizes this.

    Musician – musicians (myself and Lil Wayne included) have an insatiable desire to create. And one album every two years (followed by a relentless touring schedule) probably doesn’t leave your need to create particularly fulfilled. I think most musicians would tell you that they feel this way, but that it’s “part of the business”. And by pounding out the tunes like he has been doing, he’s adding to the mystique surrounding him – a modern day Mozart if you will. Perhaps Lil Wayne realizes that he can’t accomplish this by playing by the old rules.

    Without having read any of the books/articles from your references, I have absolutely no idea how that fits in with your model. But just thought I’d throw my two cents into the ring.

    Keep up the great work – I love reading your stuff!

  3. peter

    Grant —

    A couple of related references I’d recommend. First is the fine book by Steven Weber on the open source movement, “The Success of Open Source” (Harvard University Press, 2004).

    I think that a large impetus for a modern gift-economy has come from the open source software movement, and the motivations & drivers there I suspect are very different to those in other domains, such as music. For example, computer hardware and software creation has been a collaborative effort since at least the time of Charles Babbage in the 19th century, and this collaborative culture of giving-and-receiving (for help, for code, for inputs) is one way in which young computer engineers acquire the skills of their profession. I think this culture is very different to other knowledge cultures, such as law or medicine, which IME are much more competitive than computing.

    In addition, most modern corporate software requires customization to the particular business, technical or other circumstances of each company for its potential benefits to be realized. But full customization of software is usually only possible if the programmers doing the installation & deployment have access to the source code. The main driver of open source software is not New Age notions of sharing (on the supply-side), but hard commercial requirements for full access to source code (on the demand-side). This driver has found expression in interesting ways: Fortune 500 companies now routinely ask their telecommunications providers for direct access to the telco’s switches, for instance (to enable faster provision of changing requirements).

    Another paper of relevance is this politico-legal analysis:

    Yochai Benkler [2004]: “Sharing nicely: on shareable goods and the emergence of sharing as a modality of economic production.” Yale Law Journal, vol. 114, pp. 273-358 (November 2004).

    Benkler construes open source as a new mode of production, distinct from price-based (capitalist) and state-based (communist) modes. I’m not sure I’m convinced, but his argument is worth considering.

  4. keith brown

    The gift economy model has come at a time when the record labels, and even the supporting media outlets, have very little credibility with young music consumers.
    If Lil Wayne wants an endorsement from the people who matter most (his potential public) then he has to bypass the traditional approaches and address the public directly, giving away free content on the Internet. (Britain’s Artic Monkeys is often credited with pioneering this technique a couple of years ago.)
    Despite a soft home improvement sector, the aluminum siding business is more viable in 2008 than the record business. More importantly, Lil Wayne’s raw materials are not costly, the R&D process is probably obsessive in his case, and the distribution cost of Lil Wayne’s music is virtually free.
    My point is that if I were you, I wouldn’t wait for free aluminum siding on the Internet.

  5. Daniel Rosenblatt

    I wonder if this is not a new gift economy, but something like the old one: that is, if part of why people pay for the album is that they feel some sort of obligation to reciprocate for all the stuff Lil Wayne has thrown out there. If there are universal human moral principles then the obligation to give back what you get (whether in the form of revenge or counter-gift) is surely one of them. In Sahlins’s terms this would be more like balanced reciprocity than generalized exchange, both in terms of its ideology and in terms of the social distance implied/constituted between Lil Wayne and fans: part of a community but not immediate family.It has its problems as an economic model (predictability would be a big one), but it may be one that is (in many instances) hard to avoid for something like the movies industry. The saying “information wants to be free” is best understood as fact, not hippie ideology: information “wants” to be free because someone who has it can give it away without losing it (indeed, they will probably gain props/gratitude/prestige). This is especially true when the medium of information is essentially free, as with digital info. Attempts to stop sharing come across as a form of “negative reciprocity” in this context, and defeating them becomes a goal in and of itself.

  6. Professor Coldheart


    A friend directed me here after I asked in my own weblog if anyone could explain the appeal of Lil Wayne.

    I’ve listened to as many songs of his as I could find online and stomach – “Lollipop,” “Go DJ” and, at your suggestion, “A Milli.” And I just don’t see what the fuss is about.

    Even limiting ourselves to mainstream rappers alone, I can think of half a dozen rappers with better flow, rhymes and production values. Chamillionaire. Yung Joc. People who haven’t made hit albums in years have a fresher sound than this guy.

    I don’t mean to call you out on your fandom – if you like Lil Wayne, that’s fine and all. I just do not understand what people get excited over.

    What’s the big deal? Help me out here.

  7. pnautilus

    Being at the end of the comment list, I’ll make this short and sweet. The best example of a “gift” economy model with a heavy dose of commercial reality is Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. I can’t but feel a little sullied after every episode, knowing that this “goodwill,” is much more than product placement. Sears, and Ford, and Kenmore, and Thomasville (and the rest, ad nauseum) have created a space in which their products are shown in the best possible light, as charitable gifts. Not promotions, or prizes, but charitable gifts, out of the goodness of their heart. Granted, this is not a gift on the scale of Lil Wayne’s experiment, but it does seem to go along way, especially for those who love Ford and capital “A” America! in showing the world how benevolent these companies are. And as day follows night, if they’re giving is good, so too must be their product offering. It’s the illusion of the gift that is the key to the economy of the gift!

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