There was a point in time when Lil Wayne was untouchable. He could spin syrupy bars about being a Martian and somehow sound believable. He could co-opt beats that you had heard a thousand times and make you forget the original in the span of a few verses. He could scream “I’m the best rapper alive” on a track and spur conversation rather than condescension.
This is not that time. Though still unmistakably a talented and influential voice in hip hop, Lil Wayne seems much more flawed and mortal on the fourth installment of his Tha Carter series. Gone are the grandiose claims, as if he knows he no longer can claim the Best Alive belt. And the innovative beats, mind-bending verses, and Mars Attacks attitude? Well, they’re not entirely gone, but they are so diluted on The Carter IV as to render them nearly insignificant. Lil Wayne, for the first time since he caught fire in the back half of last decade, sounds terrestrial.
More than anything, Wayne just sounds a bit like he’s run out of things to say. Or, discarding that, like he’s run out of interesting ways to say the same things he’s always said.
“Blunt Blowin’,” for example, sounds so familiar that I checked twice to make sure it hadn’t been on an earlier release. “John,” which features Rick Ross, more or less has been on an earlier release; it’s a lazy recapitulation of Ross’s “I’m A Star.” On “President Carter,” presumably a follow-up to Tha Carter III’s “Mr. Carter” and “Dr. Carter,” Weezy himself sounds bored with the concept – not to mention that he seems to have absconded with lines from teenage Earl Sweatshirt. “How To Love,” a love ballad, features Wayne sing-rapping vapid lines, albeit in a surprisingly listenable way. I wish I could say the same about “How To Hate,” a cliché-filled revenge song that forces listeners to stomach nearly two minutes of T-Pain (Auto-Tunechi?) e-moting before Wayne even hops on the mic.
Simply put, Tha Carter IV is a laundry list of disappointments, with few bright spots. The album’s sole truly memorable beat is delivered by Bangladesh on “6 Foot 7 Foot,” a track that first hit ears nearly nine months ago. The album’s other bright spots mainly revolve around other rappers. Drake has a surprisingly sharp verse on “It's Good.” Andre 3000 makes a suavely unlisted cameo alongside a rabid Tech N9ne on “Interlude.” Nas, Bun B, Shyne, and Busta Rhymes all take turns on “Outro,” turning out more engaging verses than most of Weezy’s spots on the album. Given the performances of Tech, 3 Stacks and Nas in particular, it’s no surprise that Wayne chose to distance his Willy Will-backed verse from those of his compatriots. Where last year’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy gave the impression that featured artists were stepping up to the task of creating within Kanye West’s domain, Tha Carter IV’s spots sound more like Wayne has given the keys to the guests and let them joyride on the beats.
In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not particularly impressed with Tha Carter IV. But before we leave it at that, there are two things that make me pause that I think are worth sharing.
The first is a simple fact: Tha Carter IV sold almost a million copies in its first week. It set a record for most iTunes digital albums sold in its first four days. It’s the best first week for a hip hop album since…Tha Carter III. That, my friends, is a staggering fact. Some of it may be attributable to Lil Wayne’s performance at the VMAs, his high profile guest spots (Chris Brown’s “Look At Me Now,” DJ Khaled’s “I’m On One,” and Kelly Rowland’s “Motivation”), and the fanbase he has built throughout Tha Carter series’ lifespan. Some have even gone so far as to attribute the album’s sales success to a Cash Money Records conspiracy to stuff the ballot box by buying copies of the record. No matter how the success was achieved – and there’s no reason to believe it was anything but legitimate – the truth of the matter is that first week sales have more to do with reputation than content here; the true litmus test of Tha Carter IV won’t come until the future. If Tha Carter IV outsells the long tail of Nicki Minaj’s “Pink Friday” – or if Lil Wayne’s next release outsells this one – I will be very surprised.
The second conundrum is a more complex issue. Much of Weezy’s change of speed seems to be directly related to his getting clean; the 5 foot 6 (foot) rapper has notably eschewed his signature syrup – a potent mix of codeine and promethazine – over the past year and a half. Though his voice may be higher (his pipes seem to have skipped up a few steps since he last hit the booth) Lil Wayne is not. Sure, he’s still, “a hell of a smoker and a bit of a drinker,” as he proclaims on “Abortion,” but the dank and the drank seem to have different effects on Weezy. Thus, music fans and critics are faced with a paradox: How do you reconcile a lifestyle change that makes a musician a healthier person but a less compelling artist?
I’m not sure there’s an answer to that question – it’s a pretty brutal glance in the mirror for fans of Lil Wayne. With any luck Weezy’s newfound clarity will push him towards new frontiers that meet and surpass all expectations, making this a moot point. This record, however, fails to come close.