For some segments of the hip-hop listenership, it’s undoubtedly true that a Lil’ Wayne release is irrelevant. Plenty of listeners grew tired of him during 2006 to early 2009, when he was seemingly everywhere, if not during his Hot Boys days, and long ago decided he wasn’t an artist worth anticipating. But not everyone felt that way. For a great many of us, old-timers and newcomers alike, that epic era of Weezy was a much needed injection of excitement into mainstream rap culture.
His run of mixtapes, from the Sqad Up 4 through Da Drought 3, defined Lil’ Wayne as one of hip-hop’s most fearless lyricists. He was a student of the abstract, filtering his aloof concepts through influences as diverse as Cam’ron, Jay-Z, Andre 3000, Juvenile, Birdman, Bun B and Kanye West. It was impossible to set expectations for his major label work outside of the consistently superb mixtapes, however, as his guest verses fluctuated wildly from self-parody to self-aggrandizement. The ways in which he embarrassed himself (Kat DeLuna’s “Unstoppable” comes to mind, among others) were often excusable for his hilariously implied insistence that his embarrassments were on equal standing with moments like his “Upgrade U” freestyle.
Prison seemed to have changed all that. Not only were the Young Money and I Am Not a Human Being releases squeaked out right before his incarceration, the Rebirth experiment finally found a release date and unsurprisingly found itself mired in a whirlwind of criticism and audience laughter. Wayne waited a year for his release and gave us Sorry 4 the Wait, a mixtape that might have been more accurately titled Sorry 4 the Tape.
As had been widely anticipated at the tail end of Wayne’s everywhere-ness, most felt as though they were witness to the end of a special segment of an artist’s career. Tha Carter IV, production and flow aside, essentially confirms that suspicion once and for all. On it’s surface, this album is a joy to listen to. Even the duds “How to Hate” and “So Special” have elements in them that can easily lull the listener into easy satisfaction. The bass throughout is thunderous and pre-destined to satisfy the customer who values subwoofer-fueled joyriding. Pretty much all of the choruses have their virtues, and basic songs (namely “Blunt Blowin’”) are saved from gruesome mismanagement by these choruses.
Unfortunately, as I’ve been hinting at, the biggest problem with Lil’ Wayne’s music at this point happens to be Wayne himself. At 28 years old, Wayne seems too young to be redefining the potential or lack thereof of a rapper who’s run out of raps—after all, Jay-Z just turned 42 on the back of one of 2011’s finest hip-hop releases, and Tech N9ne (who we’ll get to in a moment) spits with a righteous fury at age 39 that could have only been cured over time, not dissimilar from the way the finest wines and hard liquors produce themselves after decades of nurturing.
But here is Lil’ Wayne, one of hip-hop’s most exciting artists of the past decade, releasing an album worthy of L.A. Weekly releasing a 60 Worst Lil’ Wayne Lines on Tha Carter IV list with no more than four or five potentially passable inclusions. It feels rather like watching Allen Iverson attempt to play basketball in Turkey, or Memphis for that matter, and looking unfamiliarly out of place on the court. He constantly recycles concepts like “life’s a bitch”, “the F. is for” and other cliches as though they weren’t only fleetingly entertaining the first time he tried them, and he oftentimes abuses misdirection punchlines—as if “suck my greenlight” makes any sense to anyone.
Making matters worse is his revival of the intro/interlude/outro gimmick from the first two entries in the Carter series, in which each track utilizes the same beat. Before, Wayne would redefine the given track each time and get the listener hyped for the next portion of his album, but here he blesses the “Intro” track with some of the worst verses he could possibly record and then backs away from the other two iterations as if his constantly-referenced flag were white rather than red.
Then again, on an album full of incomparably half-baked verses—perhaps, unfortunately, the lack of drugs in his life hurts his creativity—it might be best that Lil’ Wayne runs away from tracks involving a Tech N9ne verse akin to an NBA player’s contract year performance, an Andre 3000 verse that leaves listeners as confused and in anticipation of an OutKast reunion as ever, and a Nas verse that rings more vicious and calculated than anything he’s spit in a while.
What’s most strange about these tracks, though, isn’t Wayne’s apparent fear of being out-classed, it’s the praise heaped upon him by the guests. Andre 3000 sounds more excited for this release than anyone on the album proper, while Busta Rhymes thanks Lil’ Wayne for providing us with “another classic” album. I’d assume anyone who listened to the album from start to finish would have to wonder whether Busta Rhymes had actually listened to the record.
Tha Carter IV is most likely the greatest disappointment of 2011 other than Katy Perry’s outfit at the 2011 Video Music Awards. It’s a smattering of tracks lacking in relevance, carried by everything other than the primary artist for which they were made. And yet, all signs point toward this album quickly becoming the second-best selling album of the year, behind only Lady Gaga’s Born This Way. That says something interesting about the industry of music in general and hip-hop specifically: it confirms that the cult of personality can provide a pop artist with success well beyond the actually quality of the art they provide the public; for or hip-hop specifically, it continues the heated debate about what that means for the genre. Tyler, The Creator is often regarded as 2011’s most buzzed-about artist, yet he struggled to crack six figures in sales. Jay-Z and Kanye West have long stood tall over most of hip-hop’s elite both artistically and commercially, and saw their co-operative Watch the Throne shockingly underperform in comparison to either of their most recently released solo efforts.
If this album is a concrete example of Wayne’s policies as a rap artist going forward, however, I don’t see how he’ll keep pulling in accolades. As a possible swan song for Lil’ Wayne, Best Rapper Alive, Tha Carter IV ranks among hip-hop’s most disappointing.