Taken as conceptually provocative, anti-rational art, this is a monumental album full of powerful, self-defeating statements that obliterate rap's internal logic without offering too much more than indifferent bong logic in return.
It’s a difficult thought to transcribe from Lil Wayne-ese to HTML, but if you ask me, the most mind-boggling lyric on Lil Wayne’s hotly anticipated new record goes like this: “Watch. [Dramatic Pause.] See? I get better in time. Like a watch.”
And there you have it. In one signature moment, that kind of dorky wrinkle in time foolery sums up everything that’s baffling, bogus, fascinating, and frustrating about the album that was all but teed up to be the hip-hop record of a generation -- a generation that has indeed watched Lil Wayne get better, much better, in time. To zip through a backstory that is gradually calcifying into legend, Lil Wayne was once the lowly Onomatopoeia Contributor in a short-lived boy band called the Hot Boyz -- his talents trended towards peculiar noises ("bling bling", "scrrr!"), and sing-songy codas (“drop it like its hot”, “loud pipes, big rims, woadie that’s my life”). A few years later, he released Tha Carter II, his last RIAA-approved, in-stores record, upon which the Napoleonic five-foot-four New Orleanian both emulated Jay-Z and usurped him by audaciously calling himself "the best rapper alive."
Then things went bonkers, and the young work-a-holic unleashed, by my reckoning, 42 mixtapes in the span of three or four years, depending on how you count the overlap. Yet for whatever reason -- anti-Southern bias, anti-mixtape bias, something -- each consecutive mixtape only raised the stakes for his next “official” release. Apparently, his excellent performances on mixtapes like Da Drought 3 and Dedication 2 didn’t resolve the best rapper question adequately enough. So chances are, you’ve gathered here to find out or argue about whether or not Lil Wayne can now be called The Best Rapper Alive. Is it official? Do we have a nominee? Or the more immediate question: Is the record worth buying?
The short verdict is yes, and the long answer probably involves drugs. Or at least, Lil Wayne has a vast enough imagination to make one wonder where the drugs kick in. If you’re salivating for the album-as-Generational-Event -- a collective moment when the rap community queues up outside of record stores to hail its new king -- then your hopes are headed for the waterfall of disappointment. Most of the critics who’ve gone ahead and reviewed this record are already at the bottom. But what I suspect some of them don’t realize is that taken as conceptually provocative, anti-rational art -- something on the order of Marcel Duchamp's museum urinal -- Tha Carter III is a monumental album full of powerful, self-defeating statements that obliterate rap's internal logic without offering too much more than indifferent bong logic in return. Judged, however, as a collection of singles and quotable verses -- the criteria on which we've been grading hip-hop records since the end of disco -- Tha Carter III is an agonizing piece of work.
Too damn ambitious to be shrugged off as a mere pothead, the Lil Wayne we've come to know post-Carter II is constitutionally more interested in starting problems than offering resolution. "Lil Wayne isn't necessarily the greatest rapper alive, but he's definitely the most inconsistent" confirmed The Onion, which is one way of saying he's more invested in song ideas than their hit-and-miss outcomes -- SoHo's New Museum of Art would love this stuff. Folks who cherish their dust-worn Illmatic vinyls and recognize The Source five-mic reviews as the Nobel Prize for hip-hop literature probably won't.
The rest of us, however, will have to contend with a disc full of compelling brainchilds like “Mrs. Officer”, on which the would-be bad boy gets nasty in between the long legs of the law. It's a subversive twist on traditional hip-hop/cop relations, and on paper, it's a beaut: You could write a Susan Sontag essay about the underlying concept, how Wayne feminizes the oppressive and paternal police force, how he posits sex as a non-violent outlet for retribution ("fuck the police"), how he stomachs the tensions between the uniforms we wear and the common creatures of want we tuck inside (“I said lady what’s your number, she said 9-1-1”). But guest vocalist Bobby Valentino's hook goes like this: “Weee-oooh-weee-oooh-weee” (siren). And you might never want to hear that crap twice.
"Milli" offers the exact same self-inflicted madness. It's hard to even fathom the lyrics simmering beneath the super-repetitive vocal sample: "a milli, a milli, a milli", etc. Lil Wayne himself comes off less a rapper than another layer of sonic and cognitive dissonance draped on top of even more dissonance -- though if you want to follow the lyrics, go ahead and be my guest. Here's an excerpt: "I'm ill. Not sick. And I'm OK. But my watch sick. Yeah my drop sick. Yeah my glock sick. Am I not thick? I'm it". This is as sonically destructive and mentally painful as rap gets. It will almost certainly be used in Guantanamo Bay to torture terrorists.
Wayne has his listenable moments, too. On “Dr. Carter”, the man of the moment raps his patients back from cardiac arrest to vitality with three enthralling verses that build towards a glass shattering conclusion: “Hip-hop, I saved your life”. You can almost hear him dropping the mic, and striking his Kerri Strug landing pose. Quite the performance. The other drama queen in the Carter lineage, Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter, drops by for the closing verse on the bombastic "Mr. Carter", phoning in a bit of goosebumps-inducing, perfectly Source-approved hip-hop history. The former "Best Rapper Alive" calls it "mic time with my heir", and encourages the new best rapper to "go farther, go further, go harder".
But if going further as the best rapper alive means achieving the hip-hop ideal for tightly-composed triple entendre-rich wordplay, then Lil Wayne is too partial to theatrics to fulfill that role. Part of this has to do with his roots: Southern rappers, especially New Orleanian rappers, have been toying with their voice boxes, often at the cost of intricate lyricism, since the days of Pastor Troy and Mystikal. Nobody in rap mangles his own voice more than Lil Wayne, whose raging, raspy performances make the late Old Dirty Bastard sound like NPR's Garrison Keillor. With a penchant for trauma, Wayne handles his larynx the way Jimi Hendrix handled his Fender pick-ups, or the way Marlon Brando handled Stanley Kowalski's lines in A Street Car Named Desire ("Stellaaa!"). On rock-flavored "Playing With Fire", Lil Wayne screams through layers of tears and artifice: "Assassinate me, bitch! / Cause I'm doin' the same shit that Martin Luther King did / Checkin' in the same hotel, in the same suite, bitch! / Same balcony like assassinate me, bitch!" This cannot possibly be what Jay-Z had in mind.
It gets sillier. Wayne spends the last minute of "Let the Beat Build" repeating things like "the beat goes boom, ba-boom, boom" to the point where the words lose whatever meaning they were born with. It's fair to say Wayne isn't even rapping at this point, just ripping apart the English language to prove some juvenile point. Or take his ambivalent wordplay on "Lollipop", an uninspired bit of kinky autotune pop: Wayne was clearly more interested in test driving his autotune plug-ins than composing more (yawn...) wordplay. Again, on "Phone Home", he drags out the theremin, the E.T. space-FX, and yes, the indifferent wordplay. These are moments to consider. What does it mean when the most important artist in Hip-hop is often more interested in autotune and other studio gimmickry than his lyric page?
A year ago, as part of my commencement from Music Business school, I addressed a panel of marketing and A&R bigwigs from the World of Hip-Hop, and proceeded to lecture them about how they should mash down piracy by counter-intuitively increasing the number of records they release each year. As a prime example, I cited the Nigerian filmmakers who face the same digital piracy problems as the music biz, but survive by hastily unloading more sequels and sequels to sequels than any DVD chop shop could possibly keep pace with. (Think of the difference between Spider Man III and latest episode of Lost: Which is easier to find on Limewire? Yet which was cheaper to make?)
Anyway, for whatever reason -- maybe because I was a 22-year-old undergrad telling stodgy industry insiders how to roll -- that half-cooked, callow point didn’t exactly rock nobody's cranium. The unimpressed panelists raised familiar concerns like over-saturating the market, or diluting an artist’s brand -- the usual red flags that Lil Wayne was at that very moment sailing past with abandon. But whatever I was trying to say that day, I think Lil Wayne has made my case more forcefully with this record that values irreverent timeliness over reverent timelessness; an album that will almost certainly have a lasting legacy, despite what some might see as its glaring design flaws. As a mind and vocabulary expanding trip through the loosely wired neural synapses of a strident and easily distracted young man who has yet to learn the value of money or the dangers of hydrocodone, it’s great. Better than great. But I might never ever listen to it again.