After five years in label purgatory, ‘Tha Carter V’ finally arrived when the clock struck midnight on Lil Wayne’s 36th birthday. Pressing play the following morning evoked a cocktail of excitement and anxiety. At his peak Wayne was the best rapper alive - and he loved to remind us of that, devouring beats across a legendary mixtape run that spawned 2003 to 2009 - and his flagship ‘Tha Carter’ LP series spawned a trio of classics with its first three volumes.
However, all peaks eventually trough, and further albums and mixtapes began to feel like he was losing interest: we’d see him light up when talking about sports or diligently improving as a skater, but rapping began to feel like it was a chore. The effortlessness that made Mixtape Weezy such a joy to listen to, became increasingly scarce. And in this era, where so many artists obliviously owe their careers to Wayne, it would have been heartbreaking to hear him embarrass himself.
Luckily ‘Tha Carter V’ quickly proves to be a pleasant surprise. In just four tracks we’ve shared a candid moment with his mother (‘I Love You Dwayne’), witnessed a eulogy to murdered rapper XXXtentacion (‘Don’t Cry’), and been reminded of Wayne’s influence on the current generation of face-tatted, gang-affiliated lil rappers (‘Dedicate’), before bopping to his Swizz Beatz-produced reworking of G. Dep’s ‘Special Delivery’ which looks set to become the new Shiggy-approved dance challenge (‘Uproar’).
While this still isn’t the best that ‘Tha Carter V’ has to offer - most of its finest moments, ‘Mess’, ‘Dope New Gospel’, ‘Perfect Strangers’, land in the second half - it’s immediately clear that Wayne cares about rapping again, and he’s back to making it sound easy.
With a career that exceeds 20 years, Wayne is one of contemporary rap’s elder statesmen. We tend to think of him up there with iconic rap superstars like Jay-Z and Eminem, yet it’s important to note that despite that perception he’s still closer in age to the likes of Drake and Kendrick Lamar. Wayne is in the unique position of being both an influence and a competitor for this generation.
In places here he’s beautifully wistful, but he’s still over a decade away from making his ‘4:44’. And he understands the current generation too much to make a ‘Revival’ or ‘Kamikaze’, although he does borrow the same stadium rap formula as the former on songs like ‘Famous’, and like the latter there are a hell of a lot of bars here - they’re just a lot more fun to listen to.
Drake doesn’t appear on ‘Tha Carter V’ reportedly due to “clearance issues”, but his influence can be heard on tracks like ‘What About Me’ and the Sampha-sampling conclusion ‘Let It All Work Out’. In some ways this is Wayne’s ‘More Life’, trying to pull together the various strands of his career into a mammoth playlist to satisfy the tastes of a broad listenership. Kendrick Lamar - who released his own version of ‘Tha Carter III’, in tribute to Wayne, before he blew up - finally makes an official appearance in the series with ‘Mona Lisa’. The Infamous and Angel Aponte-produced track sees Wayne and a ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ era Kendrick showing off their storytelling skills, with an interwoven narrative that offers alternate perspectives on a tale of betrayal.
Ultimately Wayne has acquired legions of fans over the years for how diverse his discography is. He’s been brave enough to experiment - and not always to positive response - at the height of his career. Therefore when starved of his music for such a long time, different factions of his listeners are anticipating different things. Whichever Wayne you were waiting for, he's likely to be present on ‘Tha Carter V’, but you’ll hear all of the other iterations too: one fan might not care for the Nicki Minaj-assisted ‘Dark Side of the Moon’, while another might rejoice to hear the apocalyptic reunion.
Despite his history going into this album Wayne felt like an underdog again: to live up to the varying expectations that were weighted behind this album he had to to pull off an acrobatic feat. ‘Tha Carter V’ was never going to be flawlessly executed - the odds were too stacked against it - but it certainly gives the audience the thrill we were hoping for. It’s a return to form, and a triumphant return for one of the greatest of all time.
Words: Grant Brydon
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