When Tha Carter III dropped it seemed like Lil Wayne could continue the series forever and it would warrant our attention for just as long. Who would have known we would be stuck at Tha Carter V, with a legal feud between he and his “Pa,” Birdman, as the reason it may never be released?
Birdman swears the fifth installment of Wayne’s best work will be released this year, the beef is well done now, and as of this week they’ve settled up in the courtroom too. But it’s hard to believe that one of the most public, vitriolic “family” disputes in recent memory could really be resolved after more than three years of quasi-reunions and shots both lyrical and literal. Even harder to surmise is that Tha Carter V will amount to anything more than the last gasps of Lil Wayne’s creative peak. It couldn’t be any further than what Tha Carter III was poised to do for Wayne when it was released 10 years ago this Sunday.
Weezy wasn’t only at the top of his game, he was at the top of the rap game. He was no longer the kid that signed to Cash Money at nine playing second fiddle to Lil’ Doogie (later known as B.G.) in the B.G.’z or the teenager with hypeman phrases and hooks in the Hot Boys. He was on his grownsome. He one-upped Juvenile’s 400 Degreez with 500 Degreez to show he was the best on his label in 2002. Tha Carter I and Tha Carter II proved he was tops in the South by 2005. The run of stellar mixtapes like Dedication 2 and Da Drought 3 from 2005-2008 made one hell of case that he was the Best Rapper Alive — a title he frequently claimed for himself — and served as a perpetual buzz-building album rollout for Tha Carter III.
The path Lil Wayne took had diverged from the typical ascendant mainstream rapper and brought him full circle. Most rappers with superstar ambitions start local and go global, ultimately taking less pride in their work as their lyrics lose their uniqueness and quality along the way. Wayne did exactly the opposite. He started out young on the grandest stage, spouting silly earworms like “wobbledy, wobbledy, drop, drop it like it’s hot” and coining phrases like “bling bling,” muffled among many voices. Who Wayne was as a solo artist was unclear and untapped, but he would slowly prove he could construct comprehensive yet marketable albums on his own up through Tha Carter II. Then the lyrical prowess developed rapidly through that unprecedented and unduplicated run of mixtapes. It was delightful to witness him grow into an unorthodox but talented lyricist that could employ a multitude of flows while cleverly stringing together seemingly arbitrary topics in free-associative wordplay on Da Drought 3. The anticipation of a project where both mixtape Weezy and album Weezy coexisted was damn near unbearable, and Wayne delivered.
Tha Carter III is packed with radio singles that drove its sales to a triple-platinum certification: the huge club grind catalyst “Lollipop,” the bouncy, T-Pain-assisted “Got Money,” the R&B-leaners with Babyface (“Comfortable”), Robin Thicke (“Tie My Hands”) and Bobby Valentino (“Mrs. Officer”), and even the unlikely Jay-Z collab “Mr. Carter.” Having that many singles perform that well on one album would already be a triumph. Then there are the tracks that satisfy the hip-hop heads that leaned all the way into the mixtapes, like the hookless intro “3 Peat,” the Juelz Santana/Fabolous sparring session “You Ain’t Got Nuthin,” the Busta Rhymes-assisted “La La,” and the onslaught that is “A Milli” (which still manages to get the club cracking to this day). But what represents the marriage of commercial Wayne and MC Wayne are the tracks like “Dr. Carter,” “Phone Home,” and “Let The Beat Build” that are conceptually driven enough to be more than a mixtape track, and lyrically sound enough to distinguish them from obvious appeals to the lowest common denominator. This overlapping section in the Venn diagram of lyricism and commercialism is where the singularity and value of the album lies.
When you can talk gangster credentials and namecheck Adam Sandler, Viagra, Hitler, and Stuart Scott (R.I.P.) in the same verse, as Wayne does on the opener “3 Peat,” and have it not come off corny or forced, you’re in a special place lyrically. He also holds his own against a rejuvenated, post-Kingdom Come Jay-Z with three nice verses on “Mr Carter.” He still sneaks some clever wordplay in singles tailored for radio play like the line “I see her boyfriend hatin’ like a city cop” on “Got Money.” When it’s time for hooks and songcraft to go away he just goes in with a reckless abandon. The lyrics do go into the realm of corniness in more than a few spots, but experimentation and inventiveness don’t always work out perfectly.
The beats more than make up for Wayne’s rhymes that are just too far out there, serving as a compass for an album that could roam in any direction lyrically. There’s a stellar production lineup including soul-chop Kanye West, Swizz Beatz, David Banner, veteran the Alchemist, and the go-to banger maker of the day, Bangladesh, among others. They contributed fresh, unconventional beats in a variety of styles from boom-bap to Dirty South and trap leanings that could match the unpredictability of Wayne’s lyricism.
Everything came together to make an album that should probably be considered a classic, and at the very least, singular. It’s rare that an artist as popular as Wayne has the lyrical bona fides to keep his respect among hip-hop heads. So it makes sense that Kendrick Lamar had an early stint as a Lil Wayne stan and imitator. That balance of craft and popularity is something K-Dot has taken to levels Wayne could only imagine with his versatility and savvy integration of politics (let’s remember Wayne dismissed Black Lives Matter and said racism doesn’t exist), but his study and emulation of Wayne could have easily given him a foundation to build upon. That is precisely how this album should age — as an example of blending personal eccentricities, lyrical exploration, ingenious beats, and popular songcraft into an irresistible musical gumbo.
Wayne’s legacy has been tarnished due to projects like Rebirth and I Am Not A Human Being existing in the world, but those who know what he was capable of from 2005-2008 recognize that time as a remarkable roll in his career and in rap period. Off the strength of that run alone, Tha Carter V would still get many an obligatory listen at the slightest hint of a return to form. Given how far Wayne has fallen in the past decade, that dutiful loyalty alone should let you know how special he was in the mid-aughts. Tha Carter III is the perfect culmination and microcosm of that time.