By Eóin Donnelly
Watching the rapidly unfolding decline of Lil Wayne has been as inevitable as it is tragic. Given the legendary rapper’s unparalleled rate of output, particularly during the 2000’s when the self-proclaimed Best Rapper Alive unleashed an endless stream of influential albums, mixtapes and collaborations that revolutionised the genre, a creative slump was always to be expected. Lil Wayne wrote his first rap when he was eight years old- and has spontaneously freestyled every word since 2003- but the intervening period between the third and most-beloved edition of the fabled Carter series and its latest seemed only to confirm that famous The Breakfast Club quote: when you grow up, your heart dies. A shell of his former self, Wayne’s once dazzling imagination, propensity for hilarious wordplay and inimitable stylistic versatility have only appeared in sporadic bursts over the past decade, with any expectation of Tha Carter V’s quality rooted in little but baseless hope. The nadir was the I Am Not A Human Being duology, a one-note collection of nonsensical rhymes, cringeworthy puns and miscellaneous filth that only lended legitimacy to its title. A fully-functioning human couldn’t have came up with such a mess. The godfather of punchline rap had lost his wit and was becoming the butt of the joke. For every impressive verse that Wayne delivered in the years since there were ten others where he sounded intoxicated and out of ideas, slumped over next to a creative brick wall. His Young Money signees; Drake and Nicki Minaj, meanwhile, transitioned to adjacent spots on the hip-hop top table as their boss disappeared from the limelight. The world had Future now, Kendrick Lamar; they had Chance The Rapper, Travis Scott and Childish Gambino too, all of whom and more were direct descendants of the waves Wayne himself created. It is difficult to think of another rapper whose image, personality and stylistic approach has had such a seismic and long-lasting ripple effect on hip-hop, but what the hell happened to Lil Wayne?
It is the exacerbating personal circumstances that have made the long-delayed Tha Carter V such an arduous wait, to the point that it seemed we would never hear the album at all. “I want off this label and nothing to do with these people but unfortunately it ain’t that easy,” Wayne tweeted in December 2014 in reference to Cash Money Records’ refusal to release Tha Carter V. “I am a prisoner and so is my creativity”, he continued. Battles with drug addiction, multiple life-threatening epileptic seizures and an alleged attack on his life by Cash Money head and surrogate father turned pantomime villain Birdman amid a string of bitter contractual disputes seemed to resign Lil Wayne to an ugly end. “I AM NOW DEFENSELESS AND mentally DEFEATED & I leave gracefully and thankful I luh my fanz but I’m dun”, he tweeted in 2016, and just like that one of hip-hop’s biggest personalities seemed to be bowing out without as much as a chance to play his final part. Fast-forward to 2018, and with the Cash Money impasse finally resolved the stage was set: Lil Wayne was finally free to release Tha Carter V.
Like many others I’m sure, I pressed play on this marathon 23-track album with a great deal of trepidation, expecting to hear a handful of decent tracks at best and the final nail in the coffin of a storied career at worst. The music that surprises you is the music that resonates most. Tha Carter V is not only a worthy edition to the series, but is a surefire Album of the Year candidate that exhibits the most emotive content of Wayne’s career. For a record borne of such tragedy, it also happens to contain some of the most straight-up fun, cathartic and technically impressive rap music of the decade. From the emotional intro alone Tha Carter V was clearly intended to represent a fresh direction for Wayne. A tearful monologue from his mother- who also looms over an infant Wayne on the cover- commences the album, segueing smartly into the de facto opener ‘Don’t Cry’ with a posthumous hook from the highly controversial XXXTENTACION. Effectively setting the tone for the album, ‘Don’t Cry’ finds a matured Wayne reflecting on his fall from grace and the road to redemption ahead over a haunting, woozy beat: “What do I do now? Who gon find me, how?/Nowhere to turn but round and round/Just another n***a that done lost his head/No, a fucking king that done lost his crown.” The album dabbles in vulnerability most memorably on the existential ‘Open Letter’, a hookless memoir of dark thoughts over eerie violins and brooding synths where Wayne lays himself more bare than ever, ruminating on everything from contemplating suicide, drug abuse, his inability to find love and his flailing physical health: “I’ll die tryin’, that’s a common death/We was such a team, we was chasing our dreams/Then it stopped, now I’m out of breath/Now they try to tell me I need rest/And I’ll find love again, I ain’t find it yet.”
To continue on this train of thought would be false advertising. Tha Carter V is, for the most part, an exhilarating album with a variance of skilfully produced tracks that will have you popping your shoulders and laughing along to Wayne’s rejuvenated way of bending words to his will. A lifetime of fame has altered Wayne’s psyche, though not to the extent you’d expect of someone who’s experienced as much hardship as Wayne: “In the spotlight too long, should be darker than this.” Throughout V’s 87-minute runtime, Wayne seems devoted to reasserting his lyrical wit, penchant for engaging flows and his ability to bend his voice into multiple cadences in one rhyme scheme. On ‘Demon’, Wayne raps with such infectious joy that it’s impossible not to root for him- it is the sound of a down-and-out GOAT candidate rediscovering the source of his powers. Clearly very self-aware of his impact on hip-hop culture, ‘Dedicate’ is a standout cut that has Wayne talking down to the contemporaries he influenced over a whimsical, bouncy piano riff: “I started this shit, you’re just part of this shit/I’m the heart of this shit, and the heart doesn’t skip/Take the heart of your bitch cause like Bart, you a simp/And your water don’t drip, so your garden ain’t shit.” If anything, ‘Dedicate’ could be derided for not going far enough- face tattoos and Bugattis hardly turn a page on the book of Lil Wayne’s legacy and cultural impact.
Hip-hop adopted the bizarro musical language Weezy invented and morphed it into something altogether new, and with Wayne’s final claim to greatness forbidden from the world’s ears for so long, it surely took its toll that the world seemed to have moved on. “What the fuck though, where the love go?” goes the refrain on ‘Uproar’, a bombastic banger destined to frequent NBA locker rooms all season long and certain to be pushed as the lead single owing to its viral dance challenge. It is undeniably one of the highlights, a victory lap full of warped aphorisms and kinetic energy that is the closest approximation of vintage Wayne. The album, however, is not without its missteps. ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’, with Nicki Minaj trying her best to come across as mystical, is a mediocre attempt at a post-apocalyptic love song; and despite some clever lyricism from Wayne on the former, ‘Can’t Be Broken’ and daddy-daughter duet ‘Famous’ lean a little too close to the worst tendencies of Recovery-era Eminem to pack a real emotional punch. ‘Problems’ too is totally inessential and could easily have been shaved from the final tracklist, while the decision to include a tone-deaf Sosamann verse instead of Drake on the lovelorn, addictive RnB of ‘What About Me’ is baffling enough to make you wonder what dirt Sosamann has on Wayne. As a whole, the album would greatly benefit from more deliberate sequencing that tightened up its loose conceptual arc, particularly during the fairly inconsequential third quarter.
Nevertheless, the true majesty of C5 is that even on the worst tracks, Wayne’s larger-than-life personality always shines through just enough to keep from pressing the skip button, with the lofty peaks more than worth the few stuttering lows. Whether the cause be newfound maturity or Wayne taking heed of constructive criticism from fans and peers alike, there is also a paucity of the unsavoury glorification of drug abuse and juvenile dick jokes that have marred Wayne’s work over the last decade. Unveiling the man behind the martian- not that he hasn’t been introspective before– C5 presents a more exposed side of Wayne that fans have been clamouring to see for years. It is not just Wayne that is older now but his core fanbase also; like Jay-Z’s contrite portrait of infidelity on 4:44 and Kanye West’s latest solo album Ye revealing his struggles with bipolar disorder, Tha Carter V finds Weezy transitioning to the changing of the guard and delivering content more befitting his age.
Tha Carter V, however, proves the younger Wayne has a much broader comfort zone. Musically, C5 is a thrilling exercise in watching Weezy throw ideas at the wall to see what sticks. It all amounts to his most versatile project since Tha Carter III. In an approach similar to Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN, Wayne dips his toes in as many rap textures as possible both old and new. There’s Dr. Dre-sampling West Coast hip-hop (‘Dope N****z’), trap (‘Let It Fly’), soul (‘Demon’), 2000’s-era RnB (‘Start This Shit Off Right’), is gospel rap (‘Dope New Gospel’), hardcore hip-hop (‘Used 2’), melodic hip-hop (‘Took His Time’), guitar (‘Mess’) and piano ballads (‘Let It All Work Out’) to name just a few. While the punchlines don’t come as thick and fast as they used to, the result is to remind us just how many styles he birthed as well as proving he can still shuck and jive with the new kids on the block. This is no more apparent than on the Lamar-featuring ‘Mona Lisa’ that has the two spinning a tale of a treacherous femme fatale who Wayne colludes with to rob other rappers. It calls to mind The Notorious B.I.G.’s ‘I Got A Story To Tell’, and Wayne’s enjoyably feverish and unrestrained performance indicates the master can still hold his own with his students. “Money over bitches and above hoes/That is still my favourite love quote”, went a couplet on ‘Uproar’, and ‘Mona Lisa’ goes some way to elucidating Wayne’s lone wolf philosophy on romance: “She feed him lies with his silverware/She don’t want love, she just want her share.” Given the betrayal the New Orleans rapper has endured in his long career, as chauvinistic as it can be his cynical perspective is worth considering. Recorded in 2014, ‘Mona Lisa’ is not the only track that sounds slightly dated and the moral of the story is uncomfortably out-of-touch with today’s cultural zeitgeist. But since when was Wayne’s world about fitting in? Besides, looking to Wayne for lessons on gender politics is like treating Kanye seriously as a beacon of political knowledge. ‘Mona Lisa’ would be too over-the-top to take serious were it not for the fact that Wayne and Lamar both seem to be in on the joke. “I treat her halo like a frisbee” goes one hilariously-delivered Weezy line, and Lamar’s frantic verse- although a little overly animated- is not without comic relief either, with one moment involving Lil Wayne’s ‘Lollipop’ among the most hysterical on the whole album.
The apex of the entire listening experience, however, comes right at the end. ‘Let It All Work Out’ is an instant entry in the Hall of Fame of album closers, recounting the story when a 12-year-old Wayne shot himself in the chest, missing his heart by inches. ‘Let It All Work Out’ is an uplifting closer with a simple and comforting message that toasts a second chance at life. Lil Wayne comes from a different era of hip-hop where macho posturing and stigma around mental illness made such a confession unviable. After almost a quarter of a century maintaining his self-inflicted gunshot wound was accidental, ‘Let It All Work Out’ finally reveals the disturbing truth that a pre-pubescent Wayne tried to end it all. Deciding to take his life after being forbidden from rapping by his mother might sound a little drastic, but taking stock of where Wayne has came from- his father abandoned him as a baby and his stepfather was murdered before he became famous- it’s frightening to consider where he would’ve ended up without it.
In that sense, Wayne’s mother is an apt guardian angel to build the album’s loose narrative around. Lil Wayne may not look, act or think like your stereotypical role model, but as a testament to overcoming hardship and achieving your potential there is nary a more empowering ambassador. Tiger Woods will have to settle for the silver medal in 2018’s Comeback Olympics. In an action-packed year filled with monumental releases from artists new and old, hearing Weezy step to the mic is still as singular, entertaining and, for the first time, as heart-wrenching an experience as you can find in hip-hop, with Tha Carter V’s phenomenal early streaming numbers emblematic of Wayne’s continuing cultural resonance despite his long absence from the limelight. Welcome back Weezy, we missed you. Tha Carter V was worth the wait.