Some great artists burst in and burn out. Rappers, especially, struggle to sustain relevance, let alone greatness. What happened this year with Watch the Throne, the conversation-corralling collaboration between Kanye West, 34, and Jay-Z, 41, isn’t just an anomaly — it’s a frog storm. Lil Wayne is not yet 29 and has been recording professionally almost exactly as long as West. But he is now, officially, on the other side of greatness.The run that began in 2004 with the start of his Tha Carter album series, surged in 2006 and 2007, and wrapped sometime near the end of 2009 (before he served an eight-month prison sentence), was among the most prolific, fascinating, and rewarding in rap history. With his literal torrent of mixtapes (particularly Dedication 2 and Da Drought 3), countless crushed cameos, and an unceasing desire to just rap all the time, Dwayne Carter became an avatar for a restless youth culture always sharing and talking and texting and liking its every notion. He was also an astonishingly dexterous artist, evolving in that time from Cash Money junior barker to zonked-out psychedelicist to credible loverman and back again. By iTunes’ count, I’ve got 829 Lil Wayne songs on my MacBook. 3.8 GBs. 1.9 days of music. For years, Lil Wayne rapped. And rapped. (And sung a little.) And rapped.
Eighteen more songs officially land this week with the deluxe edition of Tha Carter IV, his ninth solo album and the first that “counts” since 2008’s Tha Carter III. Not a bad record, really. But it’s no panoply. Like all of Lil Wayne’s albums, it’s a mess; unlike some of its predecessors, it’s not a terribly ambitious mess, nor is it much fun, which for Wayne is a sin.
On paper, it won’t look that way. IV features many of the same elements and signifiers as III, another sloppy effort bolstered by a few drop-the-baby stunners. T-Pain and Busta Rhymes — along with the producers Bangladesh, Cool & Dre, and Streetrunner — return to the fray. There is a hard-rapping, invigorating lead single (“6 Foot 7 Foot”), a downy acoustic pop-rap trifle (“How to Love”), and more than a few triumphal statements of purpose. There are concept songs and introspective moments. What’s gone is desperation.
Lil Wayne is now somewhat famously sober, where he was once infamously and perpetually high. He no longer sips syrup. And despite evidence to the contrary, alcohol and weed are forbidden — his probation restricts a once-whirring lifestyle. The hellion’s been neutered. No one is asking for addiction to wring his neck again. He’s healthy. But you can hear the health in his voice. During that glorious run, the grain and the whine, the growl and the burp, the chuckle and the snap reflected a beyond-years raggedness. Up for days, high on lean, rapping all the time, watching SportsCenter on repeat, eating little more than candy, Wayne was an oversized child with a voice like a homeless dragon, fresh out of fire. Weezy wheezed.
Pair that with his tendency to experiment with cadences and form, and he was legitimately unpredictable. Songs good, bad, great, and baffling were always happening. Not interested in the charred patois of “Mo Fire”? Try the dramatic flourishes of “Georgia…Bush.” No love for the pop pursuits of “Lollipop”? Here comes “Pussy Monster.” The sweetly sung “Prostitute Flange” too delicate a sentiment? Consider the dope-boy purism of”1st Key.” You can play this game forever. Wayne was in the cloud before any of us.
Since going clean, that whine is nearly a whinny, and his voice has leaped up an octave — he yawps a lot now. And when he doesn’t, as on the methodical “Nightmares of the Bottom,” he sounds a bit like a child affecting daddy’s voice while calling in sick from school. Some will point to the clunking nature of various Carter IV rhymes as proof that his powers have faded, and lazy hashtag raps and puny puns abound, sure. “Have it your way — Burger King.” “Light that Ashton Kutcher.” “I tried to pay attention but attention paid me / Haters can’t see me, nose-bleed seats.” But he’s never been a rigorous editor — a groaner or two always got through. Wayne still stomps and swoons, talking sweet nothings at invisible women and barking about money or mistreatment or lame competition or all three (“I’m beneficial / I been official / I say you rappers sweet / Tiramisu”). There is no thematic differentiation from Tha Carter III to IV.
But is it possible for an artist to simply run out of art? Though even the footnotes of his life would be rich source material, Wayne’s personal experience has not been a foundational text. He rarely divulges specific moments, despite thousands of millions of rapped words. He talks around life, creating impressions and reflecting desires, but usually keeping the gritty details unexplained. On an album that feels familiar but also distant, this is dangerous.
There is an act of diplomacy (or is it exhaustion?) to Wayne’s handling of the album’s best recurring musical moment: Willy Will’s ascending and collapsing brass construction, which provides a fungible foundation for “Intro,” “Interlude,” and “Outro.” Taken together, these tracks comprise the head, heart, and toes of Tha Carter IV, creating a space for rappers of disparate styles to work out. The roll call includes: an authoritative Bun B, an unusually engaged Nas, an uncredited and typically dazzling Andre 3000, plus the album’s most fortunate guest, gifted Kansas City indie-rap vet Tech N9ne, who will pick up a fan or 5,000 with his tenacious verse.
All of these men succeed where Wayne fails. Of the three tracks, he only raps on “Intro,” alone, and makes arguably the least compelling contribution. (That will depend on how you feel about Shyne’s verse, a harrumphing, aching, and wholly raw stab at menace.) Taken together, the triptych is antiseptic. Accomplished, but hollow. Why does Wayne extricate himself from two of the album’s most crucial moments? It can’t be fear. If it’s magnanimity, it’s misplaced.
Wayne’s taste is still impeccable — those guests and others shine, like Rick Ross, Jadakiss, and, most crucially, Drake, who shows up twice, on the turgid “She Will” and the tense, magnificent “It’s Good.” On the latter, his verse, an angry and emphatic recounting of Wayne’s trial and incarceration, acts as an introduction to what should be a crowning moment. But the Young Money-affiliated quasi-mentee, so often a puddle of emotion and sonic texture, sounds furious and offended by the circumstances. Is it a torch pass? Not quite. They’re different artists with different goals. But Drake’s focus is instructive.
Wayne, instead, confronts Jay-Z, as subtle and punishing a subliminal artist as rap has ever known. Wayne’s snipe is a response to Jay’s maybe-he-did-maybe-he-didn’t couplet from “H.A.M.,” mocking the “baby money” of Bryan “Baby” Williams, Cash Money’s CEO and Wayne’s de facto paterfamilias. Wayne raps, “Talkin ’bout baby money? / I got your baby money / Kidnap your bitch, get that ‘How much you love your lady?’ money / I know you fake, nigga, press your brakes, nigga.”
Threatening to kidnap Beyoncé — an impossible and silly proposition — reveals gullibility. In this era of ignored beef and ignoble instigation, this is an impetuous and sad cry for attention. Jay will not respond, not directly, and Wayne knows this. Still, he’s put piety to his boss and father figure above cool. It’s a rare moment of audacity, but the reward is minimal. There’s something to be said for staying above the fray.
Wayne was a great king, a transcendent artist, and a totem. He’s allowed to not be The Guy anymore. Think of him like The Simpsons, a once essential and enduring cultural institution operating past its expiration date (sometimes a gag sticks; mostly you skip it, unless there’s a good guest). We won’t hold Tha Carter IV against Lil Wayne. He remains a compelling artist and a standard-bearer for a generation of endlessly productive rappers. But nothing lasts forever. Weezy is dead. Long live Weezy.