Lil Wayne’s last proper solo album, Tha Carter IV, was released back in 2011. A little over seven years after that, Lil Wayne is finally (hopefully?!) prepared to debut its long-awaited follow-up, Tha Carter V. The new album, out this Friday, comes with a heavy burden of constant delays, nightmarish legal battles, and just the effect time and exhaustion might do to an artist who was, at one point, unimpeachable. What should’ve been just another addition to Wayne’s Carter series instead became the symbol of a messy public breakdown between the rapper, his longtime table Cash Money, and its ruthless honcho Bryan “Birdman” Williams, which culminated in a divorce between two men who had considered each other “father and son.” Despite all of these headaches—let’s not also forget that he nearly died during this time span—Wayne has persevered, recently gaining control of his Young Money imprint. The minor miracle of it finally coming out might win out over the all the attendant baggage.
In the meantime, Wayne never left the studio, recording plenty of mixtapes, loosies, and collaborations. In celebration of Tha Carter V being freed, and because it will incidentally be released on Wayne’s birthday, here are 10 of the best records Lil Wayne has dropped during the seven-year wait, presented in chronological order.
Curren$y – “Smoke Sumthin” (ft. Lil Wayne) (2011)
Lil Wayne has rapped on hundreds of other people’s beats in his lifetime, but rarely has he sounded as comfortable as he does over Outkast’s “Elevators (Me & You).” No doubt using the song’s stoned airiness as a guide, Wayne’s words seem to linger over the production, coming out with no urgency whatsoever but still landing in the exact right spots anyway. “Let me go and light me one up for all my trouble / I’m chilling with this bitch who think we make the perfect couple, but she tripping / I’m sipping on some bubbly with no bubbles,” he raps, hitting familiar themes in a perfectly new way. “It’s me, that’s who / I put this shit together like puzzles.” — JORDAN SARGENT
Lil Wayne – “Rich as Fuck” (ft. 2 Chainz) (2013)
Wayne’s mixtape I Am Not A Human Being II is better than you probably remember, containing a fair number of inspired records. One of those was the 2 Chainz-assisted “Rich as Fuck,” the T-Minus-produced jam that is hypnotic from the moment its beat hits. Unlike some of his latter day hits (i.e. “Love Me”), there’s no doubt that Wayne is the true star of this record. He sounds invigorated on the track, full of jokes (“got a white girl with big titties, flat-ass, TV screen”), pop culture references (“all rats gotta die, even Master Splinter”), and biting one-liners (“never talk to the cops, I don’t speak Pig Latin”). The confusing thing about this record is why there was no 2 Chainz verse included, but it’s probably for the best. Wayne was once again a shooting star on “Rich as Fuck,” a potent reminder of how bright he can glow. — ISRAEL DARAMOLA
Lil Wayne – “Trigger Finger” (ft. Soulja Boy) (2013)
The juxtaposition between Lil Wayne and Soulja Boy’s contributions to this cut also off I Am Not A Human Being II is so odd and disappointing that it threatens to derail the entire thing. But Wayne is just too good, blacking out over nightmarish Assassin’s Creed-sampling production from Juicy J and Crazy Mike. “Trigger Finger” is pure rap push-ups, an astute rhymer showing off his ability to rattle off potent, biting lines with a maniacal control and acuity, the best example of the staid argument that rap music is better when MCs are really just rapping their asses off. Wayne had long ago declared himself the best rapper alive and dedicated himself to burying anyone who might challenge such a bold proclamation—he could be inventive, introspective, weird, and melodic, but most of all he could really fucking rap. By 2013, it seemed like it was time for Wayne to pass the torch, but “Trigger Finger” showed he wasn’t quite done with the crown yet. — ID
Lil Wayne – “D’usse” (2014)
Here’s how long Lil Wayne fans have been waiting for Tha Carter V: When he released “D’Usse” in 2014, he presented it as an advance single for the album, and it wasn’t even the first of the bunch. Coming in the middle of a slew of mostly mediocre releases, the song was enough to make you wonder whether the legendary rapper was hitting another stride. There’s no chorus to speak of, just a triumphant beat and Weezy’s delirious free association for dozens of bars at a time. Almost every line contains a borderline-ridiculous bit of new imagery or wordplay, conjured and then tossed out immediately as if it’s nothing to him. He’s a “big dog,” in a “big doghouse,” making “ashtrays out of dog bowls.” You’re picturing him broke, “but forgot to take the top off the lens.” Even when he’s offering an otherwise banal complaint about a gold-digging girlfriend, he finds a novel way to describe her: she has “bad days when the mall’s closed.” And what more can be said about “She say ‘Tune, do me slow,’ / How many fish did hootie blow”? “Dusse”’s gratuitous invention, unbounded by song structure, felt like a conspicuous return to the style of Wayne’s mythical mixtape run. And if he didn’t quite match that era’s virtuosic heights, it was a thrill just to hear him trying again. — ANDY CUSH
Solange – “Mad” (ft. Lil Wayne) (2016)
Solange’s A Seat at the Table was an undeniable star turn from an artist who had mostly remained a cult fixation while living and creating in the shadow of her insanely famous sister. Still, perhaps the album’s most bracing moment came from Wayne, at home here among New Orleans compatriots in the Knowles family and Master P. Taking Solange’s lead, Wayne connects feelings of anger and depression, loneliness and perseverance, painting a self-portrait of an artist who, contrary to what pop stars sell us, is left empty by the love of his fans. Nonetheless, the verse’s best moment is a triumphant one that packs a whole thesis’ worth of social commentary into just a few bars: “I walk up in the bank, pants sagging down / And I laugh at frowns, what they mad about? / Cause here comes this motherfucker with this mass account / Who didn’t wear a cap and gown.” — JS
Jeremih & Partynextdoor – “Like Dat” (ft. Lil Wayne) (2016)
A theoretically promising partnership between Jeremih and Partynextdoor imploded after one forgotten song and one very memorably messy tour. But that song, “Like Dat,” sports a secretly maniacal verse from Wayne, who seems to feel out the beat for a full 30 seconds before completely commandeering it: “Hundred goons on the way, 100 shots in your face, what you gon’ say? / Need the code to the safe / Leave a note for bae, she cry every day.” The song veers towards the end, though, as Wayne drops the violent daydreams to address himself and the circumstances of his label situation directly: “Everything’s looking alright / Yeah, I just talked to my lawyer, it’s time to enjoy it / Tune, it’s time to enjoy it / Had to tell myself on the track cause sometimes I ignore it.” — JS
Chance the Rapper – “No Problem” (ft. Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz) (2016)
One of the best things about Lil Wayne is how insanely competitive he is when pitted against other rappers. It’s what makes his guest appearances so special, and probably why he’s almost always saved for last when there are multiple guest verses involved. On Chance the Rapper’s “No Problem,” a song overflowing with energy and exuberance, Wayne instead takes his time, mumbling but still fully articulate, coming off as not quite the adult in the room as much as the cool kid that you stop everything to listen to. Lines like “in the streets, my face a coupon” and “C=codeine got me moving slower than a caterpillar race” are perfect Wayne one-liners years after the consensus agreed that he was a shell of his former self. On “No Problem,” Wayne sounds as good as ever, and Chance and 2 Chainz never stood a chance. — ID
Lil Wayne & T-Pain – “Heavy Chevy” (2017)
Here’s the thing: Last year, when T-Pain abruptly released his almost decade-old, scrapped collaboration project with Wayne, it was met with a lot of excitement that ultimately sort of fizzled as it became clear that much of the record had already been leaked online over the years. There was also the fact that the tape sounded very much of the period in which it was recorded, which was sometime between 2008-2010. The brightest spot was “Heavy Chevy,” which glimmers with the two artists’ chemistry and showcases in particular Wayne’s lyrical dexterity and melodious warbling. Here, Wayne goes from straight-forward barbs to spacey, unbound croaking, an imaginative and helpful unintentional reminder of how much he influenced the current rap landscape. — ID
Swizz Beatz & Lil Wayne – “Pistol on My Side” (2018)
“Pistol on My Side” is an unexpectedly impeachable recent salvo from Wayne, one of the final smoke signals suggesting that Tha Carter V might actually be the best thing Wayne has released in years. Swizz Beatz’s production here, with piano from Alicia Keys and contributions from AraabMuzik, is instantly commanding with punishing, thunderous drum production that feels like a time capsule from Wayne’s late-’00s heyday. It is resonant precisely because it feels out of line with current trends, and because Wayne knows to do with it (no more tepid trap freestyles, please!).
Here, Wayne sounds adenoidal and invigorated. He never drops a downbeat, building up a sort of demented momentum as the track clatters on. Questionable Wayne-isms (“Tunechi in this bitch, eyes looking like konnichiwa”) are springboards to Wayne-isms of the desired vintage (“Pistol on my side, now he lying like the media / Clips longer than encyclopedias, you’re reading ‘em”). Even when he flirts with self-parody in the negative sense here (even though a bit of it is always welcome), he still somehow always manages to sell the couplet. It’s that recklessness—that perpetual feeling of being on the verge of truly bombing, or losing the plot—that makes Lil Wayne’s best music among the most exciting hip-hop ever made. — WINSTON COOK-WILSON