During “Blunt Blowin’,” Lil Wayne asks us, “I’ve been gone too long — true or false? Right or wrong?”
Well, that depends. Sure, he had that stint in jail, and Tha Carter III came out three years ago. But have we really missed Mr. Carter since then? He certainly continued his prolific output since III, and when he got sentenced, he filmed all those green-screened cameos for other artists’ videos — and there were a lot of them. He also gave us the odd “rock” record Rebirth and the holdover set I Am Not a Human Being. So has Lil Wayne been gone too long? Not really.
But it has been a while since Wayne crafted a proper full-length record, so in that way, sure, he’s back on Tha Carter IV. But part of the draw of Lil Wayne is his scatterbrained output, his lack of quality control. And he knows it. He knows he’s got the power now, which lets him release oddball stuff like Rebirth, the kind of album that might kill a lesser career. He cranks out mixtapes in his sleep — hell, in some ways, he is the godfather of the current mixtape culture as we know it — and this is why we love Lil Wayne.
It equates to a kind of bizarro cult of personality. Wayne gets by a lot on his undeniable, if sometimes demonic, charisma (especially when he tries to sing). It’s been this way since Tha Carter II. That album, a watershed moment for him as a rapper that built on the promise of Tha Carter, was also a much cleaner affair than we expect from Wayne these days. It was after that that huge mixtapes like Dedication 2 and Da Drought 3 came out and showed Wayne in all his unpredictable glory. He did any and everything on those tapes, and set us up for the surprisingly weird set that was Tha Carter III. We felt prepared for it, had an idea of what tracks would show up, but in the end that album — especially since it sold so many damn copies — is unrelentingly strange. But that is what we see Lil Wayne as, the codeine-sipping, grizzled voice of a mad rap genius.
The build up to Tha Carter IV (this year’s most anticipated album, period) is similar to III. We’ve seen possible track lists, we know some of the songs already, and the more we learn at this point the more we’re ready to be surprised. In the end, though, Tha Carter IV ends up being a totally different experience in that, well, it’s exactly what we expected. It’s not nearly as strange or stuffed with ideas as its predecessor, nor is it the brilliant defying of expectations that album was either. It doesn’t make this a bad record, at all, but it does make us rethink how we might view Wayne going forward.
I don’t want to undersell the quality of Tha Carter IV, because it is pretty damn good. In places it is as exciting as Lil Wayne can be. “Megaman” is three minutes of straight fire-spitting, which may start with basic end-rhyme lines, but Wayne builds an inertia as he goes and the lines just pile up into a cackling screed, especially in the second verse, against anyone who isn’t Lil Wayne. It can be strange (“I’m a diamond in the rough, like a baby in the trash”) or nearly non-sensical (“Your cap get peeled (pilled) like ibuprofen”) but it’s the kind of quick-fire, free-associative stuff we love from Wayne. He promotes himself from “Mr.” on “President Carter,” and though he’s not as worked up as on “Megaman,” his flow is tight and that song has one of the more interesting beats, sampling audio from Jimmy Carter’s inauguration. “It’s Good” comes late in the record and Wayne unleashes another verse of pure bile over a dramatic, grimy beat.
As always, he fills his raps with cultural references and endless lists of similes that are hilarious and frequently brilliant. On “Intro,” he manages to reference both Helen Keller and Rudy Huxtable. These moments can surprise, but where IV breaks from III, and where things get slightly problematic, is that most of the highlights here are things we already know. “6 Foot, 7 Foot” is excellent, from the Harry Belafonte sample to Wayne’s killer verse to Corey Gunz surprisingly solid cameo. “She Will” is a bit subdued, but Drake on the hook infuses the song with a laid back cool. Wayne and Rick Ross on “John” are a perfect fit together, two larger than life personas clashing over a fittingly huge beat.
But we know all of these. They’ve all made the rounds on the radio — hell, “6 Foot, 7 Foot” came out late in 2010 — and though they still sound fresh, IV doesn’t pack a whole lot of surprises around them. In fact, much of the rest of the record is pretty muted. There’s the other single, the flat R&B of “How to Love” (not to mention its far-worse counterpart “How to Hate”), and the dark hush of “Nightmare from the Bottom.” And in other places, like “So Special,” Wayne sounds a bit worn out, falling back on a basic rap flow he so often breaks from when he gets worked up.
In these moments, Lil Wayne seems to be trying to find his footing. The easy and perhaps most compelling story would be that he’s adjusting to post-incarceration life. But it might have more to do with Lil Wayne the brand. Tha Carter III was a declaration, that Lil Wayne would take the top spot in the hip-hop world. Well, with apologies to Jay-Z and Kanye, he has. So Tha Carter IV isn’t the same uphill climb. It’s Wayne proclaiming to his subjects from a high-up throne. So some of this feels like there’s no challenge to it. He’s fought for that spot, and won it, and he’s ready to rule, but perhaps unsure of what that means. He gives two songs wholesale to other rappers (“Interlude” and the excellent “Outro”), as if he’s inviting players like Nas and Dre from Outkast onto his turf because his name on the song is presence enough. It’s also telling that Dre and Busta Rhymes both end their verses with plugs for the album itself. That, right there, is some power.
But any ideas about how heavy the head is that wears the crown don’t ring true. The bitching about haters here feels half-hearted, more obligatory than anything, and while he gives us a set of songs with plenty of the charisma that got him to the top, you’re left wondering where all the surprise went. It’s as if, with all that auto-tune and Rebirth, he’s surprised himself as much as he can right now, and Tha Carter IV is both a confirmation of the pinnacle of his talent and a big question: Now what?
Wayne’s a savvy self-promoter, that much is clear. It’s no surprise that the Jay-Z diss controversy from “It’s Good” emerged the week before the album drops. And you’ve got to give Wayne credit for his post-VMA performance release, since he has managed to (perhaps briefly) renew interest and excitement for a release date. This promotion spreads into the slow release of singles over the past year for songs that ended up on Tha Carter IV. But though the record is very good, you can’t help but feel that Wayne hedged his bets a little. We thought we knew what was coming on III, and he proved us wrong. Here, he prepared us for something and gave it to us exactly. He has sold us on his charisma and he gives it to us in a heavy dose here, but he doesn’t add any new layers to it. So while it’s likely to be a huge album — and far more interesting than any other releases of its size — it’s not the leap forward his last couple albums were. Up to now, Wayne shifted as quickly as we could figure him out. Tha Carter IV sounds like we’ve caught up. But hell, that still sounds good.