Many moons ago, there was this. Then there was this. Now Jonathan Bradley looks back at what many believe is the best Lil Wayne album. As Cheech Marin said upon witnessing the rising of the Titanic in in Ghostbusters II: better late than never.
At the bottom of the bayou, rising up from the mud and murk, lurks something animal– a shark, a lion with a throaty roar, and a raw hunger. “Let’s eat,” he exults, “and talk about all the niggas we cut.” But you know what? Let’s not fuck up our lunch. Let’s talk about the thick guitars and swampy rhythms over which Dwayne Carter exhales–scungy, grimy-ass, mudded-up sounds for a crusted-over vocal, like setting gasoline on fire. “Deep down in the dirty, there lies us,” he says, storming the barricades. His origin story is fundamental; he’s from “the sky, where the thunder’s crying.” It’s primal, sifted out and soaked up from the history of his region: “You heard it right here if the game was ever told/Lift up your toes and look under the rug/Trust me, that’s history under all that dust.”
That’s just the first track, five minutes of hot spitting. Sicker than a hospital, he is. New Orleans “gangsta gumbo” from a city where “you ain’t tryin to see how far that black back lane go.” Sweaty, violent and intoxicating, loping hyena-like across the track. He approaches rap with the appetite of a carnivore, tearing off chunks of language, chewing them and savoring the taste. Tha Carter II is a tactile album, from its bass thumps to its guitar growls and more than anything else, its protagonist’s feverish imagery–both base and boundless.
But none of this is swagger or show. It’s a young man reveling in his newfound excellence, exultantly aware that he has entered his prime and relishing in his proficiency. He “nowadays know[s] life ain’t no more road lights,” but he’s still ready to punch at the top level, as “the best rapper alive,” brimming with vitality and energy and confidence. “The heart of the South, pumping and beating,” soaked in the region like “Jazz Fest, Mardi Gras.” Here is the changing of the guard–rap’s regional battles turned into a decisive victory lap for Dixie (“baby, I’m just jogging”)–one that came before T.I., who, with King, did the same, except by crossing over. “I don’t care who at the top of the stairs, I’m stepping up,” says Carter, except now there’s only him at the top of the stairs. “That’s life, y’all/Sometimes you gotta learn to swim with no life guard.”
So this ain’t the decade’s best rap record — that’s The Blueprint — but apart from that, nothing can touch it. It’s assured, and rightfully so. Twenty two tracks and none inessential, not even the South Beach fantasy of “Grown Man,” because even the fraud-laden sentiment of that song is the truth-talking of a youngster suddenly appreciating the strength of his own sexuality.
After years in the trenches, after the white lace, Mannie Fresh-escorted Cotillion that was the first Carter, the Wayne of Tha Carter II exercises his powers at full strength, while they were still earthly and elementary, before he span off into the linguistic game-playing hyperspace of Dedication 2 and Da Drought 3 and the underrated Lil’ Weezyana, and, oh yes, our actual Passion of the Weiss-endorsed Weezy magnum opus, Tha Carter III. This is what Wayne would hear if he phoned home now: “the chalk’s only for the art, homie. We trace ya after we erase ya.”
But let’s talk about what a lonely album this is. Guest spots from then-not-as-creepy father figure Birdman, then-forgotten gangster Kurupt and then-unknown protégé Curen$y, but mostly it’s just Weezy, out in the weather shielded with only his words. No feeling, no — “Sometimes I want to drop a tear, but no emotions from a king” — even if “Reciept” is a love song marvelous in its swirl of reticence and romanticism. As the man says: “All I have in this world is a pistol and a promise, a fistful of dollars,” or maybe it’s, “Be a competitor or get out the weather/Me? I got an umbrella and a Beretta.”
Or maybe it’s “Fuck bitches, get money.” It’s cold out there, so you better be round someone who can spit fire.–Jonathan Bradley