Putting your finger on precisely why you come away from Tha Carter 4 dissatisfied is a difficult proposition. It’s brimming with bangers, large hooks, big guest appearances, and experimental song concepts. Wayne is totally and completely invested. His rapping is as energetic and crisp. You can hear him putting his all into the project, and but without question the listener is left cold.
The easy out is fatigue — over five years, even including a year-long stint in Rikers, Wayne was responsible for a staggering outpouring of music, a full court press composed of critically acclaimed mixtapes, platinum selling albums and ubiquitous cameos on Clear Channel. The lazy argument is that we’ve been to the show and seen the strings– that Wayne’s style doesn’t resonate as it once did. But perhaps irresponsibly, I’d honestly suggest that the missing element could be purple or pink.
It’s inaccurate to say that Wayne raps differently on this installment of his Carter series. His verses are still rapidly fired, densely packed couplets composed almost exclusively of free associative, tangential metaphors. It’s still the Diplomat-inspired brain-fried approach that he used to win over hip hop, and change the way that many of us understand lyricism. The missing element on 4 is the living quality of Wayne’s stream of consciousness that he exhibited before his stint upstate.
There was a time when the fun of a Wayne verse would be following the twisted logic of his mind and jaw-dropping fun (II) as he caroms from idea to idea, reference to reference. This is the guy who could suddenly pull us out of an impassioned intro to mention his favorite movie as a child was Gremlins, without fucking up the flow or cohesion of the song.
The fundamental difference in Wayne’s metaphor and reference is it’s extreme, literal obviousness. If Wayne is above the bullshit, he’s “Ray Charles” to it. There’s a clunky quality to essentially the same model he once was a master of, and what’s missing is the inebriated inspiration, the stoned madness that got the verses off the ground. Even in his “improved” formalist flow, the trade-off is the woozy, wonderful weirdness that gave the verses their unpredictable and seemingly spontaneous quality.
Wayne’s braying, slurring, dragging style on songs like “Prostitute Flange” or “I Feel Like Dying” created an atmosphere, earned the random bizarre quality that enabled vintage Wayne to work. Now, even when he musters an old gem like the silent “G” in lasagna on “6 foot 7”, (the closest thing this album has to a throwback to the good old days) it feels like an afterthought, thrown into the middle of a frantic verse without the weight some of his greatest punchlines landed, thanks to the way he’d set them up.
“John” a TC4 radio smash makes for an interesting case study. On it, Wayne remixes “I’m Not a Star”, the churning masterpiece that opens Rick Ross’ own The Carter 3-like crystallization of style from 2010, Teflon Don. Wayne is all high energy here, chirping and barking, nipping at Ross’ heels like the small dog that hung out with that big dog in those old Looney Toons shorts.
When Ross finally shows up on the track, he sucks all the air out of the room, practicing his now patented slow, then furiously concentrated, hyper- enunciated rhythmic flow and throwing out non-sequiturs that fit perfectly, like throwing detergent in his crack and of course, “Baby, I’m the only one that pays your car note.” He grunts and ad-libs his way to perfection. At the moment, Ross is an impeccable decision maker and without question the greatest instinctual pop artist hip hop has to offer.
Ross has a platinum ear for beats, all his hooks hit and while not having something as formal as a formula, he always knows exactly what to do with his space on a song. It’s “feel.” It’s a kind of magic. This is his moment, and as The Carter 4 (by no means bad, a competent and occasionally inspired album) sadly exhibits, in hip hop these sorts of moments are fleeting and over much too soon. On “John”, Rick Ross is random, he’s weirdly brilliant, and he raps with a swagger that defies the logical boundaries of the human psyche. He almost sounds high.