MobbDeen sleeps with the gun and she don’t snore.
It’s impossible to evaluate Lil’ Wayne’s long awaited and even longer gestating Carter V without considering its context. It was supposed to drop as far back as 2014, and while the wait for the album was never on par with the wait for Detox or Chinese Democracy, given Wayne’s perceived decline and rap fans’ intimate knowledge of what it means when Birdman decides some shit isn’t happening, there’s no way folks of a certain age weren’t feverishly looking forward to hearing this album.
The legal wrangling surrounding Carter V’s release has been well documented elsewhere but it’s important to try to understand how rap’s view of one of its most important artists has evolved over the last decade. It’s fair to say that the prevailing view of Wayne’s career is that he emerged as a child star/likable but non-essential member of the Hot Boyz and Cash Money Records’ roster in the late 90’s, started an immediately successful solo career, gained more commercial and artistic prominence by 2004’s Tha Carter followed by a mixtape and singles run that eventually culminated in his ascent to the top of rap’s food chain with the 2008 release of Tha Carter III.
Then he sorta pissed his artistic credibility away by dropping a shitty “rock” album and spending 8 months in jail for a gun charge. He was still a commercial juggernaut when Tha Carter IV dropped in 2010 but we mostly agreed that he’d run out of steam, as evidenced by his increasingly repetitive and vagina-obsessed punchlines of the time, and with each new mixtape or unofficial album that wasn’t Tha Carter V, we paid him less and less attention – mostly deservedly so.
All that said, I think that there isn’t much of a difference between a lot of the music Lil Wayne got a ton of acclaim for during his peak and most of the verses he’s recorded and released since late-2014. He definitely “fell off” for about a four-year period from 2010 to 2014 but I’d argue that his continued fall off post-2014 was less about his declining gifts and more about rap’s well-documented harshness towards its veterans. Wayne’s rise to the top was less based on him excelling at any of the typical barometers of rap excellence and more a result of his unrivaled work ethic and willingness to just try shit, weird or otherwise.
So when folks started saying “Wayne fell off” it really wasn’t about him forgetting how to rap, it was about us moving on to newer and fresher artists, many of whom just so happened to be HEAVILY influenced by Weezy.
So is Tha Carter V – is it any good? Well… we’ll answer that later but this overly long album is better than it has any right to be, even if it’s not necessarily excellent or par with the first 2 or 3 entries in the series. Tha Carter V is a fascinating time capsule of rap as a whole over the last 4-5 years that it took to construct and release the album, which means certain moments on the album either seem “dated” or “nostalgia-tinged,” depending on how generous the listener is feeling during that moment.
The opener, “Don’t Cry,” is sure to spawn a think piece or twelve given the featured guest but it’s an objectively good song and apt choice to begin the album. ‘Uproar’ recalls French Montana’s initial strategy for his ascent to rap stardom by sampling a beloved New York classic. 2018’s rap zeitgeist champ, Travis Scott, shows up on ‘Let It Fly’ and we get Wayne’s most technically intense effort on the album. “Can’t Be Broken” is what I imagine Eminem songs have sounded like since 2014 but we can’t begrudge Wayne for inflicting this on us since he stays on beat unlike Marshall. “Dark Side of the Moon” is a lovely duet with Nicki Minaj that probably outdoes anything she put on “Queen.”
Wayne manages to outduel rap’s reigning mainstream lyrical king, Kendrick Lamar, on the narrative (!) Jezebel tribute that’s “Mona Lisa” – so much for him forgetting how to rap – given that narratives have never been Wayne’s strength. Wayne dances on an uncharacteristically cold Zaytoven beat then gets nonchalantly washed by Snoop a song later over a sample flip most of us recognize more readily from Dr. Dre and Erykah Badu classics. “Hittas” is a high point on the album that recalls the kinda shit Drake would venerate Houston on, and two songs later, Wayne can’t resist trying his hand at one of those ubiquitous DJ Mustard beats that were everywhere a few years ago. The last third of this marathon is highlighted by a pair of always welcome Mannie Fresh collaborations and then what happens to be a strong candidate for Wayne’s worst song ever in “Demon.” Things wrap up strongly with another Wayne doing an impression of Drake doing an impression of Wayne effort in the form of the heartfelt Sampha sampling “Let It All Work Out.”
Throughout what eventually begins to feel like the half-decade it took to release the album (or this long ass paragraph – for fuck’s sake, Wayne), the one time ‘best rapper alive’ (lol) sounds engaged and that’s really all we could have hoped for from someone who had every right to sound jaded after what he’s been through.
Ultimately, Tha Carter V’s flaws are the same ones that befall 99.98% of excessively lengthy albums: it’s hard to digest in one sitting, songs start to blend together, and some songs are just forgettable. I still haven’t heard of anyone that’s made it past track 18; I mean, Wayne’s core fan base all have kids now – folks too busy dawg. Nonetheless, I’ll give Wayne this – there’s really only one BAD song on the album and that’s not a bad ratio given that we’re talking about an album that’s as long as a soccer game.
If that seems like a low standard to hold Lil’ Wayne to, then scroll back up and read the first three paragraphs of this review again. Obviously, there’s an excellent album tucked away in this collection of songs and maybe that’s the point of some “albums” in 2018 – just do a song or playlist dump and get your streaming numbers up. But again, given who Wayne is, I’d suggest he’s more than earned the right to hold the listening public hostage for an hour and a half.
So again, Tha Carter V – is it any good? Yes, it absolutely is. The best (and mostly nostalgia-tinged) moments rival some of Wayne’s best and he sounds energized and engaged for the entire run time. I reckon there’s a strong chance his next effort sounds even better now that he’s emptied his hard drive and secured his freedom from Cash Money Records.
One might even view the absurd length of the album as reflection of the logorrhea that led Wayne into one of the most prolific and acclaimed runs in rap history. Lord knows there’s enough variety on this thing for it to function as a playlist or mixtape more than an album. I think listeners that don’t find much or anything to like on this project have simply moved on from Lil Wayne and while there’s nothing wrong with that choice, it’s important not to confuse a lack of interest with a lack of quality. He’s still the same decent rapper – no more, no less; you’re the different listener.
Tha Carter V is truly everything we loved (and a little of what we didn’t) about Lil’ Wayne and its mere existence qualifies as a triumph for him and the culture as a whole.