Welcome to Tha Carter V, ladies and gents.
Lil Wayne was a pivotal figure in my childhood and that was without me even being his biggest fan. In 2008, Tha Carter III was released to critical acclaim and massive commercial success. At the time, I was 12 years old and just now really getting back into hip-hop and this album led to Wayne reasserting himself as “the greatest rapper alive” during his speech at the Grammys. That notion didn’t fall on deaf ears, Wayne was at his peak. But from there, after reaching the top of the mountain, he lost his grip and started tumbling down a few years later. It is impossible to review this album without mentioning the journey to it.
As someone with over 20 years in the game, Wayne has seen rap go through many changes. Shortly after that pivotal year (2008), Wayne acquired Drake and Nicki Minaj, two current titans of pop culture. As he helped their careers takeoff, Wayne was still thriving. He was everywhere. He was wearing the crown comfortably, then 2011 hit. The latest release in the series, Tha Carter IV, was hot and fresh on stands, but was not the product people were expecting.
While the album performed great on the charts, nearly selling a million copies in the first week, something was off. The raps weren’t there like on the last Carter album. Many fans were hyped and then sadly disappointed. They already sat through the experiments, Rebirth, and teasers, I Am Not a Human Being, and wanted to touch that high again. It just wasn’t what they wanted. Of course this wasn’t the nail in the coffin. Shortly after the release, Wayne announced he started working on the next Carter project. 2013 was going to see the rise of Wayne again, but the year came and it went with no major activity.
Years kept passing and things weren’t looking pretty. Wayne was having financial and personal disputes with mentor, label head, and father figure, Birdman. The money was funny and this led to things getting shaky outside the studio as well. Being a huge contributor as the reason why the release was in purgatory. While Wayne wasn’t completely quiet musically, his new releases sounded like teasers. They didn’t seem real. More like appetizers to the meal that seemed to never be coming. New titans had already risen and the crown had already been passed down. Tha Carter V joined the category of phantom albums that were in limbo (i.e. Detox, Kendrick and Cole’s joint album, Jay Electronica’s debut album). It became a legend but fans were always ready to return if they could have the album.
Enter 2018. Wayne and Birdman had been in court fighting to separate their labels. After the never ending battle, Wayne came out on top getting $10 millon from withheld earnings. Young Money was no longer a subsidiary of Cash Money and went over directly to Universal, with Birdman’s 49% stake in the company transferring to Wayne. Finally, Young Money’s Twitter account said the album was going to be released on September 21. Fans were hype, think pieces were written, and we waited, only for the album to never come out. People were angry but then an announcement came from Wayne himself in a video, stating the album was coming the following Friday. The hype train came back but fans were skeptical this time. So they waited for it to be real, to finally get the album that was promised years ago. And here we are, the album on streaming platforms everywhere. We all collectively pressed play and wow, I can’t say I was disappointed; in fact, I’m pleasantly surprised.
Not only has Wayne come back, he’s returned triumphantly. Tha Carter V is a culmination of everything that has transpired over these past few years, possibly being his most personal album to date. The album opens with his mother reading a letter to him and her crying. It’s impossible not to feel something from listening to it. Afterwards we get into the first real cut on the album with “Don’t Cry”. While the addition of XXXtentacion isn’t necessary, Wayne really sets the tone for the theme of the album. He’s talking mortality, legacy, and personal relationships. He’s opening himself up and letting us see what he’s become. It is beautiful but it is also heartbreaking.
Wayne was once the premier punchline rapper. And while he had songs in the past where you felt his heart, it didn’t beat like this. There’s a change in him. These years have obviously taken a toll on him and he put it in the music. And that isn’t to say he doesn’t have the punchlines. He still delivers funny and creative lines to make us want to rewind the track. “Mona Lisa” is a prime example with Wayne and Kendrick telling a dark and funny story with some top notch rapping. It’s like he never left. Even if a beat isn’t as great or a guest isn’t remarkable, Wayne is always firing on all cylinders. He makes the best out of every beat he gets and just rips it apart. This is the evidence that made people proclaim him as the greatest rapper alive, and this is one of the older songs recorded.
There are a few songs on the albums that likely have a similar shelf life. The Travis assisted “Let It Fly” feels order and out of place on the album but Wayne still shines. The album recording is said to have taken place between 2012 and now. While some songs have the energy of “Mona Lisa”, others don’t. It seems that he took what he thought were the best of the sessions and used them to create the project. It’s unclear when “Dark Side of the Moon” was recorded, but it’s certainly another standout, mainly because Nicki Minaj sounds amazing. Wayne sounds equally great and adds some diversity to the track.
When Wayne isn’t trying to rip a beat apart, he’s holding onto it with dear life. Thinking if he never lets go, he might lose it himself. He’s working through the worst you could possibly think of. The drugs, the fear, the pain that plagued him are his opponents and he’s fighting back – “Can’t Be Broken” and “Demons” are two notable examples. The album closer is another, bringing this concept full circle. “Let It All Work Out” uses a Sampha sample to provide the room for Wayne to let it all out. As he explains the infamous shooting from his childhood, one can’t help but shed a tear when they hear the sadness of the man reflecting on his pain. It’s moments like this that elevate the album.
All in all, while the project could have benefited from not being 23 tracks, Wayne does his best to make each one count. He didn’t have to deliver to this degree. He could just released a good enough album but he cared enough not to. Some thought they would never see the day to see this album. Some of us thinking Wayne wouldn’t get to see it. All we can do is just be thankful and let it build from here.