Monday, October 1, 2018

album review: 'tha carter v' by lil wayne

I don't think anyone can deny at this point that the hype behind this album has long ago eclipsed any impact it could ever make. 

And when I say that, I'm referring to artistic impact in the same way Lil Wayne drove a decade ago, because the sales and streaming numbers mean in terms of popular impact, it looks like Lil Wayne still has it. But I think even Lil Wayne fans grasp this, because I know even a fair few of them considered the possibility of this release like a pipe dream, the sort of project that remains shelved or unreleased to become the stuff of what might have been, especially when it came to Lil Wayne's stifled career over the past five years. But beyond the possibility, the largely unasked question - namely, whether Tha Carter V should be released at all - is a much dicier one. Folks forget that while his commercial clout was undeniable, Lil Wayne hadn't exactly been on a hot streak of quality in the 2010s. Between album concepts that felt unrealized or at the very least uneven and Lil Wayne struggling as both an MC and songwriter across mixtapes, albums, and even guest appearances, despite his undeniable influence his star had fallen hard and far. And with Tha Carter V developed in that environment, I don't even think it would be reasonable to expect a return to the glory days of Tha Carter II or III. At best I expected another overlong, messy project that could nail a few more hits than misses that would get better than expected reviews thanks to a relieved fanbase... and thus with my expectations safely lowered, did Tha Carter V deliver?

Okay, here's the thing: I don't think this album is bad or mediocre - in fact, I'll probably say it's one of the best projects Lil Wayne has put out in years, mixtapes or otherwise. More to the point, it's one of the first projects in years that's reminded me of the few reasons why I used to like Lil Wayne; I've never really been a fan, but there have been cuts and albums I've genuinely liked, with my favourite being Tha Carter II - yes, I'm one of those fans. And there are moments of genuine greatness where Lil Wayne and his collaborators absolutely knock it out of the park and sound pretty damn great - but the issue is that they are moments. And that's arguably the biggest reason why I've seriously struggled getting on board with Lil Wayne as a whole, because there are issues here that have been endemic in his entire career: the project is way too long with an ocean of filler cuts, the guest performances are increasingly slapdash, the production is all over the place, and even Lil Wayne doesn't always deliver. Again, it's probably the best project he's put out since Tha Carter III, but I'm rapidly coming to realize that album only worked because there were so ideas stuffed in from his most prolific era of quality.

And look, you might all know this - hell, if you're a Lil Wayne fan, nothing I'm saying here is new, you know all his projects run long on the principle that in the excess enough good ideas will shine through. And to me that's a real shame - knowing when to cut things down and sequence good ideas is a skill I wish Lil Wayne possessed because there are enough good-to-great songs here to make a pretty damn solid album. Open with Swiss Beatz and 'Uproar' sending a knife straight to the mid-2000s nostalgia center in my brain after the introduction from his mother, it honestly would give this project a serious shot of momentum to push past NIcki Minaj not rapping, Travis Scott contributing a Rodeo leftover with a pretty ferocious verse from Wayne, and a really grating chipmunk hook on 'Can't Be Broken'. Maybe include 'Dedicate' at some point to hammer home how much Lil Wayne has influenced the current generation, but even then a more sober and quasi-responsible rapper would acknowledge that his legacy is mixed to say the least, especially when it comes to drugs... but it's hard to deny that even for artists who have surpassed Lil Wayne like Kendrick that the influence isn't there. And I'll say this: when Lil Wayne is trying, he is leaps and bounds a more creative and dynamic rapper than so many of his offspring in terms of delivery and wordplay. Yes, the autotune abuse is still here - 'What About Me' utterly killed the momentum coming off of the album highlight 'Mona Lisa' with Kendrick, and then you might as well tack on a fair few later cuts - but it's been turned back to show that when he's trying, Lil Wayne can flow his ass off. The only reason 'Let It Fly' is interesting at all is Lil Wayne's closing verse, and even if 'Open Letter' takes half the song to get visceral, he does get there, as well as on 'Mess' even if the content itself feels a bit lightweight.

But this leads to the second major issue: a serious lack of focus. I get that Lil Wayne has probably been working on this album for years at this point and it's helped me excuse some of the production that was likely paid for in 2014 - 'Open Safe' from DJ Mustard being the most glaring example - but there are a number of cuts where the production sounds dated and the mixing and mastering seems oddly sloppy. And I honestly wouldn't mind the older cuts that sounded a little more dated like the soul samples driving 'Demon' and 'Dope New Gospel' or when he picks up a washed out guitar sample on 'Mess' or even an old Mannie Fresh beat on 'Perfect Strangers' or 'Start This Shit Off Right' with Ashanti... but Lil Wayne was doing that, he wouldn't have tried to tack on 'Used 2' which many have considered a series of subliminal shots at Pusha-T, or 'Don't Cry', where he sampled XXXTENTACION posthumously for the hook which... okay, it's more tolerable than what they tried with Lil Peep and 'Falling Down', but it also reminds me that I never liked X's singing. But this lack of focus also translates to the guest stars - you get Snoop Dogg and Nicki Minaj and only use them on hooks? You have Ashanti but limit her role even more? The one rapper who's given considerable billing - outside of Travis Scott being Travis - is Kendrick on 'Mona Lisa' opposite the dark gothic pianos, and even there he's playing the jealous and obsessed fan of Lil Wayne more than anything.

Granted, that's not all that surprising, given how much of this album seems to circle around Lil Wayne trying to take a conscious look at his fame and impact, but the bizarre thing is that it's not really territory that Wayne hasn't covered before, and the areas that might reflect a darker, more sobering reality don't get a lot of attention. You'd think 'Don't Cry' would start to show some of this with a question about humility, but by the time we get into the final third of the record Lil Wayne is staring into the mirror and still calling himself the greatest rapper alive. And while he does admit the mess of women and family around him, it nearly always circles back to golddiggers and bitches and while this record isn't as debauched as I Am Not A Human Being II, it can occasionally feel as sour. And that's the weird thing about the mood of this record: if it wants to celebrate the long-overdue rebirth of Lil Wayne, it loses momentum really fast and with the lumbering beats and murky keys doesn't feel all that fun. But if it wants to seriously reckon with the legacy of Lil Wayne's fame and success - which if you dig between the lines there's a fair few songs at least trying to approach this - if he's self-critical it's very surface level, and that does make sense. People tend to forget that Lil Wayne has been in the entertainment industry and successful since the late 90s, and he might not have the perspective outside of his own experience to see more and truly break outside of his bubble, which might explain why this record has snippets trying to get at his angst but they're not structured in a way to pay off well, interspersed between snippets of flexing and increasingly lazy tracks of him rhyming words with themselves with the same bitches and guns flexing he's fallen towards time and time again - rarely bad because there are far less outright terrible lines, but they do get forgettable. The one big exception is 'Let It All Work Out', the closing track where he admits in full the gun accident when he was twelve was, in reality, a suicide attempt, which he's mentioned before on Solange's 'Mad' but here confirms. It's a great song with a great sample and a really powerful way to close out the album, but even it doesn't quite feel like it completely caps off the more personal, introspective narrative between the lines, providing that's even what he wants.

And so here it is, Tha Carter V... and really, what I can say is that it's a Lil Wayne album - probably one of his better ones in terms of the consistency of his rapping if nothing else, but it's got all the unfocused, slapdash issues I've had with Lil Wayne albums for years. But if this is the album intended to put Lil Wayne back on the throne, I'm not sure it gets there - yes, Lil Wayne is back and coherent and seemingly sober, but it doesn't really show he has more to say or reveal beyond glimmers of deeper potential that still have not been tapped. Maybe those are coming, and this was a long-overdue book to close for him more than an audience that wants to see him push boundaries, and again, I don't think this could have ever lived up to the hype, so with that in mind... solid 6/10, recommended for the fans, check out the choice cuts otherwise. And as for whether this is Lil Wayne's final album... well, he's said it would be, but knowing him, I think we haven't heard nearly the last of him yet.

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