Lil Wayne’s ‘Tha Carter V’ is a triumph for simply existing — but is it good?
Let’s get this out of the way right now: No matter how good “Tha Carter V” actually ended up being, it was going to be the most important release of this year.
Most of that has to do with an astounding amount of drama leading up to the album’s release. Lil Wayne had a lengthy legal dispute with Cash Money Records head Birdman, after Birdman refused to release the fifth entry into “Tha Carter” series — the last he was contractually obligated to hand over — with Wayne stating he felt like Birdman was keeping him “prisoner.”
It’s a lengthy story, complete with lawsuits and a shooting of Lil Wayne’s tour bus with which both Birdman and fellow rapper Young Thug have long been suspected of being involved. It’s a story that would be better explained elsewhere, but suffice it to say that Birdman’s act of holding the record hostage for nearly seven years had the effect of turning “Tha Carter V” into a legendary record before it was even released, and nothing short of an unmitigated disaster would do anything to diminish that legend.
And while I acknowledge that my reviewing the record is largely a futile task, it’s what they pay me to do, so let’s look at if “Tha Carter V” is any good.
The short answer is, yeah, it’s pretty good. But it is plagued by some issues that are a bit strange, given how long the thing was gestating.
One of the stranger things about the record is its remarkably somber opening. It begins with a two-minute recording of Wayne’s mother tearfully telling her son how proud she is of him, before launching into the even more sad “Don’t Cry.”
The track shows Wayne rapping at his most mature; gone, for now at least, is his typical obsession with women and drugs, replaced with genuine life advice that seems to come from a place of love. Wayne’s contribution to this track is truly beautiful; however, it risks being undone by a tone deaf posthumous chorus from XXXTentacion.
And I don’t mean “tone deaf” in an ethical way; it really just sounds like X can’t sing here. I understand why a lot of rappers are trying to capitalize on the legend surrounding X after his death, but if I were Wayne, I would’ve passed on this contribution.
But from there, though, the album takes off with some dizzying hits. Chief among these is “Uproar,” a Swizz Beats produced track that is easily among my favorite on the record. While Wayne’s lyrics here are basic at best, the beat is ridiculously fun. I couldn’t help but smile the whole time the song was playing.
The Travis Scott-featured “Let It Fly” is a bit of a head-scratcher. While it sees Travis Scott up to his usual tricks — “IT’S LIT!” — it also sounds a great deal like he and Wayne both recorded their vocals over the phone. Not to mention Wayne’s verse that feels so messy it sounds like an unedited freestyle, it makes the listener question just what, exactly, was everyone working on for the past seven years. It certainly wasn’t the mastering on this track, that’s for sure.
But perhaps it was tracks like “Mona Lisa,” a story-driven track that features a verse from Kendrick Lamar. The song sees the two expertly trade verses over a stark beat. Wayne takes on the persona of a hardened thief, telling the listeners about his efforts to hustle would-be victims. Lamar, meanwhile, takes on the character of one of Wayne’s victims. It’s a great lyrical cut for both emcees, and it takes on more significance when one considers the master-student relationship the two have. Kendrick got his start by idolizing Wayne and freestyling over some of his beats, and for him to now be on a track with his idol is a special moment.
There are a few more bangers as the album goes on — “Start This S*** Off Right,” featuring Ashanti and Mack Maine, deserves a special shoutout for its catchiness — but the album grows increasingly more introspective and downtempo as it wears on.
It all culminates with “Let It All Work Out,” which features a stirring sample of a Sampha song. Wayne opens up about a suicide attempt at the age of 12, remarking on the ways in which his life has changed since.
Across “Tha Carter V,” Wayne sounds triumphant, happy to be free from the cage Birdman had him in. However, in many ways, the record sounds like the work of an aging emcee. It doesn’t sound like Wayne has many pop bangers left in the tank. Instead, he wants to focus on being introspective in a way that he often hasn’t been.
It’s an interesting transition for Wayne. I like hearing this darker, more deliberate and measured style. My only wish is that the production always sounded like it was as measured as his lyrics.
Reach Patrick Kernan at 570-991-6386 or on Twitter @PatKernan
Album: ‘Tha Carter V’
Artist: Lil Wayne
Label: Young Money, Republic, Universal
Best Tracks: ‘Uproar,’ ‘Mona Lisa,’ ‘Let It All Work Out’
Worst Track: ‘Don’t Cry’