For those of us who fell in love with Lil Wayne during the greatest, strangest hot streak in hip-hop history (roughly Tha Carter II to mixtape Da Drought 3), 2008’s Tha Carter III was supposed to be Lil Wayne’s crowning moment. And commercially it was. The album sold over three million copies and made the Internet’s favorite rapper into America’s favorite rapper. But even then we had a creeping suspicion that Wayne had peaked: the disappointing mixtapes and a god-awful rock album; the countless, uninspired features on lesser artists’ singles; the detrimental and increasingly obvious effects of drug abuse; and all of this leading up to a year spent in the Rikers Island jail. Not that anyone is better off spending time incarcerated, but the year off felt like a chance for Wayne to hit the reset button creatively. And so who knew what to expect from Wayne in 2011? Would we get a pop album like protégé Drake’s Thank Me Later? A return to fire breathing top-form? Something strange and exciting that we couldn’t imagine? Unfortunately, Tha Carter IV is none of those things. For an artist who has consistently defied expectations over his career, Tha Carter IV is sadly boring.
Wayne has lost the spark that made him great. For the most part he’s slowed his flow down and that puts a ton of pressure on his punch lines. Wayne, like Drake, primarily traffics in hashtag rap at this point, but unlike Drake, Wayne has never been able to mine his personal history/persona for pathos, and on Tha Carter IV the punch lines just aren’t nearly original or unexpected enough to hold the audience’s attention. If this change isn’t immediately apparent it’s because Wayne still sounds like he could rap over anything. At times, like on ‘Megaman’ or ‘A Milli’ knockoff ‘6 Foot 7 Foot,’ he still kicks it into kinetic hyper drive but the near-hysterical bluster can only obscure the fact that the genius wordplay of Wayne’s peak is absent. In its place, we’re left with something approaching virtuosic tedium.
The album’s best moments come on the straightforward street rap tracks. The opening one-two punch of the ‘Intro’ and ‘Blunt Blowin’ sets a swaggering tone. ‘John,’ a collaboration with Rick Ross, is basically a retread of Ross’s ‘I’m Not a Star’ but Wayne sounds really good over the Lex Luger-style haunted house synths and deep, pounding bass (the track is actually produced by Polow da Don). Strings and a sample from The Alan Parsons Project’s ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ lend ‘It’s Good’ a dramatic gravity and Drake and Wayne respond with impassioned verses (this is Wayne’s much discussed Jay-Z “diss:” “I got your “baby” money/kidnap your bitch/get that how much you love your lady money/I know you fake, nigga/press your brakes, nigga”). Hit single ‘How to Love’ is a surprisingly enjoyable pop ballad on which Wayne sings instead of rapping. And, of course, Wayne does manage to get off a few unexpected, make-you-smile lines like “I ain’t with that bullshit / Niggas act like bitches / Shenaynay, oh my goodness!” from ‘It’s Good.’
While the production is less gimmicky than on Tha Carter III, it’s also more pedestrian and further contributes to the album’s feeling of sameness. There are more lowlights than highlights and there are a few nearly unlistenable moments like T-Pain collaboration ‘How to Hate,’ a song that packs lunk-headed misogyny and sentimental treacle into the same tuneless mess, and ‘She Will’ which is marred by Drake’s attempt to squeeze real meaning from a stripper anecdote. And it’s a bad sign when the best moment of your album comes on a song that you don’t rap on. On ‘Interlude,’ journeyman Tech N9ne, who supplies a much-needed dose of energy, is followed by an uncredited Andre 3000 of Outkast. Three Stacks rapping at all is cause for celebration, but here his understated, conversational style and off-kilter approach to his subject matter is a welcome change of pace to Tha Carter IV’s monotony.
Ultimately, Tha Carter IV is held to a higher standard because of the incredible heights of Lil Wayne’s past work. When Lil Wayne first started calling himself “The Best Rapper Alive” sometime in 2005, it was a deliberately provocative claim. He was a Southern rapper at a time when, despite their popularity, Southern rappers still couldn’t get played on New York radio — remember Wayne telling DJ’s to “stop being rapper racist”? — and were generally disrespected by “fans of real hip-hop.” Wayne made his case on record. He was endlessly inventive in his wordplay and rhyme schemes, unafraid to be goofy and outright weird, and able to wrap his raspy flow around any beat that was put in front of him. He earned the title he claimed for himself. For those of us who were holding out hope that this would be the moment that Wayne would reestablish himself as The Best Rapper Alive, Tha Carter IV is a disappointment.