I often think of Lil Wayne’s voice cracking with a sense of wonder and possibility when he asked, “Can you picture Carter FIVE?” in the summer of 2008. The sales figures had just come in for Tha Carter III, a million sold in a week, the material culmination of a decade of seemingly constant creation and creative growth. Celebrating with a remix of his own single, “A Milli,” Wayne teased not just the next volume in Tha Carter series but the one after that—making Tha Carter V sound like some kind of mythical futuristic prospect, perhaps the first rap album recorded in zero gravity.
Ten years later, we finally have Tha Carter V, and of course it’s not the fantastical album Lil Wayne asked us to imagine in 2008. For one thing, Lil Wayne’s music started to decline almost immediately after Tha Carter III—during it, really, judging from the album’s uneven mix of brilliance and indulgence. But after all the drugs, a jail stint, a bad rock album, and numerous other setbacks and mistakes took the spring out of Wayne’s step, anticipation was low for Tha Carter V, even the first time he tried to release it in 2014. The intervening four years of court cases and false starts have given us a chance to miss Lil Wayne for the first time, to root for him like an underdog.
At 87 minutes, Tha Carter V is the longest album Lil Wayne has ever released, but it’s still shorter than albums released this year by Migos, Drake, Rae Sremmurd, Lupe Fiasco, and Snoop Dogg. The idea that the 79-minute rap albums of the CD era were too indulgent is being quickly buried under a digital mountain of overgrown albums that won’t waste any vinyl or plastic, but will waste a lot of your time. It’s hard to say that a guy who’s been piling up material for years, who once completely upended notions of how much material a major rap star could release, hasn’t earned the right to make a long album. But that doesn’t mean that he should.
You could probably chop the entire opening quarter of Tha Carter V off and improve the album. The first seven tracks include a tearful two-minute interlude from Wayne’s mother Cita that would’ve held more weight as a more brief excerpt, and dreary mid-tempo tracks featuring Travis Scott and the late XXXTentacion that seem to exist primarily to situate Wayne in the 2018 Soundcloud rap zeitgeist that he influenced but was never a part of. Nicki Minaj, who blubbered in April that Migos cruelly removed the portion of her “MotorSport” guest spot that she sang, finally gets to sing to her heart’s content on “Dark Side of the Moon,” which is more tolerable than it seems like it should be but still an odd choice for the first half of the album.
So Tha Carter V doesn’t fully come alive until track 8, “Mona Lisa” featuring Kendrick Lamar. Lamar—who so idolized Lil Wayne that one of his pre-stardom mixtapes, 2009’s C4, consisted mainly of remixes of Carter III songs—has long been one of the best arguments for Wayne’s pervasive influence. But their first collaboration, on the 2014 Mike WiLL Made It single “Buy The World,” was anticlimactic, and “Mona Lisa” is the faceoff fans have hoped for: five furious minutes of rapidfire storytelling bars from two all-time greats. Whether you love the song’s final minute hinges on how you feel about Kendrick’s emotional, whimpering flow from “m.A.A.d city,” but most of it is undeniable.
From “Mona Lisa” forward, Tha Carter V livens up more. “Dope” featuring Snoop Dogg bangs hard even before the sample of Dr. Dre’s “Xxplosive” shows up, giving Carter V a better moment of turn-of-the-century nostalgia than the lazy Swizz Beatz jack of G. Dep’s “Special Delivery” on “Uproar” earlier in the album. Production from Metro Boomin (“Used 2”) and DJ Mustard (“Open Safe”) keep the album sounding current without taking Wayne out of his comfort zone. And “Let It All Work Out,” where Wayne finally tells the whole truth about a childhood suicide attempt, is a gripping finale.
On two tracks, Lil Wayne reunites with Mannie Fresh, who produced virtually all of Wayne’s music for the first five years of his career. When Mannie Fresh first left Cash Money following 2004’s Tha Carter, Wayne had just declared himself “the best rapper alive,” and broadening his sound with a wider variety of producers was instrumental to his rise. But Fresh, who’s sporadically made hits for other artists since then, has never had the same chemistry with other artists that he had with the original Cash Money crew. You might expect them to revive the New Orleans bounce sound, particularly after a summer Drake ran with two chart-topping bounce homages. But Fresh opts for the plush R&B sound of “Start This Shit Off Right,” with a Mack Maine hook that interpolates Washington, D.C.’s Go-Go legends Trouble Funk, and “Perfect Strangers” has a sweet sad gospel feel to it. It’s unexpected, but it feels right somehow.
One of the reasons Lil Wayne has remained at the forefront of pop culture even now is how effectively he passed the torch to his Young Money protégé Drake, who’s been dominating mainstream hip-hop since around the time Wayne stopped. Drake, who appeared on the highest charting singles from Tha Carter IV, I Am Not A Human Being, and IANAHB2, is conspicuously absent from Tha Carter V (save for an eight word cameo on “Hittas”). But the album is better off without its first attempt at a lead single, 2014’s top ten hit “Believe Me,” which was essentially a Drake song about how great and irreplaceable Drake is. And it’s kind of refreshing to hear a 2018 rap album from someone who knows Drake but isn’t desperate to remind us about it.
When Lil Wayne began building the legend of “Mixtape Weezy” in the mid-2000s, there wasn’t actually that much difference between the goblin that devoured other artist’s beats for sport and the ascendant pop star that made platinum albums. But the gap has gradually widened to the point where the guy who made the freewheeling freestyles on Dedication 6 less than a year ago really is distinctly different from the tired, stressed out superstar on “Mess” and “Problems.” 2011’s Tha Carter IV had a sour, downbeat undercurrent to it too, but Tha Carter V is 27 minutes longer, and all 27 of them are painfully earnest.
At one point, Lil Wayne said Tha Carter V would be his final album, but after disputes with Cash Money kept the album shelved for years, it started to sound more like he wanted to use the album to restart his career with a different label. Whether or not it is any kind of goodbye or last hurrah, though, the album has a valedictory air to it. In addition to the spoken appearances from Wayne’s mother, his daughter Reginae Carter sings on “Famous,” and the mother one of Wayne’s other children, R&B star Nivea, is on “Dope New Gospel.” For years Lil Wayne swore allegiance to Cash Money for life and called Birdman his father. Now that his musical family has collapsed, we hear Wayne with his actual family more than ever before. It’s heartwarming in ways a Lil Wayne album has never been before, but it’s also boring in ways you never thought a Lil Wayne album could be.
Al Shipley is a writer based in Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.