Lil Wayne in 2004.
One of the most anticipated albums of 2014 is Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter V, the supposed last installment in a hugely successful franchise that has so far spanned four of the highest-selling albums by one of hip-hop’s biggest stars. That series turns ten on Sunday with the anniversary of Tha Carter, which saw its release on June 29th of 2004. And yet, it’s likely that many of Wayne’s younger fans who will listen to Tha Carter V, or who already own the last two volumes in the series, have never listened to Tha Carter. In film, the first installment of a series is rarely eclipsed by its sequels, because you need to see the story from the beginning to understand it. But in music, where there’s no overarching narrative to keep track of, people can start or stop paying attention whenever they want.
But everything that Lil Wayne is today, that he accomplished in the past decade, began with Tha Carter. In 2004, Lil Wayne was on the verge of becoming a 21-year-old has-been. His third album, 500 Degreez, hadn’t even pushed half a million units. And his platinum debut, The Block Is Hot, was nearly five years in the rearview, along with the songs that had made him famous like Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up” and B.G.’s “Bling Bling.” Cash Money Records was in a state of upheaval—the Big Tymers were still moving units, but Juve had just released his final album for the label, and their roster was quickly dwindling. For over a decade, the New Orleans rap label had signed nothing but rappers from New Orleans, but were now picking up R&B singers like TQ and Lil Mo in a confused bid for expansion.
In 2002, Wayne formed a crew, Sqad Up, and began recording freestyle mixtapes. The other four rappers in Sqad Up included Gudda Gudda, mainly viewed YMCMB also-ran and the guy with the “Grocery Bag” line on “Every Girl,” and Kidd Kidd, now signed with 50 Cent, but Wayne dominated the tapes. His last mixtape with the Sqad was the famous “10,000 Bars” session where Wayne emptied out his entire notebook over a couple dozen beats, to finally purge himself of old lyrics and begin writing without a pen.
In 2003, Lil Wayne recorded the first version of Tha Carter and released the underwhelming lead single “Get Something” (which features a quaint early version of one of his famous catchphrases: “It’s Weezy F, man, and the F is for fly”). Then, he fell out with Sqad Up, and decided to shelve what had been recorded for the album, which heavily featured and repped the group. Back then, an established artist releasing a flop single, then scrapping an entire album and re-recording most of it was a rare, potentially embarrassing occurrence (other instances of the shelve-and-re-record technique from that era include Usher’s 8701, Nas’ Nastradamus and Monica’s After the Storm). Now, it’s almost the standard. The first proper single from the new Tha Carter, “Bring It Back,” decisively launched the album with a ballsy answer to the claim Jay Z had made on The Black Album a few months earlier: “Best rapper alive, since the best rapper retired.”
Tha Carter turned out to be some of Mannie Fresh’s last work for Cash Money before leaving the label—after that, he turned in the solo album The Mind of Mannie Fresh, did three tracks on Birdman’s 2005 album Fast Money, and was completely gone by the time Tha Carter II arrived. And although Fresh has had a few moments in the spotlight since then, producing moderately successful singles for Young Jeezy, T.I. and 2 Chainz, Tha Carter is in some ways his last hurrah as an unstoppable hitmaker. His hooks and ad-libs were still hilarious, but his beats were harder and more varied than his usual N.O. bounce template to keep up with the new, more grown up Wayne.
In some ways, Tha Carter sounds as dated and formative as Wayne’s earlier albums. He had begun to focus more on his lyrics and experiment with his voice, but he only showed hints of the oddball creativity he’d unleash on mixtapes in 2006 and 2007. His voice had deepened into adulthood from the squeaky teenager on his early recordings, but he hadn’t yet started to sing and cackle and rasp on the beat. He sounds almost reserved compared to his present-day style. There’s even a noticeable contrast between the album version of “Go DJ” and the more animated, re-recorded clean verses for the single. But songs like the emotional Hot Boys reminisce “I Miss My Dawgs” and the propulsive banger “Who Wanna” still stand up as prime Weezy. It’s just a shame the album lost momentum when its worst track, the Jazze Pha-assisted “Earthquake,” was released as the follow-up to its biggest single, “Go DJ.”
2004 was a rebuilding year for Lil Wayne. He still got outsold by B-list New York rappers like Jadakiss and Lloyd Banks, but by the end of the year Jay Z was placing him on a Destiny’s Child single alongside T.I. The success Lil Wayne soon attained would completely eclipse Tha Carter—today, “Go DJ” is only the 90th most popular Lil Wayne song on Spotify (and the 17th most popular song from the four Carter albums). But it remains the pivotal moment of his career, the album that reversed the trajectory of a former teen star on the decline to a superstar in the making.
Al Shipley's is still trying to figure out what Gudda Gudda meant by, "I got her, grocery bag." He's on Twitter - @alshipley
For more YMCMB funtimes, check our guide to the YMCMB roster as Street Fighter characters, an ode to Tyga's Instagram, and the story of how the one guy Young Thug follows on Instagram tried to fly us to Dubai in exchange for sex.