The road to Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter V has been a long one. The album’s rollout has been marred by lawsuits, reconciliations, and even more lawsuits before finally being released seven years after it was first teased. Though there’s not yet a clear standout on the behemoth 23-track album (in this case the lengthy tracklist is justified; we’ve waited long enough as it is), the most talked about song so far has been the much-anticipated collaboration between Wayne and Kendrick Lamar on the Onhel & Infamous-produced “Mona Lisa.” The track, initially teased to the world in 2014 through disgraced “Pharma bro” Martin Shkreli, has little to no hook and is seemingly all BARS BARS BARS on first skim, as the two tell a story about a woman who sets her boyfriend up to get robbed. But what is most interesting about the track is that it's a long-awaited bookend to years of homages and tributes from Lamar to Weezy.
Lamar has always been explicitly clear about his deep love for the New Orleans rapper. Hell, Lamar’s biggest single to date, “Humble,” cites Wayne when he says “Soprano C, we like to keep it on a high note,” a throwback to the line on Wayne’s 2014 mixtape Sorry 4 The Wait 2. This extends as far back as 2009 as Lamar, under the alias of K.Dot, put out the tape C4, an 18-track ode to Lil Wayne that opens, kind of embarrassingly, with an audio co-sign from the rapper himself. The fun in listening to the project, however, is seeing a young Kendrick clearly cribbing cadences and tone flips that will inevitably become the blueprint of his nimble, vocally modulated verses now. For example, listen to Lamar’s opening for “A Milli” where he imitates Lil Wayne’s vocal fry and his particularly unique enunciation of “Dawg.” To best exemplify how deep an obsessive student Lamar is compared that to former Wayne imitator Childish Gambino as he tries to embody Wayne’s ad-lib and cooly aggressive tone on “Freaks and Geeks.” One is playing Wayne as character throwing on a raspy voice, a very common mistake, whereas Lamar is literally trying to sound out syllables and letters on a 1:1 with Wayne. (Compare Lamar’s love of onomatopoeias and his infamous DOOT DOOT DOOT” with Wayne’s, shown best in the iconic “Wowzers.”) So, when the two finally met on Mike Will Made-It’s “Buy the World” in 2014, it was... a little disappointing.
There is nothing wrong with “Buy The World,” fundamentally. It’s a breezy bop with Future cresting on an infectious hook about ambition and something Scarface-adjacent. Lil Wayne sounds great as he hits a neat double-time: “Lord, help us Lord, my bitch is beautiful, Helen of Troy.“ Kendrick does much the same, picking up the flow and going into a military-like snare drum pattern while delving into one of his many asides about his dick not being free. The song gets shaky though, and it's clear that the verses were pieced together with no one being aware of another’s presence on the track. Put simply, it’s not a true collaboration, lacking the interesting vocal acrobatics or chemistry we expect to hear from both. Perhaps that’s why the song was only a minor hit and why “Mona Lisa” is being instantly celebrated. That, and "Mona Lisa" is as a snapshot of two very eccentric artists now on equal grounds letting loose.
Speculated to have been recorded in 2016, due to a reference to now-retired Kobe Bryant (a player both rappers are rather too fond of referencing), “Mona Lisa” isn’t the rapping clinic that Twitter hype has made it out to be. Instead, it’s a fun-if-not-rigorous listening experience, as the two—Kendrick specifically—put on a show-and-tell of all the animated vocal tones and takes Lil Wayne helped to pioneer.
Wayne ushers in the song in a low register before stretching his usual high perched off-pitch tone to its breaking point as he raps: “Turn that shit down and I scared the piss out of him/Piss a n***a off, put a gun to his frown.” He then brings it down into a sing-song voice that carries us to the hook and up again. It’s classic Wayne, reminiscent of his more frequent use of auto-tune in the 2010s. Lamar carries the song in much the same way, throwing us in and out of his natural register with (again taking after Wayne)) autotune, but with the added inclusion of string sections because duh, he’s Kendrick.
What is likely pulling the most attention in the song is Lamar taking it up a notch, going fully into character as the distressed partner at his wit’s end, his voice one of his highest-pitched in memory, sniffles and all. (Never to be bested again after Future bodied him on “King’s Dead” using the same technique). Wayne has always played with his vocals, taking on an Alien-like presence in “Phone Home,” but he mostly tends to stay in his vocal pocket. Wayne still sounds like Wayne, whereas proteges like Young Thug and, in this case, Kendrick, have taken it the extra mile, sounding wholly unlike themselves and simultaneously becoming new people. Wayne has inadvertently inspired some form of role-playing that goes beyond inhabiting perspectives and characters through words and getting the voices to reflect that too.
The best thing about this song, however, is how both verses could be respective closers on any track. A great song has a climax that throws you to its conclusion feeling energized, drained, or fulfilled. Wayne is a master of this form and it’s hard not to imagine Kendrick not pulling that from him as well. Take Lil Wayne on anything between 2005 and 2008—best exemplified with his appearance on DJ Khaled’s “We Takin Over” (you probably already hear the verse in your head). Lamar has also made a career of it as evidenced by the “Ridin Round Town” remix, “Fucking Problem” with, again, another quote about his dick. (“Wowzers” still usurps this it has a whole about Wayne’s penis). Nevertheless, the give-and-take offered on “Mona Lisa” is the exceptional flashpoint in an album that largely delivers. It's not the corny passing of a torch from a one-time most “commercially successful” rapper alive to a former student showing what he’s learned to his tutor.
Also just for the sake of controversy, Wayne had the better verse, Kendrick’s just sounded cooler.
Jabbari cannot be found on Twitter.