Lil Wayne – ‘Tha Carter V’ review

It could have been his emotional swansong, and much of this long-delayed record is an elegiac homage to Lil Wayne’s outlier status as an elder statesman of hip-hop. Yet he cheapens himself on ‘Tha Carter V’

Dwayne Carter Jr.’s long-delayed ‘Tha Carter V’ begins with a monologue from his mother, Jacida Carter. Entitled ‘I Love You Dwayne’, it opens with an emotional Jacida saying, “Lil Wayne, mama proud of you – you done come so far.” She continues, “Thank the lord, because I know you have been through a lot that I don’t even know about.” It’s true that Wayne has had a rough – well – near-decade since he won four Grammys in 2009. Overall, he’s graced the Billboard Hot 100 138 times, scored three Number One albums and sold more than 17.2 million records in America alone (more than 100 million worldwide). In recent years, though, he’s been mired in legal wrangles with his mentor Birdman’s Cash Money label – hence the four-year delay for this record – battled addiction with codeine and suffered a series of very serious seizures.

His career’s been on the slide, too. Poor reviews and diminishing commercial returns (it’s been five years since his last official studio album, ‘I Am Not A Human Being II’, which he described as his “bum-ass album”, reached Number Two on the US charts) mean he’s been overshadowed by his own protégés, Nicki Minaj and Drake, who’ve redefined hip-hop as pop music. But Wayne doesn’t sound hungry on ‘Tha Carter V’. He sounds cynical and weary, a tone that’s often well-suited to a record on which he looks back on his past, surveying the distance he’s travelled, and seems to shake his head in disbelief. There’s clip of Barack Obama saying, “They might think they’ve got a pretty good jumpshot, or a pretty good flow, but our kids can’t all aspire to be LeBron or Lil Wayne.” That’s how famous Wayne managed to become.

The 36-year-old addresses this on ‘Famous’, a collaboration with his 19-year-old daughter Reginae Carter, a plaintive ballad on which she notes, “This is how you live your life / Different city every night / You must be famous.” For his part, Wayne sounds dislocated, alone, far from his loved ones, rapping, “People point at me, say, ‘Oh my God’ / They got a point / Tried to blow my nose and blew my mind.” Yet “the fan mail and subpoenas”, the journey from “jail cells to arenas”, don’t come without emotional exhaustion. This is not self-pitying; more a tacit acknowledgment that this is the only way it could have been. His journey from poverty in New Orleans to a reported net worth of $150m sounds almost inevitable, the only place his talent could take him. But that doesn’t mean it’s palatable to become yesterday’s news, or that he doesn’t feel dislocated from the past.

Elsewhere, he’s more defiant. On the booming ‘Uproar’, which samples G-Dep’s 2001 hip-hop classic ‘Special Delivery’, confounded but still confident, still sneering, he raps, “What the fuck, though? Where’d the love go?” On the bouncing, snare-popping ‘Dedicate’, a 2 Chainz sample reminds us, “If it wasn’t for Wayne, it wouldn’t be”. The track segues into a jazzy piano flourish, a classy touch that emphasises Wayne’s still-regal status.

On the Nicki Minaj-featuring ‘Dark Side of the Moon’, he pays tribute to a romantic relationship that has survived his trip through the Earth’s atmosphere, even as he wipes “the stars from the windows on my spaceship.” At the elegiac coda to ‘Used 2’, Jacida returns to offer her perspective on a deeply troubling incident that occurred when he was 12. Wayne claims he was attempting suicide; “I still don’t know today,” she says, “was he playing with the gun or was it an accident?” Jacida admits: “I be wanting to ask him, but I never asked him all these years.”

‘Tha Carter V’ is 23 tracks long. The above moments, with which he reflects on his own waning legacy, his becoming distanced from his own family, and feeling unrelated to the anonymous kid that started rapping professionally at 14, provide the emotional backbone to the record. Elsewhere, on the Kendrick Lamar collaboration ‘Mona Lisa’, the duo flex their formidable imaginations, spinning a ludicrous yarn about a femme fatale who dupes some poor dope into a robbery. There are some funny moments – Kendrick adopts the hysterical, high-pitched tone of the sad-sack in question, blubbing, “You fucking with Wayne?… He on your fucking ringtone?… Touching yourself, looking at Kendrick videos?” – but the track provides a gateway, a secret door, into the misogyny that runs rampart throughout some of this frustrating, disjointed record.

On ‘Open Safe’, which begins with a creeping trap rhythm, Wayne raps, “Bitch screamed when the dick was halfway in her / Damn, you ain’t dead yet? I’m amazed, n*gga.” Later, he boasts, “Your bitch cut her legs when they was on my shoulder blades, n*gga” and that “I stick her hands in the fan blades, n*gga.” This is depressing stuff, and that’s before we even address the fact that the maudlin ‘Don’t Cry’ features the late XXXTentacion, who was charged with aggravated battery of a pregnant woman before his death. Kanye West’s upcoming ‘Yandhi’ will posthumously feature the rapper, too, indicating his and Wayne’s dispiriting appetite for headlines at any cost. Question: why would you want your mum on the same record as XXXTentacion? This album could have been Wayne’s melancholic swansong, an elegiac homage to his own career, reflections from the elder statesman of hip-hop.

At this point in history, Lil Wayne seems more like a grizzled country singer than a rap superstar. His Young Money signees Nicki Minaj and Drake became proper, glossy, much-memed pop stars. Even Gucci Mane cleaned up. But Wayne never did that, and that was probably to his detriment. With ‘Tha Carter V’, he could have owned his outlier status – and, true enough, that’s what much of this album represents. Wayne blew up before streaming culture did and, although his prolific approach in some ways anticipated the online age, he remains a representative of the past, an icon who exists in a vacuum. His career’s a testament to the power of creativity (he’s claimed he attempted suicide at 12 because Jacida banned him from rapping), but the misogyny of ‘Tha Carter V’ cheapens its moving moments. Was this worth the wait?

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