It’s been a difficult six years for Lil Wayne. Since Tha Carter V was first announced back in 2012, Weezy has mostly been stuck in artistic purgatory, unable to release new music on a major label as a - sometimes deadly - legal battle ensued with his mentor and Cash Money Records business partner Bryan “Birdman” Williams. Subsequently, the fifth in the acclaimed Carter series has taken on a near mythical status, affectively becoming the Chinese Democracy of hip hop, after suffering such a farcical number of delays.
Birdman and Wayne have now worked out their legal issues - resulting in a hefty financial settlement for the latter - which means the album can finally see the light of day. And, fortunately, it’s not been overshadowed by all the drama; Tha Carter V is a welcome return to form for the now 36-year-old New Orleans native, full of proof that he remains an elite rapper. Wayne sounds energized; he has retained his love for bending words and experimenting with intoxicating flows. The uninspired Wayne of recent years, forcing us to sit through endless phoned-in verses about cunnilingus and rocking Trukfit, is no where to be seen here.
The fun keys of “Dedicate” inspire some of Wayne’s most confident rapping since the Dedication 3 mixtape back in 2008. When he spits, “I started this shit, you just part of this shit/ I'm the heart of this shit, and the heart doesn't skip / Take the heart of yo' bitch/ 'cause like Bart, you a simp” - you’ll be nodding your head uncontrollably. The same can be said for the Swizz Beats-produced “Uproar,” further proof that Wayne (who raps “I sleep with the gun, and she don’t snore”) hasn’t lost his trademark, nutty turn of phrase. The thrilling “Mona Lisa” is also full of ferocious rapping, replete with an overly-enthusiastic guest verse from Kendrick Lamar, rapping to the point of exhaustion and serving as a reminder of where he inherited this unorthodox rapping style from in the first place.
In addition, Tha Carter V happens to contain some of Wayne’s most emotional songwriting to date, continuing in the same vein as his brutally honest guest verse on Solange’s 2016 album A Seat at the Table. It’s a cathartic record, one that enables Wayne to get a hell of a lot off his chest and also make peace with his mother through a series of emotional interludes. The late XXXTentacion's haunting hook on “Don’t Cry,” which sounds like an eerie message from beyond the grave, galvanizes Wayne’s introspective side, giving us an insight into how a series of violent, near fatal, seizures may have altered his sense of mortality.
As the saying goes, in the midst of life we are in death, and this is a concept fully embodied by Weezy on the brilliant “Hittas,” where he raps, “Use the rope to hang myself to tie a money bag up.” This effortless ability to mix melancholy with bravado is something few rappers possess. Lil Wayne sits close to Biggie and Tupac as artists possessing the rare ability to compellingly move from the darkness into the light via acrobatic wordplay.
It's clear the extent to which Wayne has grown as a songwriter – far more comfortable with exploring his inner demons while expressing a maturity and humbleness that feels necessary in the era of a faux woke Kanye West. On “Don’t Cry”, Wayne says, “Fame is not a given, be humble” – advice one can only hope a crumbling Ye takes to heart. Meanwhile, the beautifully honest “Let It All Work Out,” built around a poignant Sampha sample, is one of the most important songs of his career.
For the first couples of verses, it sounds like Wayne’s feeling out the beat, building up his confidence ahead of making a frank admission. By the time verse three arrives, Wayne opens his heart fully, admitting a self-inflicted gun wound as a teenager wasn’t an accident, but a suicide attempt. This song demonstrably marks Wayne’s evolution into a more mature songwriter, hitting home that he is in fact a human being, just like the rest of us.
That’s not to say all of Tha Carter V’s introspection works. “Dark Side of the Moon” features try-hard wailing from Nicki Minaj and cheesy, uninspired metaphors that correlate love with the solar system. “Famous,” although full of focused rapping, also misses the mark, sounding a lot like one of Eminem and Skylar Grey’s more cringe-worthy, pop-rap hybrids. The fact this was an album created over a six-year period weighs it down a little, with its bloated 90-minute length clearly out-of-step with tighter, more recent projects and containing music (such as the Ashanti-featuring “Start This Shit Off Right” and the Snoop Dogg duet "Dope Niggaz") that sounds a little dated. However, Tha Carter V hits more than it misses, and even when its music sags, Wayne remains utterly compelling.
Some may argue that Tha Carter V is littered with misogyny – claims that are rightful and not without merit – but where Wayne once dedicated most of his lyricism to empty sex metaphors, he’s now developed much more of a guilty conscience. On “Perfect Strangers,” he concedes, “I’ve been talking to the man in her mirror, that been fucking with these bitches and it’s dangerous.” It points to the regrets he now carries at living such a carefree lifestyle, that middle age has turned the idea of infinite sexual conquests into something more of a risk rather than a reward. In essence, Lil Wayne has finally grown up.
Wayne’s ear for street anthems and talent for quotable punchlines remains intact, but it’s the raw introspection that makes Tha Carter V so enjoyable. It might not be the best in the Carter series, but it’s potentially the most important, paving the way for a new chapter in Weezy’s career where more philosophical lyricism should allow him to transition into the role of rap's elder statesman, a lot like JAY-Z did with 4:44. Sure, you might hit the skip button a few times, but that doesn’t stop this record's potency. Tha Carter V is a testament to the notion that when its creator is feeling inspired, he has the look and feel of one of the greats.