Depending on how you want to gauge it, we’re witnessing the fourth incarnation of Lil Wayne. First there was the borderline kiddie-rapper. Then there was the circa 2005 version, who made many listeners begrudgingly admit that Wayne suddenly started rhyming his ass off. And of course, there was superstar Weezy—endorser of Auto-tune, impregnator of Pop culture vixens and a man prone to the occasional drug-addled haze, a faux Rock album, and still rhyming his ass off if he felt like it. Through each version, even Lil Wayne’s detractors have secretly hoped for that complete, signature album where he reconciled the superior lyrical abilities found on his earlier mixtapes with the chart success he’s found on his last few solo outings. Unfortunately, Tha Carter IV is not that album. The fact that most of us have spent a week debating what the fallout will be from Wayne’s Jay-Z diss on “It’s Good” instead of the album's wins was probably a bad omen.
None of this is to say Wayne’s most recent offering in the “Carter” series won’t wind up as the country’s number one album, and potentially spawn a handful of hit singles. If some of Wayne’s peers had made this album, they’d be looking at their creative high water mark. But after lyrically standing toe-to-toe with the likes of Andre 3000, Jay-Z and demolishing other artist’s best singles via his mixtapes, the stakes and expectations have been raised for Wayne. This time around, he occasionally pushes the envelope with “How To Hate” and the Bruno Mars assisted “Mirror.” The latter is a concept track—a rarity from Wayne these days—and the former finds the Weezy and T-Pain duo flipping the script and lamenting over women that have done them wrong.
That’s not to say some of these conceptual risks don’t fall flat on their face. The incredibly popular yet atrocious “How To Love,” finds Wayne exploring one of the few genres he hasn’t tried to crossover into yet—acoustic soul. He’s surprisingly on key as a vocalist, successfully ditching the Auto-tune crutch he used on “Lollipop.” But the Kenny Chesney vibe and corny concept of reforming one of the chicks he just asked to “jump up on that dick and do a full split” a few songs before rings hollow. If you’re not a die-hard Weezy fan, you may constantly find yourself trying to reconcile that opinion with the fact that “How To Love” is the eighth most popular song in the country.
Drake and Wayne confirm that they do indeed have enough chemistry to pull off a joint album with “She Will,” but they both revisit old territory as opposed to taking any risks or offering any substance. Weezy recycles his metaphor about life and/or karma being some type of female twice within the opening 45 seconds; then he makes one of his many references to cunilingus, all while continually patting himself on the back for pedestrian bars and punchlines.
On what is Lil Wayne’s ninth studio album, there’s very little of the spontaneity you would expect from someone whose calling card is non-written, unrehearsed, free-associative rhymes. The double-time and drawn out cadences he experimented with back on “Fuck Wit Me Now” or even as recent as “Money On My Mind” have been abandoned for a staccato flow accented by the ever-popular hashtag rap. Thematically, Tha Carter IV is sequenced better than any of its predecessors except for Tha Carter II. The sonic backdrops from Bangladesh, Detail and Polow Da Don compliment each other well without getting monotonous. But you won’t find any surprises like “Shooter” or “Let The Beat Build.”
Granted, you don’t buy a Lil Wayne album hoping for spiritual enlightenment, but even previous moments like “Tie My Hands” are conspicuously absent. At the very least, Wayne earns cool points for having a who’s who of Hip Hop royalty rhyme his interlude and massive “Outro” posse cut without actually joining in on the fun. It’s a flippant move, but the pairing of Tech N9ne and Andre 3000, is nearly worth the purchase price alone. In the end, it’s almost symbolic because the Wayne who once rhymed hammock with sandwich and previously held court with these top-tier emcees isn’t here this time around.