‘Tha Carter V’ Shows Lil Wayne Tired but Still Inspired

Nearly a decade ago, Lil Wayne became the biggest rapper in the world, with hits like “A Milli” and “Lollipop.” He had been a fixture of the scene for plenty time with Cash Money and all, but the way he catapulted to stardom represented a sea change in hip-hop. It showed a general preference for the southern style of rapping, maybe “dirty south,” way of rapping, rather than the B-boy, Adidas sneakers-wearing, NYC routine. He’s been lying low recently, after much scathing criticism for recent rather tepid releases, but he’s finally come out with something new, the predictably titled “Tha Carter V,” and while it’s nothing earth-shattering, it is a reminder of why everyone loved Lil Wayne in the first place.

The album starts off with a sample of Wayne’s mother speaking of her appreciation for him in  the most emotional way conceivable, sniffling and crying. From the onset, everything is a bit confusing. On one hand, the level of openness promises a heart-on-sleeve approach that usually makes for good art. On the contrary, this is hip-hop, and has Wayne really got this sappy? The next track, “Don’t Cry,” lends support to the latter concern. The late XXXTentacion, an artist who put some sorely needed edge into hip-hop, is here on his worst behavior, and that’s the not in the positive sense in which Drake put it. His shockingly terrible, off-key singing of the titular chorus is the stuff of the worst pop-punk think “emo” teens sobbing and whining. The album is not faring very well so far. On the brighter side, Wayne makes a nice nod to XXX, saying, “And triple extension on my motherfuckin’ afterlife.” Always the clever wordsmith, he has some rather brilliant lines in a hip-hop way, like, “And the U-turn signs lookin’ like a smile.” He’s turning things totally upside down. If only the music lived up to this.

On “Dedicate,” Wayne is on top of his game, dropping multisyllabic rhymes with such effortlessness that you have to pause and say, all things considered, Wayne never really fell off. He is, after all, simply an extremely good rapper. “Uproar” finds Wayne taking on the subject of his demotion in the media over the last few years, asking, “What the fuck though? Where the love go?” It really is a bit disturbing how listeners convert, with such alacrity, from fanatic fans to sneering critics, instead of having some faith in an artist that has given them music they enjoyed, and being willing to stick with him and overlook the low points.

Travis Scott shows up on “Let It Fly,” and sounds, well, just like Travis Scott, putting his signature stamp on the tune. Wayne and Scott have an exceptionally compatible chemistry, and the back-and-forth is one of the highlights of the record. Toward the end, Wayne raps as if he has some serious problems with his throat. He’s always had a voice that warranted the “Lil” portion of his moniker more than the deluge of artists that have adopted the same, and it has always given him character and identity, but in this song, it gets insufferable think fingernails on a chalkboard. But then, maybe you like the edge of it.

Wayne has been embroiled in lawsuits, and he alludes to this in the coolest way ever on “Can’t Be Broken,” saying, “I got a lawyer that turn any case into a pillow case.” He also continues to assert his relevance in spite of the recent backlash, saying, “It hurt to say, they want to get Lil Tune to break / It’s worth the wait, commercial break.” While this record isn’t quite a revelatory experience, there’s enough substance and flair here to validate his claim; it’s worth the wait. “Dark Side Of the Moon” has a stupid title, because who did you think you are taking on Floyd? Surprisingly, it’s actually pretty brilliant, in that it shows Wayne at his most poetic, joined by none other than Nicki Minaj, who has cited Wayne as one of her biggest influences. It’s not the most sonically engaging track, more lyrically, and this is undermined by the fact that Wayne is here on his slurred, stoned, half-asleep delivery mode, which sounds undeniably cool, but makes the words difficult to decipher. It tells the story of two that are beyond the restrictive boundaries of the world around them, and find escape in each other’s company. This type of fare could fall into sappy territory, but the hip-hop swag disinfects it and saves it from that quagmire, with lines like, “My astronaut helmet kinda shifted full of lipstick.” Insert smiley emojis here. Another striking line is, “We out of this world, baby we have been evicted.” Just like in the aforementioned U-turn sign lyric, Wayne is turning his frown upside down.   

“Mona Lisa,” featuring Kendrick Lamar, is a sure highlight. Wayne has echoes highlighting certain verses, and giving everything a surreal feel. But this song stands out because of its narrative element. It’s a tale featuring romantic intrigues and heroic stances. Let’s just leave it that, because after all, it’s more fun if you figure it out yourself, isn’t it? One thing about hip-hop is that the rhyming slang gets better steadily as it gets more removed from the regular vernacular, to the point where the end result can often be an alien, byzantine creation. That said, this is an exceptionally vivid, detailed song, and Kendrick kills it, as you would expect.

“Dope Niggaz,” features Snoop Dogg, and there couldn’t possibly be another featured artist in hip-hop that adds more flavor to a song by simply dropping a verse in his usual style than Snoop does. Snoop sounds so smooth that he really outshines Wayne. You’d wonder if it were audio editing that made him sound so fluid and free, but here you have him alongside Wayne, both apparently, they were with the same producer, so it actually bares testament to the notion that Snoop is in a league of his own that is unless you like that fingernails, chalkboard thing.”Start This Shit Off” is a throwback of sorts, featuring Ashanti, and throwing you back into the late ‘00s. At this point it’s starting to get a little bit too nostalgic. If you’re frustrated, you’ll find an outlet in Wayne himself, as in the following track, he gets so expressive with his voice that he borders on absolute screaming. The lyrics are the of the sort that are way too gratuitous unless you’re a graduate of Charlemagne’s or Akademiks’ academy. But within it there are lines like, “Found a halo in her trash, but she don’t talk about her past.” Wayne does have a knack for stringing words together.

“Dope New Gospel” starts off with Wayne rapping in Spanish, and sounding like an absolute idiot. It would be one thing if it were meant to be ironic, but it isn’t, and unless you’re of the breed that eats, breathes, and sleeps hip-hop, you have to pause for a moment, and ask, “WTF exactly is this guy going for?” This disjointed album doesn’t provide much of an answer, but Wayne makes sure to ground it in reality in the next track, “Perfect Strangers,” which abounds with autotune candyland for “Lollipop” enthusiasts. Of course, fact of the matter is he’s not so much latching in to a cliche as he is reclaiming it.  

All in all, this is the type of album that would make you turn your head to one direction and then shrug. It’s unclear what to make of Lil Wayne at the moment. He became so big so fast, and has always seemed like a bit of an outsider in his scene. There was a BET interview back in the day, in which he was asked about sports, and he answered that he wasn’t interested in “any ball thing.” He’s also described a previous album as “My bum ass album.” So what you have here is someone clearly disillusioned and jaded, and that makes its way into the music. The album has a feel of being a bit tepid, and if you asked Wayne, he’d probably agree. On the other hand, it does demonstrate a skilled rapper and unique personality, finally making an appearance after so long.

Tha Carter V” is available Sept. 28 on Apple Music.