The long-delayed album captures Wayne how we want to remember him: openhearted, word-drunk, and exhilarated by the possibilities of his own voice.
We can only imagine what Tha Carter V might have sounded like in 2014 when Lil Wayne first announced it was finished. We’ll never know how many Trinidad James features that shelved draft of the album might have included, or what kind of play on “Blurred Lines” Wayne might have made, or which words he might have rhymed with Gotye. That album probably wouldn’t have been very good, and it almost certainly wouldn’t have been as rewarding or revealing as the belated final product that a humbled Wayne presented on his 36th birthday, after the four most trying years of his career.
Lil Wayne was already mired in a brutal slump when the bottom fell out. Overexposed and uninspired, he’d become so resigned to his dwindling relevance after years of repeating the same jokes that he’d even stopped calling himself the greatest rapper alive. Then, for reasons that still aren’t completely clear, his mentor and father figure Birdman turned on him, refusing to release the album and all but holding his career hostage amid bitter contractual disputes. The two reconciled this year, but the hurt and betrayal are harrowingly documented on 2015’s Sorry 4 The Wait II, the most impassioned of Wayne’s otherwise lifeless 2010s mixtapes.
Despite the toll those wilderness years took on him, it may have been for the best that Tha Carter V was delayed so long. It’s hard to imagine the rapper who’d released the dreadful I Am Not a Human Being II just a few months prior could have crafted an album this tactful and heartfelt. There’s a degree of quality control on Carter V that nobody could have expected from a 2018 Lil Wayne record, let alone a nearly 90-minute one.
Wayne is no longer the lunatic trailblazer of his ’00s mixtape run, a rapper who in a just a couple bars could summon a purplish reality where fish flew through the skies and pigeons swam in the ocean. It’s hard for that kind of Christopher Robin imagination to survive this deep into adulthood. But more than any release since 2009’s No Ceilings, Carter V captures Wayne how we want to remember him: openhearted, word-drunk, and exhilarated by the possibilities of his own voice. He dials back his most obnoxious tics: the overbearing Auto-Tune; the incessant dick jokes; that awful, forced cackle that grated exponentially more with every tired crack. And even his lamer quips pay off in unexpected, sometimes emotional ways. “Blunt big, big as Mama June off the diet plan/Smokin’ science lab/I should have a tattoo that say, ‘I’m not like my dad,’” he raps over a nervy Zaytoven beat on “Problems.”
Some of these tracks date back years, while others were reportedly finished just weeks ago. That could be a recipe for whiplash, but most of this material is woven together so seamlessly that its provenance is never a distraction. Nicki Minaj gives the most radiant R&B performance of her career on “Dark Side of the Moon,” and Kendrick Lamar brings Nicholas Cage-levels of insanity to his “Stan”-inspired spotlight turn on “Mona Lisa,” breaking out a dozen different voices as he dramatizes the breakdown of jealous boyfriend driven to the edge by his partner’s obsession with Weezy. Neither Wayne nor Kendrick let the song’s high concept get in the way of unbridled, ferocious rapping. On the more of-the-moment end of the spectrum, there’s “Don’t Cry,” an XXXTentacion feature that kicks off the album on a misleading, miserablist note, and “Let It Fly,” an undistinguished foray into Travis Scott’s boutique trap.
But unlike 2011’s relentlessly trend-chasing Tha Carter IV, on Carter V, Wayne finally gives himself permission to fall behind the times. The record is never more electric than when Wayne engages with his past, victoriously returning to lanes he’s conquered instead of fixating on all the newer ones he’ll never own. He reunites with Mannie Fresh on the riotously fun throwback “Start This Shit Off Right,” accompanied by Young Money’s resident lovable goofball Mack Maine and a heavenly hook from the queen of radio’s yesteryear, Ashanti. Swizz Beatz gets in on the nostalgia, too, adrenalizing his club jam “Uproar” with a hyped-up flip of G. Dep’s “Special Delivery.”
For as much as it’s been retooled over the last four years, one thing has remained the same since Tha Carter V was first announced: Its cover, a photo of a young Wayne with his mother Jacida. She looms protectively over the entire album, tearfully narrating its opening track and filling in Wayne’s biography in interludes. She’s not the only woman in his life who plays a prominent role. His eldest daughter Reginae capably sells a bittersweet hook on “Famous,” and his ex-fiancée Nivea graces his redemption tale “Dope New Gospel.”
Their presence foreshadows the uncommonly personal tone of the album’s final stretch, especially the closer, “Let It All Work Out.” It shines new light on one of the tentpoles of Lil Wayne’s backstory: the self-inflicted gunshot wound he survived at age 12, which he’d always maintained was an accident. Now, he confirms, it wasn’t. “Too much was on my conscience to be smart about it/Too torn apart about it, I aim where my heart was pounding,” he raps. It’s a powerful reveal, one he in effect waited years to share until he had found the right happy ending to frame it around, and it closes the record on a breath-stopping note. The most surprising takeaway from Tha Carter V, it turns out, isn’t that Wayne still has music this vital in him. It’s that after all these years, there’s still more to learn about him.