As the world has changed around him, Wayne has been forced to change with it. The previous installment in one of hip hop’s most iconic series was a bloated attempt to stay current with the times. Granted, this isn’t exactly an EP by any standards. A 23 song tracklist is an ambitious outing no matter how you cut it, but despite a regrettable Sosamann feature and a few at worst average tracks, the tape never really drags. This is not at all to say it was without its moments, because Wayne is able to effectively bridge the gap between old and new. The high-hat infused trap sound that has dominated hip hop in recent years is present but not in control. Staples such as Zaytoven and Metro Boomin are credited as producers and bring an element of freshness to the project without attempting to make the clubs’ next anthem. From the dark and layered “Used 2” to the sample of Dr. Dre’s G-Funk classic “Xxplosive” on “Dope Niggaz,” Wayne succeeds in finding his own authentic niche and emphatically states he can still hang with the best.
Although there’s no shortage of boasts, what in the past would have been unchecked braggadocio has now been tempered by the judgements of a wiser man. What may be the number one highlight of the entire album, “Mona Lisa” sees Lil Wayne at the peak of his storytelling powers. No longer content to just be better than the opposition, he now opts to toy with his enemies, orchestrating a false relationship to rob another man blind. To start, he has his compatriot convince a man of her undying loyalty. As the man begins to fall in love with her, Wayne and his slowly take more and more until only one job remains.
“Where C3 saw a young Wayne radiating the kind of confidence that comes from being untouchable, Tha Carter V embodies the resolve of a battle-tested vet who has endured the worst and still comes out on the other side.“
In the final chilling moments after the crew have broken in and surrounded their prey, Wayne simply says “Liz, that’s enough you can put your hands down.” That’s all it takes to break the charade, and in that moment before his demise, the man knows he was played. This isn’t the act of some new kid on the block who just happens to pull it off, this is the act of a hardened criminal. Everything is calculated to a dime, and the authority with which Wayne raps on the subject is something I’m skeptical a younger version of him could pull off. When Kendrick comes on with his stellar verse and his girlfriend’s “Lollipop” ringtone goes off, that’s just the icing on the cake. This kind of song from Wayne is entirely unprecedented and speaks to his desire to grow and expand his repertoire.
His growth is not limited to the studio as much of the tape focuses on his development as a person as well. We get a look at the man behind the curtain in “Can’t Be Broken” where he takes us on a journey through his life, starting with his immediate struggles at birth growing up with “no baby food, unless you go and take the neighbors food.” It’s less of an advocacy for the kill-or-be-killed attitude often glorified in a much of gangster rap and more of an explanation for how the drive for self preservation inevitably re-centers priorities. As he moves out of adolescence and into the role of a father, the priorities necessarily shift to doing anything to ensure that “at least the bills are paid, the children safe.” His indestructibility is no longer a means for his own survival but is now instead motivated by his children’s need for a sturdy foundation.
No longer enveloped in the haze of youthful arrogance, Wayne has had ample time for self-reflection. A former proponent of hip hop’s excessive drug culture, on “Open Letter” he now feels consumed by the need to use, even going as far as to say he feels an “anchor tied to my finger, got me sinkin to the bottom of my drink.” It’s a surprising revelation from the “Me and My Drank” rapper and shares a glimpse of self awareness that he has been unwilling to divulge in the past. It’s far from a condemnation of party culture but feels like a much needed confession in a year where the effects of substance abuse have rattled the music world to its core.
Accompanied by an impeccable sample of Sampha‘s “Indecision,” the need to reconcile with the past is more present than ever on the song “Let It All Work Out.” This track features the most shocking admission of the entire album as Wayne addresses the self inflicted gunshot wound that was long thought to be accidental. The entire song builds until it explodes into the declaration that there was “too much on my conscience to be smart about it, too torn apart about it, I aim where my heart was pounding, I shot it, and I woke up with blood all around me.” But here, he diverts the focus from the trauma of the incident to the gratitude of having a second chance. As mentioned in interviews, by opening up about his truth he hopes to normalize a dialogue and help others confront similar demons within themselves.
Much like the increased desire for a positive communal impact, the importance of family is ingrained throughout the album as he thrusts members of his family into the spotlight. Reginae Carter’s successful debut may have opened the door for ventures outside of her father’s work, but it’s his mother who really steals the show. On an album that could be seen as a bit scatterbrained or directionless, she is the anchor that holds it all together. Even when Wayne is going about a “blunt big, big as Mama June off the diet plan,” Jacida is never far away providing an emotional counterbalance. From her touching tribute to start the album, to her vote of confidence upon hearing of his first child, it’s clear to see she has always been his driving force. On an album so stuffed with ideas and competing motivations, she ties it all together and ends the album just how it started. “I love you, Dwayne.”
“First listens are tricky, but all you need is one to send you back to a time when he would regularly boast about being the greatest rapper alive, and you couldn’t help but believe him.“
The Carter series has always served as a good benchmark for where Wayne is in his career. From young upstart to pop culture icon to washed-up has-been, he’s seen it all. As much as you have have loved him in the past, there was little reason to expect he had an album of this magnitude in him. First listens are tricky, but all you need is one to send you back to a time when he would regularly boast about being the greatest rapper alive, and you couldn’t help but believe him. People will be quick to shout Weezy’s back. With Tha Carter V, it’s like he never even left.