For my money, Lil Wayne hit a crazy sustained peak in late 2005, when he released the great Tha Carter II, and he kept it going throughout 2006′s barrage of mixtapes and stray tracks. It felt like a privilege to witness what was happening there: A rapper working at the genre’s highest pop-cultural levels, finding new places to push his voice and actually letting the public hear these continuously mutating ideas. In the years since, no rapper has fired me up the way Wayne did during those months — not even Wayne himself. Whatever was animating him in 2006, it started to drift away around the time he discovered Auto-Tune. He’s done plenty of great stuff in the past four years, but it’s been a rocky road.
Since 2009, Wayne released a couple of pretty-good mixtapes, a relatively strong album of outtakes, and an utterly disastrous mook-rock experiment. He also served a few months in prison on a gun charge. None of that should make us confident about Tha Carter IV, Wayne’s first proper mostly-rap LP since 2008. So it’s both a relief and a frustration to learn that Tha Carter IV is a solid, fun, event-rap album, nothing more or less than that. 2006 Wayne is never coming back, but this one will do.
Like the last Carter, the new album finds Wayne playing the A-list rap star, which means he has to strike a balance (sometimes awkwardly, sometimes brilliantly) between bloodthirsty tough talk and emotively sugary my-life-is-complicated stuff. Two of the strongest tracks, the chaotic “Six Foot Seven Foot” and the bludgeoning Rick Ross collab “John,” are months-old advance singles, and the latter is really just a reimagining of Ross’s own “I’m Not A Star” anyway. Wayne himself doesn’t even appear on two other highlights, which is weird. “Interlude” (with Tech N9ne and André 3000) and the posse cut “Outro” (with Bun B, Nas, Busta Rhymes, and a sadly decrepit Shyne) essentially serve as well-curated compilation tracks, chances for Wayne to display his taste and his connections rather than his rapping ability.
As for the parts of the album that actually qualify as new Wayne tracks, I much prefer the pieces that keep him in snarly, gangsta-rap mode. “It’s Good” has Wayne throwing some pretty severe darts at Jay-Z (“Talkin’ ’bout Baby money? I got your Baby money / Kidnap your bitch, get that how-much-you-love-your-lady money”) in response to Jay’s “H.A.M.” subliminal (“I’m like really, half a billi, nigga? Really, you got Baby money? / Keep it real with niggas, niggas ain’t got my lady money”). And yes, that means Wayne semi-explicitly threatened to kidnap Beyoncé, which is ’90s style rap-beef fury that we rarely ever hear anymore. (The same track features Drake talking more about Wayne’s prison term than Wayne himself does on the whole album. I don’t know why that’s funny, but it is.) “President Carter” samples Jimmy Carter’s inaugural oath to great effect. The opening troika of “Intro,” “Blunt Blowin,” and “MegaMan” feature Wayne rapping hard, sans guests and interruptions, always a good time. Wayne’s rapping on these tracks is more lead-footed and simplistic than the mad brilliance he was once capable of, but he sounds invigorated on all of them, and the tracks match him well.
Wayne’s more pop-friendly tracks have a way of sneaking up on me, but on first listen, they’re something of a drag here. I still haven’t found much to like about the weirdly moralistic Auto-Tuned power ballad single “How To Love.” Its companion piece, the T-Pain assisted “How To Hate,” is just as thin, and its bitter relationship-talk is nearly as queasy as the kidnap-your-bitch stuff on the harder songs. “So Special,” on the other hand, is a well-executed bit of radio-rap with a gigantic John Legend chorus, though it’s less memorable than plenty of other tracks of its type. These songs might grow on me eventually. For now, they’re the things I skip past when I want to hear “It’s Good” again.
So there you have it: A mixed bag of an album that overcomes a few boring parts and stands as a fairly fun listen overall. That’s probably the best we could’ve hoped for from an attempted-blockbuster Lil Wayne album in 2011, but it still feels a bit hollow.