"…on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck…"
– Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias”
Whether owing to his smallish 5'6" frame, his coast-less rap artist identity, or the refusal of hip-hop heads and critics alike to moniker either of his previous Tha Carter albums as “classic” (the gold-standard for rappers), the motif of despair underlies the life and times of one Lil Wayne, a.k.a. Weezy F. Baby. But inferiority complexes do not play well (read: at all) in the hyper-masculine, machismo-saturated culture of hip-hop, so Lil Wayne represses nearly all modicums of his despair by keeping it bigger than B-I-G. It being his social identity, which has been adroitly bred to be played and executed before his audience, race, and Ego.
His audience, raised on the instant gratification of the internet 2.0 epoch (think: blogosphere + MP3s), expects to be constantly engaged, so Lil Wayne produces at a 2-Pac-ian clip, whether it be by making ubiquitous guest appearances on other tracks or by prolifically releasing mix tapes. As a result, he becomes an internet hero. Meanwhile, his race, suffering distress rooted in disenfranchisement and the pitiable race-relations of the George W. Bush presidency, expects hope and insight from their art, so Lil Wayne provides a safety valve for the resulting hostility, whether it be by rapping about gettin’ money (“Man you better keep payin’ me cause you don’t want my problems/ I be wildin’ like Capital One... what is in your wallet”) or racial injustice (“Don’t Get It”). As a result, he christens himself a hero to his people (“So assassinate me bitch/ Cause I’m doin’ the same shit Martin Luther King did”). Finally, his Ego, damaged by sentiments of inferiority, expects aggrandizement and status, so Lil Wayne relentlessly self-references himself as “the greatest rapper alive” and evokes the spectre of classic East Coast rap albums Ready To Die (Notorious B.I.G.) and Illmatic (Nas) with the cover of his latest album. But he does not, as a result, release a “classic.” Hubris and nostalgia, exclusively, do not erect seminal albums. Thus, it is ultimately here, within Lil Wayne’s Ego, where the shortcomings of Tha Carter III manifest.
Where the pursuit of status once outwardly dominated the subject matter of Lil Wayne’s works, that narcissistic pursuit has now been fully integrated into its pores. What else can explain Tha Carter III’s lead single, “Lollipop”? A sure-fire #1-hit (it first reached that plateau on May 3, 2008), bringing with it ego-quenching fame and popularity, it truly exemplifies all that is wrong with the album. Missing are Lil Wayne’s trademark memorable wordplay, flexible delivery, and fresh beats, having been replaced with a cringe-worthy phallus/candy metaphor, which is stretched to its meagre limits, a lazy, accessible flow, and tired, disposable production. It's not that great albums can't feature popular, radio-friendly elements, but they usually put novel twists on familiar concepts, rather than simply regurgitate a vocodor-for-singing effect. Ready To Die, for instance, was as equally acclaimed as it was popular. Whether it was “B.I.G.’s Dolemitelike vulgarity” on “One More Chance,” which took R&B-influenced rap to its bawdiest periphery, or the varied production, which grounded familiar samples around eclectic variations of funky percussion and bluesy guitars, the album pushed rap into both a mainstream and progressive direction. Oppositely, “Lollipop” is a sugary artifact of its times never harbingering innovation.
When Lil Wayne is not unremarkably trading too-sing-songy, too-little-trademark-growling falsettos with another guest R&B-er, he admirably tries to wax conceptually. But the results are often less than admirable. On “Dr. Carter” and “Phone Home,” à la “Lollipop,” he takes a takes a concept -- in this case, the malleability of identity -- to its painful breaking point. With Swizz Beats channeling David Axelrod (“Holy Thursday”) on the latter track, Lil Wayne spits some witty bars (“And you ain’t Vince Young/ So don't clash with the Titan”); he is too talented not to, but over the course of the entire track, the results are uneven. Had Lil Wayne imbued the album with an overarching, tangible narrative, these tracks could have been given an important context, but lacking such a framework, they come across as hollow attempts at identity politicking. And therein lies another significant shortcoming of Tha Carter III: there is nothing to congeal the disparate tracks and ideas found on the album. Whereas Ready to Die and Illmatic had lucid, engaging tales and like-minded beats, Tha Carter III falls clearly short on both fronts.
It is over Kanye West’s beats that Lil Wayne truly shines. The sonic landscape that Kanye orchestrates fit Lil Wayne like a glove simile, as his minimal, back-and-liminal instrumentals better allow Lil Wayne's flow and delivery to lay waste to them (as opposed to the in-your-face synths found on the more mainstream, R&B-influenced tracks). It is these tracks -- from Robin Thicke’s “Shooter”-like crooning on “Tie My Hands” to the aesthetically perfect sampling found on “Let The Beat Build” and “Shoot My Down” (“Receipt”) -- that most clearly evoke what allowed Tha Carter II, Lil Wayne’s best work to-date, to be so immense. When allowed to recreate his distinct aesthetic, Lil Wayne gets honest, and we get a rare glimpse underneath the Ego-hardened exterior into his bubbling, repressed despair: “Yes, I know the process is so much stress, but it’s the progress that feels the best/ Cause I came from the projects straight to success, and you’re next, so try, they can’t steal your pride, it’s inside/ Then find it, and keep on grinding, ’cause on every dark cloud, there’s a silver lining/ I know.” The results are magnificent, but are, alas, few and far between on the ultimately ordinary and inconsistent Tha Carter III.
In the year that passed between the releases of Tha Carter and Tha Carter II, the growth of Lil Wayne as an artist was phenomenal. He stepped up his game on every musical front, from writing to spitting to production. Everything got bigger and better, even his image as the “greatest rapper alive,”, which was established by a string of highly acclaimed and popular mix tapes, most notably Da Drought 3. Now, equipped with the stylish, but too-often substance-less Tha Carter III, Lil Wayne seems poised to flip the script on the “rapper racists” (radio stations, MTV) by evolving into the “biggest” rapper alive. However, in the process he may have just flipped the script on himself by gaining one crown (“biggest”) for the price of two (“classic” and “greatest”).