“If I die today, remember me like John Lennon.”
“If I die today, it’d be a holiday.”
Three years after putting an official date stamp on Auto-Tune rap with “Lollipop,” Lil Wayne is back for his fourth official Tha Carter release (and ninth official album overall) at a moment when apocalyptic beats and hashtag flows dominate the hip-hop landscape. When “6 foot 7” dropped in January, it seemed as though this Carter release would feature up-and-coming production talent, forward-thinking flows, and Weezy defending his Best Rapper Alive belt. The second single, “John (If I Die Today),” made me think otherwise: though it is an undeniably assertive Maybach horrorshow anthem, it felt more like Wayne drafting behind the genre-defining juggernaut of an ascendant Rick Ross than Wayne asserting his place among hip-hop’s G.O.A.T. pantheon. “John” is one of the highlights of Carter IV, which is peculiar and a bit of a let-down. Instead of running circles around the lyrically-challenged Rozay, the most ferocious rhyme-spitter of the last decade seems more like a close peer. This is the rap equivalent of the 2004 Lakers (the last year of Kobe and Shaq, plus Karl Malone and Gary Payton) losing to the Pistons (zero All-Stars) in the NBA finals: colossal talent falling flat against relentless, lunch-pail grinders.
Rick Ross isn’t the only guest on this album who sounds like Wayne’s equal or superior: the “Interlude” and “Outro” feature some of the best rapping on the album, and it’s not from Mr. Carter. Tech N9ne sounds hungrier, more polished, and more professional than our protagonist; Bun-B brings the kind of effortlessly excellent guest verse that used to be Wayne’s bread and butter; Nas devours the beat like it was 1999 (if not 1994), and Busta Rhymes continues his hot streak with a scene-stealing verse to end the record, marking the second time Wayne has been outmatched by Flipmode’s finest this year (“Look At Me Now” by Chris Brown). Even Jadakiss upstages him in “It’s Good.” Precedent tells us that inconsistent production is to be expected on a Carter release, but it is disappointing that at a time when many rappers are trying to reassert their dominance with increased attention to strong lyrics and inventive flows, Wayne seems content to let others upstage his verbal acumen.
The third single, “How To Love,” is a tell-tale example of why we have yet to hear a true classic album from Lil Wayne. Weezy’s dubious forays into rock ‘n’ roll are replaced on Carter IV with an attempt at a sung ballad, and we are “treated” to a less-Auto-Tuned vocal that proves only that Wayne may be able to sing a little; although it has performed better on the pop charts than “John” and “6 foot 7,” it sticks out like a sore thumb on the album. This contributes to the overall sense that 2011 Wayne is no longer a trendsetting artist, but a trend-chasing one.
This is all to say that the quotes at the top, from “John,” seem cognitively dissonant. Comparing himself to John Lennon and submitting the day of his death as a holiday at a time when his recent output is especially inconsistent makes me wonder if he’s actually writing songs and albums with his legacy in mind. Although never accused of having enormous amounts of foresight or restraint, Tha Carter IV is rudderless. Three excluded tracks that made the Deluxe Edition sound better than at least half of the cuts on the record, which makes me wish Wayne worked with a trusted collaborator from whom he would accept genuine feedback (“Uh, maybe you want to skip that guitar track, Tunechi. Aren’t you supposed to be the best rapper alive? Maybe you should use more than two words per line to prove it”).
The delayed release date of the record may actually reflect a different time period in Wayne’s career than the present: fresh out of prison a year ago, he probably recorded Tha Carter IV strategically to throw as many different looks at the pop charts as possible, which is even more apparent when you consider his Young Money stewardship. He may be in a very different place now: July’s Sorry 4 The Wait is another in a continuing string of memorable, impressive mixtapes, and the hazy, hypnotic “Single” from last winter suggests a studio Weezy carving out some fertile new territory. We know he’s capable of better. Whether it ever comes together on a Carter release is anybody’s guess, but the prognosis isn’t good.