In the meantime, the rapper released several mixtapes and the 2015 Tidal exclusive Free Weezy Album, but received only faint attention for the projects. It was part of a commercial (and arguably artistic) decline that had encompassed most of Weezy's 2010s, including his most recent official wide release, 2013's I Am Not a Human Being II, which sold respectably (217k first week) but underperformed compared to the MC's prior releases, and drew reviews that were middling at best.
So why was Tha Carter V such a resounding win? Here's five things the No. 1 album in the country had going for it.
1. Quick rollout. It was just four months ago that news broke that Wayne had settled his lawsuit with Cash Money, and not even a month ago that Wayne revealed (via his Billboard cover story) that Tha Carter V was now officially on its way. Its firm release date wasn't announced until the Wednesday before, when Weezy released a charming teaser video that divulged the album would be coming out on his birthday (Sept. 28). No songs were released ahead of time, and even the tracklist and cover remained largely a mystery in the hours leading up to its midnight drop.
And as we've seen time and again in recent years, the less press an album has in the months leading up to its release -- particularly in the hip-hop world -- the more furor it tends to generate when it unexpectedly arrives. Eminem learned this lesson recently, when last year's over-hyped and somewhat undercooked Revival received an underwhelming response after a months-long rollout, and then this year's vengeful Kamikaze posted much stronger numbers as a sneak release no one saw coming. After a half-decade of waiting for an album, it's tough to still make it seem like a pleasant surprise, but with Tha Carter V, Wayne somehow pulled it off.
2. Good timing. Released over a weekend (Sept. 28-30) that also had two other major hip-hop releases on the schedule, Logic's Young Sinatra IV and Kanye West's Yandhi, created a wave of excitement for rap fans that helped raise the public profile of (and excitement for) all three sets. Having both Wayne and Kanye in the mix allowed fans in their 20s to wax nostalgic about '00s release days spent lining up at stores on release day to buy physical CDs, while even older fans could flashback almost exactly 20 years to Sept. 29, 1998 -- often deemed the greatest release day in hip-hop history, due to simultaneous releases from OutKast, JAY-Z, A Tribe Called Quest and many others.
Of course in 2018, one of those much-anticipated albums ended up not dropping at all: Yandhi was first delayed until Saturday night, and then pushed back all the way to late November. Meanwhile, Kanye spent that Saturday night performing on SNL, controversially wearing a MAGA hat and making unaired (but later heavily circulated) comments about being "bullied" backstage for his pro-Trump wardrobe. This may have just served to further drive listeners to Tha Carter V, however -- at a time when supporting Kanye feels more fraught than ever for many fans, listening to new material from his only real challenger for late-'00s hip-hop supremacy was by contrast a refreshingly nostalgic and generally satisfying experience.
3. Strong branding. While Wayne has more noteworthy running album series than nearly any other figure in rap history -- including Dedication, Sorry 4 the Wait, I Am Not a Human Being and several other brand-name LPs and mixtapes with one or multiple sequels to their credit -- there's still something hallowed about his Tha Carter series. The first one launched him into the mainstream as a solo star, the second one solidified his cult and remains a Weezy fan favorite to this day, and the third one served as his commercial peak by selling over a million copies first week and winning a best rap album Grammy. Even Tha Carter IV, which received mixed reviews and a lesser fan reception than III, still sold nearly a million copies (964k) first week, and long stood as easily Wayne's most successful project of the last decade.
So while Wayne had released some more marginal works since The Carter IV's 2011 drop, titling his most recent album Tha Carter V essentially let listeners know that he meant business this time. As with JAY-Z and his three-album Blueprint series, or Eminem with his Marshall Mathers LP?s 1 & 2, it's a title that even casual music fans can understand the significance of, signaling to audiences that after a period of perhaps not giving his best effort on recent projects, Wayne was once again ready to give fans -- as he says in the set's trailer video - "all of me... more than me."
4. Embracing streaming. In truth, Tha Carter V only sold a small fraction of the copies moved by the last two entries in the series: just 141k in first-week sales, less than even I Am Not a Human Being 2 in its opening frame. But that doesn't really count as a loss for Wayne, because the album was so enormous on streaming services: The 433 million on-demand streams the album drew in its first week of availability ranked as the second-highest total in history, behind only protégé Drake's recent blockbuster Scorpion (745.9 million).
It's not a surprise the album was so well-streamed, because despite the rapper being a holdover from the days of physical CDs and iTunes downloads, Wayne fitted Tha Carter V to translate to the streaming era. It's 23 tracks long -- longest of any of the Carter sets so far -- which inevitably attracts more plays total across its many tracks. And the album also features high-profile appearances from more contemporary Spotify stars like Kendrick Lamar, the late XXXTentacion and Travis Scott-- all of whom appear on the album's first half, and whose presence have helped the tracks they appear on ("Mona Lisa," "Don't Cry" and "Let It Fly," respectively) become the album's three most-streamed tracks, in fact ending the tracking week as the top three songs on Billboard's Streaming Songs chart.
Taking it even further, Wayne also participated in an even-more-modern promotional tactic shortly following the release of Tha Carter V: He posted a Twitter video of his kids dancing to the set's "Uproar," helping spread the word of the #UproarChallenge -- a similar movement to the one that helped Drake's "In My Feelings" go supernova on the Billboard Hot 100 shortly after the release of Scorpion. Whether "Uproar" will explode in similar fashion remains to be seen, but the track does debut at No. 7 on the Hot 100 this week -- and No. 4 on the Streaming Songs chart -- demonstrating how Wayne's embrace of the viral allows him to continue posting superstar numbers in 2018, even with songs that sound like (and prominently feature both samples and artists from) the turn of the century.
5. It's Weezy F. Baby. All the talk of timing, branding, and streaming-friendless with Wayne shouldn't bury the primary takeaway from Tha Carter V's big week here: Lil Wayne is enjoying his comeback moment primarily because he made his strongest album in ages. It's Wayne revitalized, darker and more personal than ever, but still sounding joyful just because he sounds fully invested and involved in his music again. The people agree: check review aggregation website Metacritic and Tha Carter V has Wayne's highest rating -- both in critics' Metascore and even by average user grade -- since Tha Carter III a decade earlier.
It was clear from the Internet response to the news of his imminent return after so long adrift that people were ready to root for Lil Wayne again. But if he hadn't made an album that reminded people of why he was once widely considered (by himself above all) as the best rapper alive -- if he hadn't made an album that was worthy of the brand name its title reflected -- that good will would have evaporated pretty quickly. Tha Carter V was that album, and now Weezy has reassumed his place among hip-hop's ruling class.