Lil Wayne is my favorite rock star. Not in the conventional way, of course. He can’t play the guitar — even by his own account — but for most of my memory, Dwayne Michael Carter Jr. has been an indelible force. Standing at just 5’5,” his influence is that of a giant. From the teenage verse-stealer with Cash Money Records to mixtape monster who perfected the prolific release blueprint well before streaming up to now, Wayne has always been ahead of the wave. He’s a bona fide hit maker, notching the most solo Billboard Hot 100 hits in 2017. He blurs genre lines and makes it cool to be a gangsta, skater and weirdo at the same time. He lives and loves hard. He has more charisma under his Trukfit snapback than should be legal and can charm anyone from Katie Couric to Barack Obama. He’s fathered not one, but generations of rappers after him.
It’s been a long, winding road to Tha Carter V. After repeated delays, personal issues and public dissension with his label, the album seemed like a rap pipe dream. After six years, Wayne delivers with a strong return.
He’s confident, lithe and lucid. There’s still the hunger, the rapid-fire wordplay that he does with ease. On “Let It Fly” (featuring Travis $cott), Wayne feverishly goes off: “Tunechi tune a lunatic, my goonie goons the gooniest/Run inside your room and kill you and who you rooming with.” On “Uproar,” Wayne rides a Swizz Beatz-reworked version of G-Dep’s “Special Delivery” with a more languid flow, but he’s still sharp: “What the f–k though? Where the love go?/Five, four, three, two, I let one go/Bow, get the f–k though, I don’t bluff, bro/Aimin’ at your head like a buffalo.” It’s good to see that Wayne still has a sense of humor and loves to toss in a sexual innuendo (or three) where he can.
Wayne’s had a lot of time to ruminate since his last release, and Tha Carter V is also markedly emotional as a result. The album starts with a heartfelt message from the 36-year-old’s mother, Jacida Carter: “Dwayne, mama proud of you. You done came so far,” she says on “I Love You Dwayne.” Her presence is significant. On the powerful closer “Let It All Work Out,” Wayne admits he almost committed suicide at 12 — using her gun — because she tried to forbid him from rapping. “I found my momma’s pistol where she always hide it/I cry, put it to my head and thought about it,” he confesses over a swelling sample of Sampha’s “Indecision.” “Let it all work out,” the hook begs, over and over.
As right-hand man Mack Maine to Billboard, “He just told me one day that he was ready to address it now. Just being an adult, reaching a level of maturity and comfort where it’s like, ‘I want to talk about this because I know a lot of people out here might be going through that.’”
Perhaps for that reason, moments of introspection are heard throughout. On “Mess,” the rapper laments about his life being a vortex of screw-ups. He’s surprisingly melodic on the guitar-laced trap ballad. The gorgeously sad “Don’t Cry” takes on a dark specter with vocals from the late XXXTentacion, who died following a fatal shooting at the age of 20. “I want a triple extension on my motherf–king afterlife/Rest in paradise,” Wayne raps. It’s a poignant passing of the torch and a posthumous homage to the ascendant he clearly influenced.
A standout moment is “Mona Lisa” with Kendrick Lamar. The duo packs a punch weaving a tale of fatal attraction. “Fall asleep with that bitch and really don’t know much about her/Then she let us in, we take all of your s–t/And when you wake up, she help you try to find it, I love it,” raps Wayne, setting the scene about the deadly woman. Kendrick pulls up the rear and seamlessly plays both narrator and mark: “You scandalous as f–k, I hope you blow up/You know what, I get buck, let me go get my gun/I got one in the chamber I’m plannin’ on aimin’/God dammit, you know that the damage is done,” he wails. The two have a simpatico vibe and are clearly getting the best out of each other. It’s fun rap storytelling.
Lil Wayne doesn’t know how Tha Carter V will be received. “I don’t know what it’s setting me up for — some big comeback, or maybe some big fall back or whatever — but it’s setting me up for something, and I’m ready,” he told Billboard. At this stage, the rapper has nothing to prove. His legacy is solidified and this album makes good on his promise to fans. Still, Wayne has questions — on his place in the world and why he’s still here, to start. On “Open Letter,” he tries to make amends with the life he’s lived. “The object in the mirror is more near than it appears, oh s–t/And sometimes I fear who in the mirror, that n—a weird,” he raps. Realizing his astounding cat-like survival, he poses the obvious: “He done died so many times but still here/Why am I here?/Dear life/What is my meaning? My reason?” It’s a vulnerable, uneasy and human side of the larger-than-life rapper. There’s no easy answers by the end. Hopefully, it all works out.