Review by David Jeffries
How Tha Carter III came to be "the most anticipated rap album of 2008" is a story that involves the usual delays and promises of a masterpiece, plus a whole lot of bullet points that could only exist in the absurd world of Lil Wayne. There's his complete annihilation of the mixtape game, the ridiculous amount of guest shots he granted since Tha Carter II made him a hip-hop superstar, that photograph of him kissing his mentor, Birdman, rumors of addiction to the sizzurp, plus the gargantuan ego and aggravating aloofness (Wayne will ignore all incoming beefs and infuriate challengers even further by offering the lethal "I don't listen to your records"). His "best rapper alive" quote is discussed to death, but if that claim includes creating perfectly crafted full-lengths in a 2Pac style, the evidence won't be found here. Tha Carter III is instead a surprisingly casual album that takes numerous listens to sort out, and only part of a puzzle that is scattered across mixtapes, guest shots, and Internet leaks. Had he included another easy-access single like "Rider" from The Drought Is Over, Pt. 4 — just one of his mixtape series that made it to a Pt. 5 — the "classic" argument could be considered, but figuring out what to sacrifice from this high-grade jumble is difficult. It wouldn't be the electro-bumpin' "Lollipop," an infectious track that contains the wonderfully Wayne line "I told her to back it up/Like burp, burp." You certainly wouldn't want to lose key cut "Phone Home," where the maverick adopts an alien voice and drops "I could get your brains for a bargain/Like I bought it from Target." Another Weezy special from way outside the hip-hop universe comes in the striking "Dr. Carter," when the football reference "And you ain't Vince Young/So don't clash with the Titan" dances on a David Axelrod sample and an unexpected jazzy production from Swizz Beatz. Giant meets giant when Jay-Z stops by for the velvet-smooth hangout session "Mr. Carter," and with Babyface laying the stylish swagger all over "Comfortable," Wayne gets the opportunity to convincingly vibe in the land of true class. Just like on Tha Carter II, Robin Thicke ends up the most complementary guest, coating Wayne's post-Katrina tale "Tie My Hands" in warm buttery soul. As the track flows from political commentary ("My whole city's underwater, some people still floatin'/And they wonderin' why black people still votin'/Cuz your President's still chokin'") to despair and onto some moving "keep your head up"-styled verse, it proves Wayne can go deep and connect with his audience if he chooses. You can fault him for not connecting enough on the album and further complicating his unmanageable body of work with this disjointed effort, but Wayne's true masterpiece is the bigger picture and how he's flipped the script since the first Carter rolled out. Filled with bold, entertaining wordplay and plenty of well-executed, left-field ideas, Tha Carter III should be considered as a wild, somewhat difficult child of Weezy's magnum opus in motion, one that allows the listener an exhilarating and unapologetic taste of artistic freedom.
Tha Carter III
(Cash Money; 2008)
Combined Rating: 78%
There are plenty of reasons to hate Lil Wayne, and plenty of reasons to scoff at the score above this review and so many others like it, and on the first verse of the first track of this strange, contentious little record Wayne perfectly elucidates this conflict, almost preempting Cokemachineglow’s dialectical critical approach with a metaphor so apropos it strikes a chord of crystalline bilateralism: “Don’t you ever fit your lips unless you ‘bout to suck my dick, bitch / Swallow my words, taste my thoughts / And if it’s too nasty, spit it back at me.”
Lil Wayne, in other words, gets that you may not enjoy listening to him, and he’s okay with that. Not in the victimized-but-don’t-give-a-fuck-because-only-God-can-judge way (we see Puffy and Nas on their crosses), but more like, “Yeah, I talk real weird, and am not good at singing or playing the guitar, and look like a melted troll doll. This may not be your thing.” If Lil Wayne were on CMG’s staff (which: invitation offered), he would probably counterpoint a positive review of this record, so thoroughly does he understand his own appeal. But this is—bafflingly, wonderfully—an appeal that transcends those of us atop the internet’s pasty tower. “Hotly anticipated” is as much a cheat of a phrase as it is an unreasonable burden, adding only more supercilious clashing ephemera to the record’s release. Because of all the claims and rebukes surrounding this man’s emceeing ability, the record becomes the sort of defining manifestation of all things “best rapper alive” that would essentially prove wrong and stupid before the thing could ever make a Billboard mark. Though wrong and stupid kinda work (in a good way!), Tha Carter III is more a balanced, self-conscious synthesis of everything viably great about Lil Wayne, hyperbolic or not, than the penultimate statement of the MC’s “legendary” status. Up until now, and especially within Wayne’s golden age, Mixtape Weezy seemed fissured irretrievably from Album Weezy; after all, Tha Carter II (2005) wasn’t exactly a classic and the mixtapes that followed (Da Drought 3  and Tha Carter III Mixtape  as the best of the best) basically ruled, and what stood possibly molehill’d between was a sense of fuck-all freedom.
But if here you are, uninitiated into the universe Wayne’s so indelibly wrapped around himself, then: Welcome! You’re probably wondering what the fuck we’re thinking! Fair enough; we fight against common sense and the most we can hope for is a Pyrrhic victory, one that lays our credibility on the table sutured to tinny snares and egregious vocoder abuse and tasteless MLK references and a semi-erect cock tattooed on an adorable baby’s forehead. So what’s in it for us, even when we admit that Tha Carter III absolutely does not confirm Lil Wayne as the best rapper alive? In its buttmunch hybridity it doesn’t leave much room for anyone else to take the throne—and there in the glee of Schadenfreude we can find something sorely missing from contemporary commercial rap: a punchline whose joke is the misfortune of every other lauded mainstream artist. Tha Carter 3 is unleashed into a climate ravenous for Wayne to fail or fly, but regardless of the outcome he’s being eyed like Jigga around American Gangster or Yeezy around Graduation. This is High Profile shit, in other words, and it’s Lil fucking Wayne! Slurring, lecherous, absurdist Lil’ Wayne! We are, mind, laughing with Lil’ Wayne (actually, he’s cackling), and there’s an excitement in that inclusiveness, as if somehow we intuit how insularly the guy’s been building his career and can now respect the thing as a whole, as a big, swarthy, swaggering, mellifluous zit on the industry. If this is it for Weezy—and, if anything, the album sure acts like it—then we’ve received the perfect black-out, as infuriating and exhilarating as all the best irrational love affairs could ever be.
Which may go too far in accepting what would otherwise be intolerable—the utter nothingness of “Lollipop”; Robin Thicke squealing; the crunk douche of “Phone Home,” spoiling the sci-fi B-movie intro by tempering its bells and saucer-spun strings under an asinine call to “Do the Weezy wee,” whatever that is (unwelcome mental images emerge); T-Pain; “Mrs. Officer” ripping the plot off “Sir Psycho Sexy” but replacing club-in-anus whimsy with the ceaseless snooze of Bobby Valentino’s voice; the repetition of “pussy,” so often in “Playin’ With Fire” that it just makes skin crawl. There are more examples—but the score already shows where we’re at on this divide. That which is bad of Wayne is also good, all part of the same alien snot rocketed from the gods toward earth. Check “A Milli,” especially as a single, an incomprehensible annoyance of interstitial friction, maybe hoping to fake a chorus, a hook even, on the basis of the commercial fodder that surrounds it. The beat itself is boggling, simply, a ballhair swang kissing minimalism not with any sort of respect but instead with a threat: this doesn’t taste good but it must be sampled, rolled over the tongue, before ever spat back. Because Weezy accepts no passive listeners; disgust, at least, is active, and the more explicit the metaphors, the more serpentine the assonance, the more pus’ll be cleaned out.
No wonder that amidst the giggly conceit and jazz snare of “Dr. Carter” (three fucking cheers to Swizz Beats on that rising three-act whiz-bang) Weezy kills two patients before declaring, enunciating each syllable, “Hip hop I saved your life.” Before that he concedes, “Too paid to freestyle / Too paid to freestyle / Had to say it twice / Swagger so nice,” seemingly at odds with the upward trajectory of his mixtape abandon. It’s not hypocrisy, really, more like hypochondria—wading in the gross stew of our world’s ills, Weezy’s feverish, compelled to imagine something of a Utopia displaced from, erm, the half of the planet that thinks he’s a fuckwit. And really, the record’s a bit of a thematic mess, but the conflicting instincts and licentiousness might plunder through each track with so much bravado that the logic itself—the attempt to live, rebel against, celebrate, twist, and salve all the shit cornering the record at its fringes: “I know my role / And I play it well / And I weigh it well / On my Libra scale”—is hallucinogen enough to feel completely exciting and new. And, just because it’s the critics’ right to relish and reprint such things, we find elsewhere on the record wordplay of obscene opulence, simple, giddy puns (“I got game like EA / And I wanna let you play”), confrontations with beauty of eye-squinting largesse (“My picture should be in the dictionary next to the definition of ‘definition’ / Because repetition is the father of learning / And son I know your barrel burning, but…”), and rap’s most lascivious delivery soaring still across ever-stranger vistas (“And I’d rather be pushing flowers / Then to be in the pen sharing showers / Tony told ya this world was ours / And the Bible told us every girl was sour / Don’t be in the garden and don’t smell her flower / Call me Mr. Carter or Mr. Lawnmower”). Then there’s also that part about geese erections. Ha!
It’s incorrect and a little ignoble to look at the preceding paragraph and, having heard the record, concede to the tired reactionary pull against Wayne’s canonization, although those who have made up their mind on such things will find nothing here or on the record proper to convince them otherwise. So, yes: even lovely Kanye-at-his-swooningest “Comfortable” is just a string of punchlines, the album-closing jeremiad remains an appendix, no matter your opinion of it, and even when a track-length structure or theme is imposed on the wordplay it remains just that: wordplay, addressing and concerned with itself alone. Wayne will never rap with the cultural insight of Lupe, the writerly social concern of Andre, the abundant populism of Jay or Kanye, or that furious concern with the human soul that continues to define Nas’ oeuvre. But even without such high-minded attributes he remains a peer of these emcees, and of those half-dozen or so others this past decade that treated the microphone as a pen and words as though they meant something. Of those just listed, Nas and Lupe have authored wrought verses of interminable artistry, while the other three addressed popular audiences via album-length bursts of artistic intuition. The final result of Lil’ Wayne’s artistic efforts will be no such traditional output. It is, rather, Wayne himself, the story he continues to live via YouTube and the philanthropic flood of mixtapes and guest spots, and this endless volume of punchlines—yes, just punchlines, each an infinitesimal proof of the thing—that continue to come from his mouth, in warbles, in dribbles, as vomit, as a flood. And if the time comes that he really is the best rapper alive, indomitable and unanimous, he’ll proclaim his status loudly from the gravetops of every other contender, still a quarter century old and mewling about pee-pee.
Dom Sinacola & Clayton Purdom
19 June 2008