Tha Carter III

OK, it's true: he really is the best rapper alive. Lil Wayne made that claim on his last official CD, in 2005, and since then, he's unleashed an astonishing torrent of mixtapes, leaks and guest appearances to backup the boast. So his long-anticipated "legit" album follow-up feels a bit gratuitous. Still, Tha Carter III is useful as an exclamation point. It establishes beyond a doubt that the zeitgeist in 2008 belongs to one artist: a dreadlocked dadaist poet from New Orleans with a bad weed habit and a voice like a bullfrog. As Wayne croaks in the woozy"3 Peat," "Get on my level/You can't get on my level/You will need aspace shuttle/Or a ladder that's forever."

Wayne has taken the task of album-making seriously: This isn't a mixtape, it's a suite of songs, paced and sequenced for maxaqimum impact. He's collected sleek, powerful beats from top producers (Kanye West, Swizz Beatz), enlisted A-list guest stars (Jay-Z, T-Pain) and served up a range of textures and moods, from the elegiac Hurricane Katrina protest "Tie My Hands" to the bubblegum bumper "Lollipop," in which Weezy has a laugh at selling out by creating the most outrageously pumped-up sell out single in history. Thematically, Carter III is a victory lap. In the hilarious "Dr Carter," he boasts about resuscitating hip-hop: "As I put the light down his throat/I can only see flow/His blood's starting to flow/His lungs starting to grow."

As usual, Wayne's tumbling freestyle rhymes are full of imagination and surprise, but his voice itself is half the fun. He shouts, gasps, tries a Caribbean patois, sings snatches of "Umbrella" and "Irreplaceable," and impersonates E.T. He loves that brother-from-another-planet stuff —"I am a Martian," he raps — but it's clear he's also thinking about his worldly legacy. The album cover links Carter III to Biggie's Ready to Die and Nas' Illmatic, and he makes no bones about coveting a spot in hip-hop's pantheon. "Next time you mention Pac, Biggie or Jay-Z/Don't forget Weezy Baby," he advises on "Mr Carter." It's sound advice.