The best thing about Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter V is that it exists. It finds the man who once called himself “the best rapper alive” – and who, for a few years in the late 2000s, indisputably lived up to that boast – finally emerging from five years of personal and professional chaos. A 2014 “Drake vs. Lil Wayne” co-headlining tour unexpectedly evolved into a poignant torch-passing affair. There were reports of health problems and emergency hospital visits that led some to wonder if his death was imminent. Most tragically, there was a lengthy legal dispute against Cash Money Records and his onetime mentor Bryan “Birdman” Williams, a man whom he once affectionately referred to as daddy, over the right to finally release Tha Carter V; their fallout had all of the trauma of a bitter, acrimonious divorce.
Through it all, Lil Wayne kept recording, releasing mixtapes and making guest appearances. (As LeBron James said when asked about Lil Wayne’s comeback, “Where’d he go? He didn’t go anywhere.”) But as Cash Money blocked efforts like 2015’s Free Weezy Album and 2017’s Dedication 6 from appearing on streaming services, forcing fans to scour for online downloads, Lil Wayne began to appear like a relic from the Datpiff era, his indefatigable work habits falling on increasingly deaf ears.
If the celebratory reception surrounding the long-delayed Tha Carter V proves one thing, it is how much Lil Wayne is truly beloved. He is as much of a hero to a certain generation of rap fans as Jay Z and Rakim once were. His place on rap’s postmillennial Mount Rushmore is assured. It doesn’t matter that his first retail album since 2013’s desultory, depressing I Am Not a Human Being II is haphazardly sequenced, with the best tracks arriving somewhere in the middle and the end, and that its 87 minute running time can barely be consumed in one sitting. Lil Wayne is back on center stage, back on top. That’s all that matters.
Still, the tumult of years passed undoubtedly left its mark. The Lil Wayne who appears here sounds chastened, questioning his current standing in the rap lexicon. He has rarely sounded as vulnerable as he does here. “I am not number one, it’s true/I am 9-27-82,” he says in reference to his birthday on “Don’t Cry.” When one of his Young Money students, Nicki Minaj, croons alongside him on the yearning “Dark Side of the Moon,” it sounds bittersweet. The other breakout star from his Young Money adventure, Drake, doesn’t make an appearance due to reported scheduling issues.
Other Weezy acolytes pay tribute. The late, controversial emo rapper XXXTENTACION adds a pained squall to “Don’t Cry,” one of the album’s highlights. Travis Scott fades into the background of “Let It Fly.” Kendrick Lamar – who once recorded C4, a mixtape homage to Wayne’s 2008 blockbuster Tha Carter III – joins in “Mona Lisa,” a bizarre, confusing yet ultimately fascinating lyrical fantasy about a woman who cheats on her boyfriend with the man of the hour. At the very least, it gives Wayne a chance to drop one of his goofily great punchlines: “They started French kissing so he didn’t see moi.”
Still, these nods to contemporary rap and pop, which arrive early in Tha Carter IV, can’t compare to the album’s later moments, though it’s fun to hear him try and rhyme roughshod over the limp electronic pop of “Can’t Be Broken.” He sounds better alongside Snoop Dogg on “Dope Niggaz,” which resurrects the “Bumpy’s Lament” sample made famous on Lil Kim’s “Drugs” and Dr. Dre’s “XXXplosive.” There’s a reunion with Mannie Fresh on “Start This Shit Off Right” that has the easy, breezy swagger of a soul stepping party.
Throughout, Lil Wayne reminds us that he’s a 36-year-old father, not the eternally young horndog who once sung “I just want to fuck every girl in the world” at the height of his fame, or the teenager who chanted “Drop it like it’s hot” over the Triggerman beat. “Just got off phone with my son, told him you’re a son of a gun/Just got off the phone with my daughter, told her I won’t hesitate to fuck a young nigga up,” he rhymes on “Open Letter.” On the final track, the Sampha-augmented “Let It All Work Out,” he recalls the moment he shot himself in the chest as a child, explaining it was because his mother tried to prevent him from pursuing a rap career. (He also discussed his suicide attempt in poetic terms on Solange’s 2016 track “Mad.”) But the story also reads as a metaphor for Lil Wayne’s recent legal battles against his “father” Birdman. His ethos has always been to make music or die trying.
Tha Carter V can’t compare to the first three Carter installments, or his epochal 2005-2007 mixtape run. But it doesn’t need to. Back then, Lil Wayne wanted to be “Famous” – the title of a track here that he shares with his daughter Reginae Carter. He hungered to be the biggest star in the world, and he succeeded. Now, he just wants to rap with fire and passion to a public that still loves him. He has more than earned it. “Thank God Weezy back,” he says on “Dope New Gospel.” “Order is restored, all is right with the world.”