Kanye West’s third studio album, Graduation, sold 957,000 copies in its first week in 2007. A year later, Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III sold over a million. Two albums, two generational talents, both reaching their commercial pinnacles — these were coronations, and an era of rap at its peak. Now, a tumultuous decade later, it feels like that era is ending.
At their best, Wayne and Kanye deconstructed the rapper into two distinct, iconoclastic archetypes. Wayne was a rapper’s rapper who lived only to make music — the more head-spinning the better — and Kanye strove to convince a world behind on the times that hip-hop could be high art. Wayne built his career on releasing everything he recorded, until he got eaten by the machine. Kanye was the most thoughtful rapper alive, until he became the least thoughtful. The characters they both played made the popular image of a rapper indistinguishable from the biggest pop stars on the planet, and set hip-hop on new courses with every album release. A decade later, the six-year wait for Tha Carter V and West’s ostensible remake of Yeezus is likely the end of a period in which each artist’s commercial and creative impact led the pack, even as both projects gesture at the influence they’ve had on the genre.
Wayne built a character based on channeling his unchecked imperfection. Fluid, random, flawed. Before social media and streaming conditioned humanity to develop the need to share everything, Wayne was releasing anything — Droughts, Dedications, No Ceilings. Weezy’s sheer glut of musical inventory made him the only Best Rapper Alive candidate that mattered. Jay-Z and Mike Jones songs were billed equally. He was going to destroy each of them either way.
Tha Carter V seeks to mythologize this era. A Barack Obama speech from 2009 (“we can’t all aspire to be LeBron or Lil Wayne”) and viral deposition video, are snapshots that bookend and begin songs. A sample of 2 Chainz commemorates the Dedication phase of Wayne’s career. His biological child (Reginae Carter) and metaphorical children (Kendrick Lamar, Nicki Minaj, Travis Scott) stop by to pay their respects. The surprise isn’t how the album juggles these disparate moments, but in the way it adds warmth and depth to the egotistical act of commemorating and reaffirming one’s influence. It works similarly to Wayne’s choice to call himself the Best Rapper Alive in the mid-2000s, crowning himself before anyone else had. Facts are facts.
In contrast, the character Kanye’s embodied for the bulk of the past decade is an unbridled perfectionist. A rigid, emotional egotist. West’s post-Graduation career seemed driven by an obsession to shift pop music’s paradigm as much as humanly possible. 808s & Heartbreak, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus presented rap in all of its shades — minimal, maximalist, classic, avant-garde. It was never enough. If Wayne was competing for the Best Rapper Alive crown, Kanye was thrashing until hip-hop wasn’t a genre; it was the genre.
Kanye’s disciples are now the most popular stars of the time. J. Cole and Travis Scott, who followed in similar producer-rapper arcs to Ye, released two of the best selling albums of the year, regardless of genre. Chance the Rapper, Mr. Sentient College Dropout, is leaning into his role as the heir apparent and reviving the album, Good Ass Job, that we thought was lost for good. And then there’s Drake. The artist most indebted to Kanye’s early sacrifices and Wayne’s fatherly guidance is now the biggest pop star hip-hop has ever created. His current chokehold on the zeitgeist is one of the most important factors forcing an identity crisis in West.
“Losing ‘ruler,’ ‘king,’ ‘crown,’” Kanye told The New York Times, explaining how his changing stature in hip-hop affected him. “And it was this thing where it’s like O.K., you’re not the No. 1 rapper, Drake’s the No. 1 rapper.”
The chaotic and offensive rollout for Yandhi, like Ye’s earlier this year, threatens to tarnish Kanye’s character for good. He’s returning to the poisoned well of his infamous TMZ appearance when he redesigns a Make America Great Again hat and wears it during Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He loses credibility when he continues, against all better judgement, to talk about slavery as if it were a mindset, not a system of oppression. West’s 2018 feels like flailing, a last-minute bid for attention. He’s ceded the sales game to Lil Wayne (via a tweet that felt like an insurance policy), but didn’t acknowledge that Logic, a Kanye descendant one generation removed, will likely outsell them both.
Tha Carter V, conversely, succeeds by immortalizing the bygone era Wayne reigned over. He’s not making an album on the bleeding edge of what rap can sound like anymore — the record has moments that would fit into any of hip-hop’s last five years — but it’s comfortable in its stasis. Nostalgic, triumphant and poignant, Tha Carter’s fifth installment is an epic and loose narrative about a man robbed of the very thing he lived to do in his thirties, just as he was during childhood. On album closer, “Let It All Work Out,” Wayne details his failed suicide attempt at 12 years old, undertaken after his mom stopped him from rapping.
“Put the gun up to my heart and pondered,” Wayne spits. “Too much was on my conscience to be smart about it, Too torn apart about it, I aim where my heart was pounding.”
Wayne on Tha Carter V is a boxer entering the ring, with the audience wondering if he’s past his prime. For the past six years, he’s had to fight his label and lawyers over control of his career, while his past receded and newcomers arrived en masse. Thankfully, the obstacles didn’t defeat him.
With the whole world watching, the Best Rapper Alive returned for a night, his titled regained for a moment.