Lil Wayne

Tha Carter IV

(Young Money/Cash Money/Universal Republic; 2011)

By Chris Molnar | 9 September 2011

There’s never been a guest rapper like Lil Wayne. Although he doesn’t boost a cut’s energy like Busta, or slosh it in paint like Nicki, or infuse a certain, necessary levity like Ludacris, what he does better than any other is filter a song through his unique sensibility until it’s unrecognizably anyone else’s out the other end, unexpected metaphors and non-sequiturs each a miniscule prism refracting the Top 40 into something surreal, something existential. And here is Tha Carter IV, which is, more than anything else Wayne’s released, an album-length look at one emcee’s ability to utterly remake the world in his image, to write more arresting and psychologically rich lines in his unhindered, aphoristic cadence, cackling while the vistas crumble and then speaking the fetal civilization back into being. This is Weezy standing over his nascent, Utopian hope like a 5’6” Colossus over Rhodes. Cue rock-hard dick pun.

On the pre-album mixtape Sorry 4 the Wait (2011) we get “all my hoes dirty like welcome mats”: good-time wordplay from Mixtape Wayne. Here, he claims as if he’s an emcee just starting out, “I’m a diamond in the rough like a baby in the trash” (“Megaman”). This is more than a crowd-pleaser—there are tactics, careers at stake here. Wayne sounds dire. Earlier this year, he turned Kelly Rowland’s “Motivation” from a decent-enough slow jam with a great beat into something far weirder and perhaps even gender-forward (what with the kitchen metaphors and “hold me like a conversation”) least for Weezy. Carter IV works similarly, centered around subtle but razor-sharp lyrics that focus and complicate the other personalities that appear throughout, including his own less-inspired verses.

If not the best, IV‘s lyrics might be the most precise of his career. He may no longer indulge in the narrative insanity that gave birth to Tha Carter III’s (2008) “Dr. Carter,” but in turn we’re served heavier, harder-to-parse punchlines. “President Carter” at first seems to miss the “assassinate me, bitch” apoplexy the Jimmy Carter-sampling premise promises, but by the end of the track in sneaks a “I change the stars on the flag into crosses,” subtly rearranging lines like “you dead to me / brown grass nigga” into something so much more layered than it sounded at first listen. And “Six Foot Seven Foot” is the apotheosis of this new direction, of this elemental Wayne, of shorter pay-offs, dizzying in their brevity and quantity, with grad school one-liners, all “I got through that sentence like a subject and a predicate.” Despite the song’s ubiquity, it still astounds, boasting a pure linguistic glee almost unmatched in Weezy’s whole oeuvre; see Cory Gunz write the verse of his life, see him stumble over himself to keep up.

Meanwhile, Wayne’s able to adapt a startling variety of modes into his tinny, fauxrchestral world (note the impossibility of the reverse on Rebirth [2009]). “How to Love” may not be as effortless a venture into balladry as “Lollipop” was into pop, but that makes it all the more visceral: Wayne’s potent, swaggering charisma making a sweet little gesture. It’s not an entirely successful song, but when I hear it my stomach drops with the low end, the bottomless vulnerability it conveys an oddly powerful move for Weezy. “How to Hate,” apart from having a great title, rewards one’s faith in T-Pain—if one ever possessed such faith—as the Aqua Teen Hunger Force guest star comes out of nowhere with a late-R. Kelly verse all straightforward “bitch ass bitches” sentiment.

Partly by re-contextualizing Rick Ross on “John” into a guest on his own song (”I’m Not A Star”), Wayne pinpoints the appeal of Rawse’s concrete catchphrases: aspirational simplicity. Rather than just a Meek Mill-style hypeman, Wayne adds enough linguistic swagger (”I get money to kill time / Dead clocks”) to re-envision a paean to realness as an ominous koan. “She Will” works the same way with Drake’s fame = angst = fucking = reality worldview; the line “I already know that life is deep / But I still dig her” both sums it up and expands it immeasurably. Carter IV is a crystallization of Wayne as sideman, and through that is a particularly bounteous demonstration of how he does what he does so well. He’s a gnomic critic of himself and others, his reactions more expressive than that which he comments upon. You’d be surprised how trenchantly a well-timed “Tunechi!” can cut.

Beat-wise, IV doesn’t attempt to outdo the top-dollar Carter III production, whose murderer’s row of producers and beats is likely to remain unparalleled for some time. But Wayne uses the less showy selection this go-round to deliver a definitively rawer album that only smartens the impact of some of his career’s best vocals. “Mrs. Officer” and “Comfortable,” say, may have felt smoother, more accomplished than the John Legend collaboration “So Special,” but neither have soundbytes like “Freedom of speech / Weezy’s a beast / Open her up like a book / Read it and weep.” Similarly, “She Will” cements Drake’s reputation as a magnet for great beats, here a slowed down post-punk churn which brings out all Drizzy’s juiciest angst. “Megaman,” by the titular producer, sports a classically Carter series beat—slight; nostalgic synths; Mannie Fresh-ness—and in its open nostalgia nicks a nerve.

But perhaps one of the greatest pleasures of Tha Carter IV is in its expensive guest list, transforming the album into a somehow-monumental event capable of galvanizing A-list cameos. When Busta Rhymes ends the album calling out an “apostrophe bitch,” he’s clearly in thrall to one of the great grammarians of our time. If Carter II (2005) showcased Wayne’s charisma, and Carter III his ability to create musical blockbusters, Carter IV is a look at “Wayne’s world / Y’all are just tourists” (as he says on “It’s Good”), one of uncomfortable intimacy and painful honesty. “I’ve been at the top for a while / And I ain’t jumped yet” may not be on par with something like “real Gs move in silence like lasagna,” but the former pictures Wayne acknowledging his own demise, not so much morbid as vulnerable, open to ridicule, an imperfectly executed couplet and yet awed by something so much more than earlier albums’ G shit or groupie fantasias. No wonder stars clustered here so readily; Weezy’s firmament has never been so vast.