As he’ll be happy to tell you, New Orleans’s Lil Wayne is the best rapper alive. He has been for some time—probably since his 2006 mixtape Dedication 2, though there’s some debate on the length of his reign. Few, however, dispute the self-evident truth of his dominance. Jay-Z and Kanye West both show up on his latest album, Tha Carter III, and their appearances read like kings paying tribute. When Jay appropriates Weezy’s stumblebum free-association on the resolutely kick-ass “Mr. Carter,” which features a beat by Just Blaze that would be right at home on The Blueprint, it sounds like a tardy passing of the torch.
This is Wayne’s first studio effort as the reigning king of the hill—it’s been delayed, and therefore anticipated, for years—and he’s in fine form throughout. On tracks like the diamond-hard single “Milli,” the dazzlingly meta “Dr. Carter” and the slyly perverted “Mrs. Officer,” he displays all of the rock-solid rhythmic confidence, swaggering long-windedness and technical invention that might be expected of someone who’s going for the G.O.A.T. Listening to him nail a verse, phrase by phrase, strangely always seeming to fall into brilliant metaphors while struggling for breath, is an exhilarating experience.
Wayne is capable of simulating improvisation in a way that imbues rehearsed lines with the kind of high-wire thrills one might most readily identify with jazz virtuosos or sports superstars. Witness his take on beef, from “Mr. Carter”: “Man, I got summer hatin’ on me ‘cause I’m hotter than the sun/I got spring hatin’ on me ‘cause I ain’t ever sprung/Winter hatin’ on me ‘cause I’m colder than ya’ll/And I would never, I would never, I would never fall/I’m bein’ hated by the seasons/So fuck ya’ll hatin’ for no reason.” What’s clearly a constructed verse sounds on record like it’s just randomly occurring to Wayne, which is the sort of nifty trick we might expect from the best rapper alive.
And yet…while there are a lot of similarly great moments here, Carter III is not the definitive statement of Wayne’s mastery that he clearly intended it to be. The cover boldly references Biggie’s Ready to Die, and many of Weezy’s lyrics make it clear that he thinks of himself as having a ready claim to membership in the hip-hop pantheon. He raps, “The next time you mention Pac, Biggie and Jay-Z, don’t forget Weezy, baby.” But the difference between Wayne and those rappers is that each of them made at least one titanic masterpiece of a record. Carter III, for all its charms, isn’t quite up to those standards.
It’s not for a lack of quality control, as almost all of the songs here are good. (And people seem to like “Lollipop,” which seems passable as far as idiotic pornographic ringtones go.) But as a collective context for one another, these tracks leave something to be desired. For one thing, there are 16 of them. For another, the album has a bit of an identity crisis. Is it a classy, modern Kanye-soul record, like “Comfortable” and the standout Katrina hymn “Tie My Hands” might indicate? Is it a T-Pain-aping Auto-Tune future-hop record, as the singles advertise? Is it a quirky statement, as typified by the somewhat slack political treatise “Dontgetit” and “Dr. Carter”?
Well, yes and no. One could easily pick and choose from the songs here to make a more coherent 12-track album; such a record would likely have more immediate impact. But it’d also be kind of painful to cut anything. In this way, Carter III is the Sizzler of rap albums: full of options, and almost punishingly gluttonous. Of course, it’s possible to view the album’s lack of focus as a feature, and not a bug—as the best possible studio-contained statement of Wayne’s restless talent. This is a rapper whose best work has sprawled across half a dozen mixtapes, instead of any particular one, after all. Perhaps coherent sequencing is too much to ask.