At this point I don't think anyone could tell you how many recorded hours there are of Lil Wayne rapping, and yet, judging by fan reaction to Tha Carter IV's leak last Thursday, you might have surmised that there's been a shortage of opportunities to hear Weezy do his gangster Martian thing. This despite the fact that Wayne is featured on Kelly Rowland's "Motivation," currently at #2 on Billboard's Hip-Hop/R&B chart, and on DJ Khaled's "I'm on One," currently at #1, to say nothing of the two singles from his own album, which are scattered throughout the Top 20. Wayne's ubiquity is in no way contingent on his having a particular piece of plastic to hawk at Best Buy. Not even jail time could curb his exposure: When Wayne walked out of Rikers Island, President Clinton offered words of encouragement on Pittsburgh's 96.1.
And yet the hype surrounding Tha Carter IV isn't entirely unwarranted. Mixtapes, guest spots, and singles notwithstanding, when Wayne bothers to shape his ceaseless stream of output into an album and affix the title Carter on it, that's supposed to mean something special. Weezy fans dutifully weathered the misguided Rebirth and the half-assed I Am Not a Human Being in large part because Wayne promised that the string of releases would culminate with a new entry in the Carter series. I suppose the whole ritual looks kind of silly to the unconverted, but you don't have to have bought into Wayne's oddly tiered release schedule to acknowledge that "6 Foot 7 Foot," the new album's first single, showed Wayne in fiery, free-associative form like nothing since—you knew this was coming—Tha Carter III's "A Milli."
Even so, the build up to Tha Carter IV has been characterized by an odd mixture of combativeness and resignation, a sense of ambivalence which ends up diluting Wayne's swagger on many of the album's tracks. When Tha Carter III dropped, Wayne didn't need it to be a classic; he'd already proven he was the best rapper in the game through an astonishing run of mixtapes and guest spots. The fact that Tha Carter III broke sales records and dominated both rap and pop radio for the next year was just Wayne running victory laps. Flash forward to July of this year and he's explaining to journalists that Tha Carter IV's delays were because his producers' "beats be sucking." Not only does Wayne punt on the kind of perfunctory G.O.A.T. boasting that precedes every major-label rap release, but that statement shows him in an odd position of powerlessness, effectively admitting that when his big album wasn't coming together, his only option was to wait for other people to come up with better ideas.
The fact is, Wayne might have had a point. If you judge it entirely on its production, Tha Cater IV chases trends far more often than it attempts to set them. "John" features Rick Ross and samples a recent Ross track, going all in on the bombastic, over-compressed sound that Lex Luger has brought to prominence on rap radio. The single "She Will," featuring Drake, sounds a lot like "Up All Night" from Drake's Thank Me Later, sans the latter song's killer Nicki Minaj verse. If that doesn't sound like abnegation to you, consider also that there are two songs on Tha Carter IV, an "Interlude" and an "Outro," that don't even feature Wayne himself. "Interlude" ends with an album-stealing verse from Andre 3000, "Outro" with a powerhouse showing by Busta Rhymes. Both men take due care to remind us that we are listening to Tha Carter IV, a point which is harder than ever to make sense of now that the bounty of great Lil Wayne verses that are not on Lil Wayne albums have been joined, symmetrically, by a pair of great songs not featuring Lil Wayne that are on his album.
All of this makes a bizarre amount of sense when you consider Wayne's admission, from the same interview where he dissed his producers, that he's demoted himself to "one of the best rappers" because "niggas is too good these days. I got old." Maybe Wayne's getting anxious about his legacy, or maybe he's just come to realize that rap has reached a level of diversification where it no longer makes sense to talk about the entire scene like it's an ongoing game of king of the hill. Rap fans, like everyone else these days, have options. Some will want to go with one watching the throne, but others will choose to invest their attention on rappers who have no interest in dominating the mainstream. Lil B and Odd Future are just two examples of rap acts with virtually no radio presence who are nonetheless fixtures of online rap discussions. I think Wayne is aware that the game has changed for good, but I'm not sure that the new games are ones he understands how to play.
So far, "I'm Good" generated more buzz than any other track on Tha Carter IV, not because it's especially good (it's just okay), but because Wayne appears to take some shots at Jay-Z, referencing an ongoing feud about who makes more money and maybe threatening to kidnap and ransom Beyoncé ("Kidnap your bitch/Get that 'How much you love your lady?' money"). Classic rap-beef stuff, though I imagine any literal enactment of the verse would end with Mrs. Sean Carter going H.A.M. on the impish Weezy. The track also begins with a sample from the Alan Parsons Project, which asks: "What price the crown of a king on his throne/When you're chained in the dark all alone?" The clear reference to Watch the Throne aside, the lines also hint at some real doubts about why it matters to call oneself the greatest now that we're in a time where instead of competing in "the game," any given rapper can find or start a new rap game and succeed—if not entirely on his or her own terms, then on terms that are substantially more to his or her liking. If you listen to music mostly via the Internet, you can be a die-hard rap fan and go on blissfully unaware of what Jay-Z or Kanye West or Lil Wayne has been up to of late.
In such a climate, claiming to occupy the throne is even emptier braggadocio then it would've been a decade ago. There are lots of rap thrones, multiple centers of power, and the new test of an event-rap album like Watch the Throne or Tha Carter IV is how well it can make the case that there's something going on in this particular corner of the rap universe that's worth paying attention to. Though he doesn't sound nearly as confident today as he did three years ago, Wayne is clearly interested in fighting for his little kingdom, which right now means showing that he's offering something that Jay-Z and Kanye, his nearest rivals, don't. Whereas Jay-Z showed up on Tha Carter III for a collegial "Mr. Carter" and Kanye did some production work (and was paid a handsome compliment by Wayne on "Dr. Carter"), neither had any involvement with Tha Carter IV. The frequency with which Wayne reps his gang ties, plus the album's overall preference for street-ready production rather than audacious fanfares and instrumentals, suggests that Wayne wants to be seen as a rapper's rapper, not some boho dilettante or businessman.
Wayne is certainly not wrong to consider his image, but when he was on top of the world he differentiated himself from his competitors mostly by virtue of his flow. What contributes most mightily to the sense that he's deep in some kind of commercial-existential funk is how slack the verses on Tha Carter IV are in comparison to his best work—or even to the mixtape he released last month. Excepting "6 Foot 7 Foot," you won't hear Weezy bore through lines with the speed and lyrical ingenuity that his fans have come to expect. Most of the songs on Tha Carter IV have choruses where, in lieu of a hook, Wayne just pile-drives a knuckleheaded line into the beat. On "John": "If I die today/Remember me like John Lennon"; on "Abortion": "We in the belly of the beast/And she thinkin' 'bout abortion." What's missed most are the bizarre puns and surreal images, the barely comprehensible yet endlessly quotable lines that are so quintessentially Weezy. Even gems like "They say love is the key/Well someone change the lock" come as one-liners amid filler (here, the embittered "How to Hate"), where before they'd be tossed off in awesomely strange rants where every other line was worthy of compulsive Tweeting.
Which about nails the difference between Tha Carter III and Tha Carter IV. It's not that there's been some absolute drop-off in Wayne's abilities; it's just that even the strongest material on Tha Carter IV sounds labored, like Wayne and his producers are pushing out what used to flow forth in abundance, even surplus. We get a couple of jokes about what the "F" in "Weezy F" stands for, and a number of abstract nouns are personified: life is a bitch (a crazy one like Grace Jones), karma is a bitch (just make sure she's beautiful), reality is a bitch (and Wayne's gonna dance with her). The repetition and the generally sluggish pace of delivery make it clear that Wayne's not in exhilarating top form, while moments of brilliance are spread out fewer and farther between. For the last four years there's been no greater force in hip-hop, but this isn't the way President Carter should be launching his campaign for a second term.