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Tha Carter V is like a bittersweet symphony that bleeds through the final 10 minutes of a film you've strived to see through to its jaundiced ending. The fifth chapter in Lil Wayne's mythical story comes after the most strenuous stretch of his The Odyssey, one in which Wayne, as a strapping hero with charisma in excess, has lost bout after bout with Birdman, a father figure and financial tormentor. In the seven years since Tha Carter IV, Wayne has gone from rap's largest iconoclast, to a mythical figure whose feats have become songs of social media. After clearing his final hurdle, Tha Carter V arrived in bombastic splendor, appearing as a summary of his hidden endeavors while he was away. There's a lot to extrapolate from the album that's hidden beneath a mountain of punchlines that guards its heart with an ironclad defense, but one of the album's most bold, brazen truths is that Lil Wayne is finally able to ride off into the sunset perched on a Clydesdale, industry troubles and politics behind him.
Death and taxes are constants and so is Lil Wayne's self-proclaimed title of "Best Rapper Alive." If you're a rapper, that's your shtick. Everyone believes that they're the best. But few have Wayne's pedigree. He's a ripe age of 36 with over twenty-five years in the game. Rap's notorious for kicking its cast to the curb every few seasons like a television network, removing those with the lowest ratings to exist in a separate obscurity. Through affiliations and, well, talent, Wayne endured through those dark and stormy nights, sculpting the kind of mythology that Rick Riordan would write entire children's fantasy book series about.
Most artists have one or two peaks in their career; Wayne has had several. In 1999, he became the creator of rap's hottest word—"bling bling"—due to his group Hot Boy$' single of the same name. His first album Tha Block Is Hot released that year and went platinum; his following two albums, Lights Out and 500 Degreez, explored this merc with a mouth's ability to forge fires from glum circumstances. He was loose with his lyricism; intelligent, yet unrefined, focusing on injecting street tenacity in his punchlines as opposed to true grit and substance. That substance would come with time and experience.
His flagship series entry Tha Carter showed a propensity for being more than the biggest, best flexer in the room. He wanted to capitalize on his longstanding relevance in a game that would chew you up and spit you out in a heartbeat. Tha Carter II came at the tail end of 2005, with 14 years under his belt of rap supremacy. This was the obligatory darker sequel, bereft with more soulful samples and haunting raps than all of his career combined so far. It's here that his quips of "Best Rapper Alive" started to make sense. He wasn't just speaking to the stars like many of his peers.
Tha Carter III dropped and Lil Wayne fully embraced the title. He moved a million records in a week of the year's hottest month. It existed at the height of his power, with hits like "Lollipop" and "A Milli" showing the opposite extremes of the kind of earworms he could create. The album received near universal acclaim. Instead of delving into introspective territory, Tha Carter III's focus scattered widely, choosing to hone in on an array of musical styles. With this focus on creating a mesmerizing palette of sounds, Wayne's work was freed from expectations placed upon him after the complex, murky album that was Tha Carter II.
Carter IV came in 2011 after a cooling off period for Wayne. He was still furiously chugging away at maintaining the belief that he was, indeed, the best rapper alive, but legal issues were getting to him. Prison trips and the uncapped potential of his new protégé Drake were taking a toll on his place and his sanity. The album was a commercial success but a critical misfire, lacking the staying power or grit that the previous iteration of Tha Carter had. It was Wayne becoming antiquated, unable to keep up with the times, yet reveling in that intense fascination with feigning dominance.
Tha Carter V summarizes the success and failures of its four predecessors over the course of its 23-song runtime. Wayne's position is painted with melancholy. We hear Wayne's fluctuating artistry dividing its focus over multiple years; a 2014 Travis Scott feature is one of the tracks previously lost in time that surprises listeners. The beats range from dated to contemporary, yet slightly lagging. Wayne's in rare form, shedding the Auto-Tune that made the latter stages of his career both a gift and a curse. The nostalgia wrings heavy on the beautiful "Start This Shit Off Right" featuring Ashanti and Mack Maine, and the Harlem Shake-inspiring "Uproar." Five Waynes exist on the album, stretching from the past to the present, working in unison to paint a comprehensive celebration for the man at the pinnacle of pop culture. It's seems to be both a swan song and a celebration.
In 2016, Lil Wayne tweeted that he was ready for retirement. Shortly after, he appeared on Skip Bayless' show Undisputed to clear up his tweets; his frustration with his legal issues involving Birdman spurned the tweet. It would take another two years for Wayne to get out and release Tha Carter V.
Re-rolling those comments does little for the mood that the album sets; that of finality, excitement, and an unrelenting tiredness. Tha Carter and Tha Carter II's album covers featured an adult Wayne, complicit in his mastery of the game in the early aughts. He circled back to the beginning with Tha Carter III's album art, the image being of him as a child. Tha Carter IV showed him a little bit older, but Tha Carter V's cover rolls it back a smidge to explore not just an aesthetically appealing image, but the full spectrum of Wayne. We hear a voicemail from his mother, as well as a confession of a suicide attempt on the album. Along with the gimmicks being largely stripped away, the album's no-nonsense approach reads as a final stand.
Tha Carter V sounds like it was recorded across a span of seven years. In hip-hop time, that's a lifetime. Wayne's endurance to not only hold tight through legal woes, but to prepare a project that resonates with both longtime and casual fans factors into his already near mythological legacy imprinted from over two decades of industry experience. When Wayne pushes for nostalgia, as well as when he seeks to connect with contemporary and new-age fans, the results may not always stick, but the attempts are admirable. He may not be at the pinnacle of his career anymore, but he still makes a case for being one of rap's most important figures in the game's lengthy history. That's the point of Tha Carter V. It paraphrases his lengthy journey, showcases his ability to not only keep up with, but also exceed many of his peers and progenitors in the modern-day climate and it gives him the necessary chops to call it quits if he wants to.
As Tha Carter V hurdles to a tiresome finish, I found its ending bittersweet. With the close of what felt like the final chapter, the torch that Wayne carried had been tossed in the air like a bouquet of flowers at a wedding, with a near unlimited number of suiters eagerly awaiting its fall. Like a happy bride who endured the lengthy road to the wedding, Wayne walks away from the flowers with his head held high. He proved, again, that he's one of the best to ever do it. Now, he's married to the legacy he established in all of its beauty. What's beautiful about it is that he can come back when he wants because of the groundwork he's laid, or he can hang his jersey and retire into legend. Tha Carter V loops the listener in for one final romp before waving to us from a distant shore as we sail away.
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