The CDs are pressed, the numbers are projected, and the verdicts are in: Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter IV has hit like a Funk Flex bomb and is slated to be one of the highest selling rap albums of the summer. It was a lay-up—Wayne was to return from Rikers to a rap game kept warm for him by protégés Nicki and Drake, snatch up some beats from eager producers, maybe pay them, and craft a classic the likes of which we hadn’t heard from him in years. Instead, surprisingly, Wayne has delivered an hour or so of one-liners and hashtag punchlines that aren’t really about anything. And after an astronomical rise to stardom, a year-long prison stint, a well-documented drug dependency, and even a few new babies, the goblin should have a lot more to talk about. Wayne’s either being tight-lipped or airheaded about the challenges of his past few years, and his failure to address them on this latest project is a sobering comment not only on his growth as an artist, but his ability to reconcile his real life against the one his fans demand of him.
The tragedy of C4 is Lil Wayne’s complete emotional absence. His delivery is flat and empty, and his words fly by like cheap gags in a bad stand-up routine. Beats and choruses provide tone where his lyricism consistently fails to do so, and we’re left to interpret what songs suggest instead of what they say. The plunging piano notes and solemn violins on “Nightmares Of The Bottom” prop up one of the album’s few mentions of his imprisonment altogether: “Only God can judge me, don’t need a jury… If I knew I was going to jail I would have fucked my attorney.” The track begs for some sort of honest reflection, but Wayne instead sidesteps its inquisition with flat puns and vapid banalities. On “How To Hate,” T-Pain lays his trademark foundation: genuine emotion funneled through a palatable silliness, and autotune. We wait for a fiery indictment of Wayne’s babymama(s), and instead get brainless chauvinism berating a faceless, one-dimensional devil in a purple dress: “I’m on my ‘fuck that bitch’ shit, you used to be the shit, but now you ain’t shit bitch.” And as the inaugural sample and choir chants of “President Carter” demand some sort of commentary on government corruption or record industry politics or best-rapper-alive boasts or something, we instead get “Yesterday just died, tomorrow never cried, the day of our lives.” A soap opera reference in a rap song has never sounded more appropriate.
Tha Carter IV finds Wayne portraying a caricature: an aimlessly violent, drug-addled nymphomaniac who may have been rapping for ten years and may have just debuted. He sounds more like the scores of rappers who have dedicated their careers to biting his flows and styles: an imitation of an imitation. And what’s most troubling about this strategy is that, in today’s rap landscape, it isn’t a bad one. Wayne has spent the past four years cultivating a distinct sound that has infatuated hip-hop’s purchasing demographic—one that sees him as a stark idea to be aspired to instead of a malleable individual to be understood. Wayne knows this, and has accepted wholeheartedly his duty to serve a public instead of an art. “6 Foot 7 Foot” answered the prayer of every 2008-Wayne stan who couldn’t wait for mixtape Weezy’s industrial approach to rap, dumping bars on any and every instrumental that arrived in his gmail. With C4 he’s applied this formula across an entire album—his verses are interchangeable, his team is barely present, and his real life struggles are nowhere to be found. Mostly because Wayne’s fans don’t look for real life, they look for an escape: a blunt blowin’, grown ass blood who will never give a fuck about ‘em, is single for the night, and got through that sentence like a subject and a predicate. As Lil Wayne the person continues to age, suffer, and change, Lil Wayne the rapper will shrink into a narrower parody. For every platinum plaque he’ll chase, his inability to articulate his feelings in his music, interviews, and daily life will become more paralyzing, until his life amounts to little more than a rap punchline.
This series’ artwork takes photos of Wayne throughout his life and imposes his current tattoos across his younger face. It implies a retroactive transformation—that young (Young?) Weezy, before rap, has ceased to exist, and the Wayne we hear on wax and see on TV is the Wayne that always was and always will be. Judging by Tha Carter IV, it will take quite some time before the face we see on Lil Wayne’s album cover looks anything like his own.