Last fall, Nas attempted to revive a faltering rap career with plans to name his newest album Nigger. The move garnered media attention despite failing to stock a single CD store with a slurred album cover, as the emcee was forced by the economic pressures that be to rename the disc this May. He left it untitled, and the record — a socially conscious, critic-approved study on everything from the presidential race to presidential racism — sold well enough regardless of its inability to send anything near the pop charts.
My reason for bringing up Nas is this: nine albums deep in a career that’s been on the skids since 2000, he still strayed far from bubblegum production on Untitled. A hip-hop has-been he may be, but at least he’s content taking a commercial hit instead of making a commercial hit — so long as he can present some deadly serious subject matter in the meanwhile. On the other hand, emcee-of-the-year Lil Wayne dropped Tha Carter III this June, his supposed masterpiece, and filled it with about as much gravity as the moon — a fitting metaphor given his fetish for convincing the world he’s not from this planet. Weezy’s sixth album and his third of any merit, TCIII is ultimately funnier than it is phenomenal, and it suggests that where other rappers write lyrics, Weezy writes punchlines. But after its 76th minute, one question remains — however antithetical to the posterquote from the biggest summer movie we’ve seen in years: Why so unserious?
The question comes up, of course, because even the most rudimentary detour into Wayne’s backstory suggests deeper, darker lyrical material than on this album. The New Orleans native sports a teardrop tattoo on his face, a watermark notoriously reserved for he who has murdered. His chest wears two scars of near-fatal bullets: one delivered by a fanatical groupie, one accidentally self-inflicted. And Wayne himself can’t be profiled in any magazine article without significant weight given to his weed-‘n-codeine habit, an addiction that addles his brain so he can cook up demented rhymes and addles his voice so he can sound uncomfortably raspy. But not one these things — none of which Weezy could rap without — are rapped about on Carter III, and in their place is an assembly line of well-assembled one-liners. It’s just like Wayne says on “La La”: “Wittier than comedy, nigga write a parody/But I ain’t telling jokes…apparently.”
What’s left apart from humor, then, is an array of this year’s most monumental hip-hop singles, and rightly so: each one suggests Wayne’s coming-of-age as a producer, and the likely correlation that people are listening more to what he says because they no longer have to wade through murky, unlistenable beats like those that litter the rest of his back catalogue. “A Milli,” with its ghost-scary, trunk-rattling, one-note bass line, manages three minutes without a chorus but is catchy enough to come off as one giant chorus. (And for a guy banking on your interest in his, well, banking, the million-strong who bought Carter III in its first week made a nice real-world remix of Wayne’s monetary boasts.) Then comes “Lollipop,” a song about head that’s really what got Weezy ahead, which matches mutant funk with mutated vocals. Better yet are album tracks “Mr. Carter” and “Dr. Carter”: the latter an impossibly funky concept song that alternates between heartfelt verses and mock autopsies for lesser emcees; the former an anthemic, old-school torch-passing between Jay-Z and Wayne. (Take note, Jay: Weezy’s seasonal metaphor alone — “I got summer hating on me cause I’m hotter than the sun/Got Spring hating on me cause I ain’t neva sprung/Winter hating on me ’cause I’m colder than y’all/And I will neva I will neva I will neva fall” — should have sent you back to the drawing board.)
Elsewhere, Wayne’s relative genius from TCIII‘s best tracks casts aspersions on his just-par work. “La La,” a bizarro children’s-song-gone-wrong, rehashes the similar idea of T.I.’s “Rubber Band Man” and Cee-Lo’s “Children’s Play,” not to mention Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life.” “Got Money” is just as uninspired, and a throwaway like “Comfortable” (produced by Kanye?…Really??) should have been relegated to mixtape status, if even that. Othertimes entire tracks can be reduced to one awesome line — “You can’t get on my level/You would need a spaceshuttle or a ladder that’s forever” from opener “3Peat” is one such case — or one great motif, like the slippery, alternative guitar on “Tie My Hands.” But for a guy so convinced he’s the best rapper alive that one of his best all-time songs is, umm, “Best Rapper Alive,” you’d expect a greater effort to be consistent.
So here’s the good news from an otherwise bad review: Tha Carter III is 2008’s best rap album. (Take that with a grain of salt, though, as Flo Rida is in the year’s Top 5.) As a musician, Lil Wayne is undoubtedly unique, ambitious, and hard-working enough to let some of his best work fall through the cracks into little-heard internet mixtapes — and that last fact certainly makes this disc a champion of newfangled marketing, perhaps a remixed version of Radiohead’s all-too-talked-about digital release scheme of Fall 2007. But Tha Carter III is not a modern classic; it’s just the most quotable thing we’ve heard in years. Weezy’s insistence on single takes in the studio sure makes his flow superbly enchanting, but he’ll have to take his own self serious before the rest of us can. It’s just like they say in the pizza business: even if you tip for delivery, you’re still paying for the product.