When you think of rappers who are still relevant and esteemed, few have had careers more turbulent than Lil Wayne. Whether it has been well-publicized substance abuse struggles, jail time or a fight for label freedom against Birdman (who played the greatest role in his career’s sprouted wings), he’s been forced to learn the art of resilience through suffering. Through it all, music has taken Wayne from the New Orleans slums to near pop territory as the boss of Young Money in the wake of his initial teammates parting ways with Cash Money Records.
Since releasing Tha Carter in 2004, Wayne’s tireless work ethic has shaken up the game through countless mixtapes and iconic collaborations with everyone from day one producer Mannie Fresh to the likes of Cool & Dre, Bangladesh, Kanye West, and Swizz Beatz. Always looking up to Jay-Z (their rumored 2011 subliminal skirmish aside), Tha Carter series not only potentially borrows inspiration from Hov’s late ‘90s Vol. 1-3 collection of albums, but Wayne’s latest work proves him capable of bouncing back from a slump the same way last year’s well-regarded 4:44 showed his big homie could still make music that resonates after a steep decline.
With next year marking two decades since Lil Wayne’s solo debut Tha Block Is Hot, his latest album Tha Carter V has performed relatively well from critical and commercial standpoints at a time when most considered his career to be in limbo.
In celebration of Tha Carter V, VIBE ranked the albums from this series to determine which reigns supreme.
5. Tha Carter IV
Due to a combination of Lil Wayne’s bad luck and having already set an impossible benchmark dominating with Tha Carter III and the No Ceilings mixtape in back to back years, Tha Carter IV was almost destined to be a failure. Possibly suffering from PTSD, creative rust and a general lack of determination after serving eight months behind bars in New York’s famed Rikers Island jail, his return was full of senseless blunders that only stained his legacy.
Anyone expecting Lil Wayne to deliver greatness this go-around was met with disappointment. Tha Carter IV had little to no redeeming value aside from moments like lead single “6 Foot 7 Foot,” which affiliate DJ Scoob Doo described as “‘A Milli’ on steroids.” The project was utterly mediocre even by the standards of serious fans, as turmoil and the fast life seemed to have finally caught up with him and got in the way of his art. For example, he ran the shortened simile style of punchlines (generally credited to Big Sean and still being abused by Nicki Minaj today, i.e. “Tell them h**s that it’s crunch time, abdomen”) into the ground, and the awkward single “How To Love” was confusing no matter how heartfelt the message was.
History will remember Tha Carter IV as an uninspired debacle sullied by a number of questionable decisions: “She Will” was mostly carried on the strength of Drake being blistering hot at the time, “John” was no more than a rehash of Rick Ross’ “I’m Not A Star,” and aimless guest appearances came from Andre 3000, Busta Rhymes and Shyne (of all people), amongst others, partaking in the reindeer games. When you add the supposed subliminal shots Wayne aimed at his idol Jay-Z on “It’s Good,” this amounted to an embarrassment that came on the heels of him successfully launching his Young Money brand.
4. Tha Carter V
Recently released on Lil Wayne’s 36th birthday, Tha Carter V finally arrived after years of delays stemming from contractual complications with his father figure and one-time boss, Birdman. The album is sporadically narrated by his mother Jacida (similarly to how Master P spoke on Solange’s A Seat At The Table), who sums up her son’s life with prideful tears while also addressing his complexities and overall genius.
On Tha Carter V, Wayne has returned to the winner’s circle after less dedicated (no pun intended), subpar placeholders released between retail albums only damaged his legacy. Refreshed and renewed, his “Best Rapper Alive” claims are at least worthy of discussion again, even if social media curmudgeons would say otherwise. On “Dedicate,” Wayne has the time of his life reminding the world of the trends he set and how much he loves the sport of rapping, and by the same token “Uproar” and “Dope N***az” show love to his generation’s hip-hop classics by sampling G. Dep’s “Special Delivery” (there’s already an emerging dance challenge) and Dr. Dre’s “Xxplosive,” respectively.
With this latest work, Wayne sticks with vintage formulas that have always worked in his favor while embracing how much the rap game has changed during his relative absence. “Start This Sh*t Off Right” is a nostalgic, woman-friendly reunion with Mannie Fresh, but he only spends a short time looking back to the past as he finds chemistry alongside this generation’s stars like Kendrick Lamar and Travis Scott on “Mona Lisa” and “Let It Fly.” No stranger to introspection, “Famous” has Wayne telling the other side of the glory and how it’s more troublesome than it appears, while the Auto-Tune-heavy “Mess” goes in-depth on his dysfunctional nature and predisposal for womanizing.
Evidenced by heartfelt moments like “Dark Side Of The Moon,” an R&B ballad collaboration with Young Money majesty Nicki Minaj, Tha Carter V may be Lil Wayne’s most mature work to date.
Far from a weak effort, its lower ranking only stems from him raising the bar so high before this late point in his career. Clocking in at 23 tracks and 87 minutes (possibly a tactic to take advantage of Billboard streaming metrics, or an attempt to make up for lost time), a fair amount of filler doesn’t take away from the album featuring some of the most enjoyable rappings we’ve heard on a mainstream release in 2018. Much like Tiger Woods’ recent PGA Tour victory, this triumph over adversity is a welcome return that assures fans Wayne still has a worthwhile place within rap.
3. Tha Carter
If there’s one trait Lil Wayne has embodied his whole career (even to the point of a detriment at times), it would be loyalty. Tha Carter found him stepping into uncharted territory as the new backbone of Cash Money at a time when many of the label’s signees jumped ship. The most cohesive of the five album series, since it was nearly fully produced by Mannie Fresh, in 2004 Wayne fought with his back against the wall, left with no choice but to step into bigger shoes as the de facto face of his camp.
Left to his own devices at a crucial point where CMR could have been rendered obsolete without their all-star roster, Wayne established himself as an ultimate team player with the imprint going so far to designate him president and eventually make him CEO of his own offshoot Young Money. “Go DJ” is a boastful call-and-response classic associated with this earlier period of his career and on a more serious note, while “I Miss My Dawgs” was an emotional centerpiece expressed his genuine love for his former Hot Boyz comrades Juvenile, B.G. and Turk, despite the distance that had grown between the crew.
A key component of Tha Carter was the emphasis placed on the familial relationship between Lil Wayne and crew figurehead Brian “Baby” Williams. The album kept true to their musical roots with a number of collaborations that foreshadowed their 2006 joint album Like Father, Like Son and the young half of the duo even going so far as to embrace the nickname “Birdman Jr.” With this being the last time they would work together so closely, half of the album’s magic is owed to Mannie Fresh’s ability to cook up original masterpieces from his keyboard and drum machine.
Given no choice but to develop into his own man, with his fourth, occasionally unpolished solo album, Lil Wayne showed his potential to develop into an act far greater than anyone previously expected.
2. Tha Carter II
With Cash Money putting all of their resources behind Lil Wayne’s career, Tha Carter II gave him an increased sense of freedom and inspiration as he carried the torch. Having set himself ahead of the pack in New Orleans and the South after Juvenile fell short of the world’s expectations, with this late 2005 release he all but made himself a contender for one who could run the rap game altogether.
Perhaps the last time Wayne could be called a “pure” artist who had yet to make creative compromises for popular stardom, Tha Carter II is the release that’s been the most lauded by critics and a fair share of fans. Dipset’s trademark production crew The Heatmakerz brought new soulful energy with “Tha Mobb” as he proceeded to mow over competition for nearly five minutes without hooks, while the frenetic “Fireman” served as a worthy street single. “Hustler Muzik” was one of the first songs to establish Wayne as a solo hitmaker, while many would say the Robin Thicke collab “Shooter” was the moment he arrived as an artist, as live instruments took his sound to another level.
Focused on elevating his skill set, Lil Wayne showed incredible command of the mic during moments like “Lock And Load,” but the most glaring flaw of Tha Carter II is its sonic disparity between tracks. For example, “Money On My Mind” was a trapped out precursor to Rick Ross’ smash “Hustlin’,” and “Best Rapper Alive” toyed with the idea of being a rock anthem while “I’m A D-Boy” paid slight homage to New Orleans staple, “Triggaman.” Clocking in at an ambitious 77 minutes, the album suffered from a slight lack of quality control, but it was yet another step in the right direction as Wayne was still aspiring to be recognized as a self-made boss.
1. Tha Carter III
Tha Carter III, a pinnacle for Lil Wayne’s catalog and hip-hop as a whole over the past decade, was the perfect combination of timing, hits, and determination set towards making a masterpiece. The lead single “Lollipop” was an Auto-Tune-driven number that hit the top of Billboard’s charts, and its follow up “A Milli” (a modern-day cultural staple that left us with classic phrases like, “What’s a goon to a goblin?”) was revolutionary as the backing track was just a bass line, drum and stuttering vocal sample, both simplistic sly misdirections as to what the whole album would sound like.
Looking back in time, Lil Wayne is able to boast a number of feats directly tied to Tha Carter III. For one, it was certified platinum its first week in stores from pure sales before today’s streaming metrics, not to mention being the highest selling album of 2008 across all genres. On “Mr. Carter” Jay-Z officially stamped his student as heir to the throne, no small cosign as the elder statesman had rarely shown signs of willingly relinquishing his spot.
Wasting few moments, Lil Wayne covered all of his bases and hit every demographic, as the bulk of Tha Carter III felt like he had a point to prove. Making the most of his peers and their great platforms, “Got Money” was a fun and rowdy anthem that arrived at the height of T-Pain’s career; meanwhile Kanye West and R&B legend Babyface brought a maturity to the almost adult contemporary “Comfortable” that was missing on the aforementioned woman friendly “Lollipop” and the silly but still effective “Mrs. Officer.”
Tha Carter III’s greatest success lies in the range of ideas he got covered over the course of 16 songs. Highlights include “Dr. Carter” where he put on a literal clinic on the techniques of rapping, and “Tied My Hands” which addressed his beloved city’s devastation from Hurricane Katrina. In a similar vein, “DontGetIt (Misunderstood)” had Wayne taking Al Sharpton to task in defense of hip-hop and freedom of speech amidst commenting on the prison industrial complex, serious matters that were balanced out by “Let The Beat Build,” one of his greatest performances committed to tape. Simply put, this was the magnum opus that completely transitioned Lil Wayne out of his humble beginnings and removed any preconceived limitations on his ability.