#437: Lil Wayne, "Tha Carter III" (2008)

At 3.8 million units sold and counting, Tha Carter III has got to be the best selling comedy album of all time. Leaked in 2007, then released as an official/unofficial mixtape later that same year, then officially released in 2008, this kaleidoscope vision of Wayne’s world (party on) is one of the most creative, fun, lazy, funny, frustrating, bizarre, etc. albums ever made. It’s a nasily laugh at a hip-hop industry begging Wayne to make good on the trending maturity of the first two Carter albums. They wanted an opus and they got a rubber chicken. Wayne wrote a relationship song where the metaphor is police brutality. He told us he was from Mars. He wrote, “Swagger tighter than a yeast infection.” I don’t think someone trying to carry hip-hop on his back as a serious artist writes that. Upon release, Tha Carter III defied expectations. It would go on to influence a generation of hip-hop by showing MCs how to be stupid again.

Take, for example, this lyric: “I do this shit for my clique like Adam Sandler,” or the fact that he tries to summon Beetlejuice by saying his name three times. Wayne sings the hook to Rihanna's “Umbrella” and, at the start of “Got Money,” arguably the album’s biggest club hit, Wayne screams, “I need a Winn-Dixie grocery bag full of money right now to the V.I.P.” On any other record, these could be isolated riffs on humor or just symptoms of good times and too much Promethazine. But in 2008, the release of Tha Carter III held the attention of an industry. Remember when part of the album leaked a year early and Wayne’s response was to add some tracks and release it as an official EP? Everyone wanted a piece of III and the demand was so huge, Wayne knew he could throw out tracks from the session at will and still have a hit. A ton was riding on III. People legit expected Lil Wayne to save hip-hop. And then Wayne raps, “I’m a venereal disease like a menstrual bleed.”

Yeah. He did that. And made it work about as much as you could expect a line like that to “work.”  The album sold millions and left everyone enthralled. It also disappointed people who were banking on Wayne finding that next level. Face it, Weezy isn’t in top form on Tha Carter III. I won’t break it down bar for bar, but just listen to “3 Peat” and “Mr. Carter.” These two tracks make up the messy, underwhelming introduction on Tha Carter III. The awkward monologue that starts “Mr. Carter” is an especially low low-point. On it, Wayne makes sure to let us know that when he says he feels big, he doesn’t mean that he feels heavy/fat. He means like, you know, size-wise. Well, thanks for that. Compare this to “The Mobb,” the five-minute coronation that opens Tha Carter II. No contest, “The Mobb” wins every time.

And the inconsistency pissed a bunch of people off. Reviewers were baffled. Fans, myself included, felt cheated. Now, looking back, it is almost fun to listen to Wayne phone it in on “Phone Home” and just not give a shit on  “Lollipop” (C’mon, the joke of “So I let her lick the wrapper” is so bad. It is a dad joke). Throw in Auto-Tune and David Banner’s insane beat for “La-La” and you wonder if Wayne’s been listening to Dr. Demento. (You could probably make a pretty rad beat out of Barnes & Barnes’ “Fish Heads” though.)

Who does this? Who produces this kind of album when the world is watching? It isn’t as simple as a squandered opportunity or wilting under pressure or running out of ideas….Tha Carter III is loaded with ideas. I’d like to think the album came together like it did because Wayne believed he was the best and he was going to have a good time. The joy of just removing filters and notions of cool and getting down. This music became the ultimate bravado move and ushered in a half-decade of “I don’t give a fuck” wanna-bes who clearly, desperately GAF. Tha Carter III might be that rare album where Wayne slipped one past the label, past the press, past all of us. Where the mess made just enough sense.

Much of the clutter doesn’t hold now. Today, Tha Carter III feels an order of magnitude more self-indulgent than it did in 2008. Back then, Wayne’s pedigree was enough to make you second guess your ears. But his post-Carter III outputRebirth (good lord, this thing), I Am Not a Human Being, Tha Carter IV, I Am Not A Human Being IIare all wildly uneven or downright bad. People aren’t anticipating Wayne records or clamboring for leaks anymore. No one is wondering if he’ll redefine the genre again. Wayne stopped caring what we thought until we stopped caring entirely. Has it gotten so bad that he needs a “comeback” album? Probably. But the beat on “A Milli” was the beat of the decade for 2000-2009. “Lollipop” is one of those songs that was so crazy I remember exactly where I was when I heard it for the first time. And “Let the Beat Build” is a very high high-point. They’re certainly enough to make you miss that summer of 2008, when Wayne was everywhere, laughing at it all.

—Steven Casimer Kowalski