Rapper Lil’ Wayne once said, via an album title, I Am Not A Human Being. Listening to his new album, Tha Carter IV, it’s not difficult to see where Wayne was coming from – it’s not difficult to envision the rapper being dropped from a UFO into someone’s Hollywood backyard on a quiet, chilly night. The objective? To ruin hip-hop by turning it into an exaggerated version of its worst stereotypes, to behave in a deliberately bizarre fashion to court critical praise for his idiosyncracies, and to legitimize his ramblings with glossy, radio-courting production.
Honestly, that version of the tale makes more sense; it somehow seems less plausible that Lil’ Wayne would be anything but a fringe act with a small sect of devotees than the concept of his large-scale popularity. He seems more suited to Insane Clown Posse-style fame than real fame, that kind of fame where, yeah, you’re famous, but also society almost unanimously regards your devotees with a mixture of amusement, contempt, and pity. Either way, the fourth installment in Weezy F. Baby’s hugely popular Carter series isn’t a game-changer – people who don’t like Lil’ Wayne will simply be supplied with more ammunition, and people who do will continue to dismiss the rest of us as “haters”. Sunrise, sunset.
There are several things that stand out about Tha Carter IV on first listen. First is the production: predictably, a lot of it is the same unpleasant, trudging, synth-lines-over-canned-drums beat that Wayne has been croaking over for years. It’s why, over the course of the first few tracks, no instrumental causes the ears to perk up until “Nightmares From the Bottom” (unless you count the “Banana Boat Song” sample on the now-ubiquitous “6 Foot 7 Foot” that causes the ears to perk up, vomit, and then commit seppuku). Swooping strings, a descending piano arpeggio – it’s minimalist, and sounds like a particularly contemplative Blueprint outtake until Weezy, clearly unsure of where he is or what he’s doing, employs the same plodding cadence he employs everywhere else (more on that later). John Legend’s keys on “So Special”, the tortured, ominous sonic bed of “President Carter”, the chopped-up gospel-choir sample that serves to make “Abortion” sound reasonably epic – there are touches of inspiration floating around in Tha Carter IV‘s musical stew, and even at its worst, it’s not as aggressively ugly as Wayne’s skull-crushing rock experiment Rebirth.
But, more importantly, there is one person responsible for destroying Tha Carter IV, and that person is Weezy F. Baby himself. This is an album where many guests stop by and adequately acquit themselves, but these brief moments of respite are spoiled by the knowledge that another interminable Lil’ Wayne verse is, inevitably, on the way. His style is difficult to describe; it’s not so much rapping as it is a creaky, heavily-processed, weed-addled drawl wheezing out a series of punchlines. It’s not so much observational as it is a series of punchlines without jokes; Wayne himself seems to be continually set on “laconic”, always a slow limp to the next tired joke. He relies too heavily on this premise – it’s constantly “joke premise”, pause, “punchline”. Except, in Wayne’s case, it’s just something tangentially related to the last word that he said, like a weird free-associative game. “I say you rappers sweet,” pause, “tiramisu”. “I go down south,” pause, “Louisiana”. This is Wayne’s perpetual lyrical blueprint, sometimes interspersed with awe-inspiring revelations like “when it Waynes it pours”, and endless variations of the following line: “[Life or karma] is [often referred to as] a bitch, [therefore I will have sex with/rape her].”
But even more disconcerting than Lil’ Wayne’s lack of lyrical prowess (or technique that even resembles rapping) is the fact that much of Tha Carter IV is severely uncomfortable. It’s almost grotesque, really, how ugly Lil’ Wayne can be when it sounds like that processed wheeze is being brayed directly into your ear. “So Special” is classed up by John Legend, who sounds like he’s singing a completely different song, but ruined by Wayne, who dumps a bunch of gross sexual descriptions smack-dab in the middle of Legend’s warm vocals and scampering piano runs. And that’s to say nothing of “She Will”, an icky Drake xerox (featuring, not coincidentally, Mr. Drizzy himself) that finds Lil’ Wayne slurring some of the most uncomfortably rape-y lyrics since Tyler, the Creator, or “How to Hate”, in which T-Pain T-Pains all over everything, while Wayne spews uninventive bile at the ex-paramour that taught him “how to hate a bitch”. Even when he’s not being totally gross, Lil’ Wayne is still unpleasant; the idea that raps this sparse can still contain this many variations of “bitch,” “nigga,” and “ass” is staggering, often stringing the three words together without any rhyme or reason. It’s one of the world’s biggest rap stars sadly lending credence to rap’s detractors by embodying the stereotypes wholly; he often sounds like a massive hoax artist, the Joaquin Phoenix of the rap world. If he ever reveals it all to be a sham, we can rejoice that we have such a sharp satirist in our midst; until then, we have to deal with the fact that people listen to this guy unironically.
By the time this album’s “Outro” rolls around and Nas and Busta trade intricate, rapid-fire verses, the damage has already been done; Tech N9ne and Andre 3000 (no, Three Stacks, no…) sound fine, but only serve to highlight Lil’ Wayne’s shortcomings. “I’m Weezy F. Baby, and the F ain’t for flaw,” rasps Wayne on “Nightmares From the Bottom”, but it’s hollow at this point. It’s almost like he’s trying to convince himself.