Headphones: 'Tha Carter V' Is A Bloated Return To Form

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What is there to say about Lil Wayne that hasn’t already been said? Dwayne Michael Carter Jr. has been one of the most recognizable figures in hip-hop for almost twenty years, revolutionizing our conception of the mixtape and downloadable music along the way. His wordplay, distinctly raspy voice, and raunchy lyrical themes are a hallmark of the bling-era of rap that dominated the 2000s. However his fame has preceded him for the last half decade or so, and his musical output has been minuscule relative to his glory days. When he did come out with a project (‘T-Wayne’, ‘I Am Not a Human Being II’, ‘Dedication 5’), it seemed like the seasoned pro has entered the twilight of his career. After a handful of failed attempts since 2014 to drop this particular installment of ‘Tha Carter’ series -largely due to a heated legal battle with former mentor Birdman over the ownership of Cash Money Records- Weezy seems to have done some course correction here. Tha Carter V features a polished Lil Wayne ready to jump back in the game. He displays all aspects of his talents over the course of an unnecessarily long 23 tracks that reminds both listeners and new stars that he’s still got it.

There isn’t much of a consistent sound when it comes to the production of the album, and to Wayne’s credit he is able to come off smooth and authentic in spite of the jagged sonic aesthetic. Tracks like ‘Uproar’ and ‘Start This S**t Off Right (feat. Ashanti and Mack Maine)’ sound like they were meant to be released last decade. There isn’t much offered in lyrical depth or fleshed out beats, yet he still manages to deliver a solid performance that highlights the fame and wealth he has accumulated over the years. Is it a little overdone? Maybe. But there’s no denying that Wayne has the social clout to claim that he “met the devil, came back feelin’ frío”. As fun as these tracks are they are unfortunately some of the more forgettable, and it feels as if they would stand out more on a smaller project that carries these songs’ feel throughout.

Weezy doesn’t shy away from the new sounds and flow of contemporary rap and pop thankfully, as many of the standout tracks result from when he leans into the new age. The songs ‘Don’t Cry (feat. XXXTENTACION)’ and ‘Dedicate’ start the album with a trap-infused bang (after a chilling testimony from his mom), and are easily the most memorable from the album’s offering. The former finds an existential Lil Wayne musing on his various brushes with death and sliding success. The crooning from the late XXXTENTACION provides a resonate hook that encapsulates the mood perfectly. On ‘Dedicate’ we are treated to a more boastful side of the emcee, punctuated by tight drums and syncopated piano chords. His flow is second-to-none here, and he proves that he has the stuff to trade punches with today’s wordsmith heavyweights (the co-sign from Obama at the end doesn’t hurt either).

A standout ability of Wayne is to capture the pop sound and really make it his own, and he doesn’t disappoint here. ‘Dark Side of the Moon (feat. Nicki Minaj)’ has Weezy shedding his tough exterior to deliver an impassioned melody of longing. His verses are authentic and melancholy over a spacey beat, and the chorus builds with an intensity found in his and Nicki’s strong vocals. He takes a more hedonistic turn on ‘Perfect Strangers’, detailing infidelity in a broken relationship with genuine pain in his voice.

It’s in these more revealing tracks that Lil Wayne presents something new to the table. While he has embraced themes of love and loss in his music previously, the honest despair found on ‘Mess’ is quite striking. The pleasures of success he has become so associated with turn on its head here, replaced with resentment towards his inability to find meaningful connections with no clue how to change. Moments like these show growth and reflection for Wayne, and in spite of the plethora of filler there are some genuine gems on this album.

I remember listening to Solange’s ‘A Seat at the Table’ when it first came out in 2016, and I recall being really taken by Weezy’s feature on ‘Mad’. He was thoughtful and contemplative, going into his suicide attempt and the baggage he carries on a daily basis. The next thing that came into my mind was: ‘What happened to Lil Wayne?’ Though he may not hold the same esteem he did in his heyday, Weezy proves on ‘Tha Carter V’ that he still has a good amount of gas left in the tank. Many of the tracks aren’t engaging enough to justify sitting down and listening to the whole thing top to bottom, and the length is definitely its undoing. With that, this is Lil Wayne’s strongest project in years, and he reclaims his influence by not holding anything back.