It’s impossible to separate Lil Wayne’s long-delayed “Tha Carter V” from the tortured story behind it: The seemingly endless legal battle with Birdman, his mentor and Cash Money’s label boss (a family feud which the rapper finally won in June); the five years of release dates missed and rescheduled; even the chart race with Kanye West’s “Yandhi” that popped up over the past few days. There have been plenty of sightings and sound-offs from Wayne since 2011’s “Carter IV”: collaboration albums with 2 Chainz (2016’s “ColleGrove”) and T-Pain (2017’s “T-Wayne”), promethazine-addled solo albums like “I Am Not a Human Being II” (2013) and Rich Gang’s self-titled debut (2013), and several mixtapes. But none of them had the lyrical bite, rhythmic rumble and sonic tautness of Wayne’s “Tha Carter” series.
With the unfulfilled promise of “V” looming over all of those releases, it has pretty much sucked being a hardcore Weezy fan since 2011. After all, Like Vin Diesel and “Fast & Furious,” “Tha Carter” franchise is where Wayne is truly home: Loose but tight, haughtily caustic and grimy but also comic, and cutting straight to the bone.
So is all forgiven now that “V” has finally arrived, launched into a very different world than the 2013 one that was originally planned for its release? What will it mean to mumble and SoundCloud rappers, and a generation raised on Weezy’s onetime protégé Drake? (Oddly, Drizzy doesn’t contribute to any of the 23 tracks on “V,” although Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg, XXXTentacion, Nicki Minaj and Travis Scott, among others, do.)
The good news: Musically, despite the age of some of the songs, “V” is fresh, flush and even frenetic at times, with the crunch of the Southern trap and ropey rap-rock sounds that Wayne pretty much started in the first place. Although a rumored last-minute Post Malone session is missing from this grouping of tracks, features from Travis Scott and the late XXXTentacion help make “V” purr and kick, and a heavily aututuned Wayne sings on the gentle “What About Me.” To hear Wayne cackle out the lines “I see death around the corner/ And the U-turn sign’s lookin’ like a smile,” after XXXTentacion’s haunting chorus at the top of “Don’t Cry,” puts mortality on the front burner of this album.
Indeed, “V,” with guest spots from Wayne’s mother (on the opening track “I Love You Dwayne,” spoken directly to him) and his daughter, “V” has a stirring emotional edge that even some of Wayne’s coldest moments on the previous “Carters” missed. The spacey “Dark Side of the Moon” finds a sing-songy Wayne and Nicki Minaj getting both weird and romantic at the same time. There is braggadocio to be found on the rugged “Let It Fly,” where he and Scott stake their claims on who rules the rap planet — although when Wayne spits, “I’m revived, it’s C5/ Been arrived, kiss the sky, did the time/ Please advise it is advise or be advised, and we advise/ You not f— with me and mine,” you get the impression that he has his own opinion.
The family ties continue when Weezy’s daughter, Reginae, sings the gently spooky chorus on “Famous” as dad takes a long look in the mirror, referencing Notorious B.I.G. in the process: “All I ever wanted was everybody’s attention/ ‘Cause most people are nobody ’til somebody kill ’em/ Probably thought that my career, be short and sweet/ Wishin’ I was in your shoes, I’d take them off and find a beach.”
And if “Open Letter” proves his willingness to share his insecurities and “Can’t Be Broken” speaks of finding the strength to stay strong and carry on, the album’s dramatic finale — “Let It All Work Out,” with a haunting Sampha sample — shows Wayne at his most vulnerable and heartbroken. Frankly discussing a childhood suicide attempt (“I found my momma’s pistol where she always hide it/ I cry, put it to my head and thought about it”), Wayne paints a dramatic portrait of coming unglued yet coming together again, with God’s help.
More than any “Carter” before this, Lil Wayne has created “V” to be a back-to-front journey, where the sacred and the sanctimonious meet, with his mom, daughter, musical influences, contemporaries and offspring all meeting on an album that, in the five years since its original planned release, has one of the longest backstories in hip-hop history — and it even concludes on an up note. Perhaps that’s the biggest surprise of all: The long saga of “The Carter V” actually has a happy ending.
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