Lil Wayne has been calling himself the best rapper alive since Tha Carter II, which mostly precedes his new Carter III in name only. The almost three-year stretch between those two records, epic by rap album standards, has already become the stuff of hip-hop legend: Wayne not only held onto a potentially fickle audience — people who love equal parts hard rapping and raunchy comedy — but somehow in that time became the biggest rapper alive, if maybe not the best. It took a couple key mixtapes and a constant flood of guest verses, all building up suspense for the long-delayed Carter III, but the success was enough to give Wayne something to brag about.
If it would then seem like that three-year gap was spent meticulously engineering this record to be a perfect number one, it doesn’t sound like it. Wayne’s best verses have all been druggy, free-associative rants, most of which sound completely unedited, doubtfully ever even written down. And that’s pretty much the entirety of Carter III: songs with loose themes and expensive beats, big hooks and a bunch of verses about nothing in particular. If he’s been doing anything other than standing in front of a mic with a styrofoam cup of cough syrup cutting who knows how many tracks a day, it doesn’t show. It hardly makes a difference that this is a proper album with marquee producers and guest stars, a couple monster singles and a hilarious cover that makes for great concert t-shirts.
His lyrics, all long strings of quick punchlines packed into barely-rapped verses, are, even more than usual, borderline incomprehensible. In ‘Let the Beat Build’, over a Kanye West beat that could’ve been a Common leftover, Wayne says something about “the wave pool, at Blue Bayou/and then I waved, fool, as I blew by you.” Maybe he’s shouting out to Louisiana, but it seems more likely that he’s just too lazy not to say the first thing that comes into his head — even if that means making a reference to a tiny water park in Baton Rouge (had to Google that one). More importantly, he makes a bizarrely clever insult out of it and it somehow makes up for the fact that the whole line is nonsense. Wayne’s a pro at this whiplash factor — the sudden recognition that he’s turned a dirty joke for his teenage fans into a perfect couplet, and then followed it up with a few more.
Still, the rapping is predictably weaker than his mixtape stuff, but the production picks up the slack. Almost every track sounds radio-ready: Kanye’s faux-Coldplay crooned ‘Shoot Me Down’ comes off way better than similar attempts by Lupe Fiasco and Kanye himself, plus he nails ‘Comfortable’, with an R&B chorus so one-for-the-ladies he brought Babyface out from behind the curtain to sing it. Wyclef Jean supplies a blatant summer jam called ‘Mrs. Officer’ — the hook is Bobby Valentino singing a siren noise in between Wayne lines like “all she wants me to do is fuck the po-lice” and “Lady, what’s your number/she said 9-1-1.” It all distracts from the lack of any real hard rapping on Wayne’s part: Carter III is a tight, fun record from someone who’s spent the last couple years gleefully stomping on other people’s tracks, unlike Carter II, which came from a Lil-er Wayne still trying to prove himself.
At the beginning of ‘Mr. Carter’, a song premised by the fact that Wayne and Jay-Z have the same last name, he rants, “I feel BIG — not big in the sense of gaining weight or nothing like that...like, colossal.” When he says it, he sounds a little shocked, but it’s his one point that can’t be argued. People can debate whether he really is as next-level as he claims, but there’s no denying how much he believes he’s the best rapper alive, more genuinely than anyone else in recent memory. If Kanye West makes an act out of his ego, Lil Wayne lets his speak for itself. Really, neither of those should seem like positive choices, but it’s hard to imagine any rappers right now, let alone two of the most successful, going any other way.