It's difficult to imagine most rappers crowing about animal sex, Reading Rainbow, or beheading shoppers at Target. But Lil Wayne is not most rappers.
A few years ago, he spent his 80-minute farce Tha Carter III yelping insane bullshit over correspondingly manic beats. It wasn't much of a hip-hop album - Wayne's gauzy, half-considered lyrics were about as coherent as a PCP-fried Dr. Octagon - but it worked as surrealist performance art. Wayne, it seemed, wanted to know just how far he could test listener patience.
Tha Carter III was the culmination of a two-year period during which Wayne released a giant wealth of free music online. Starting in 2006, he gave away dozens of new songs, packing them as aggressively noncommercial mixtapes. Rather than befall at the needs of commerce or record-label interference, Wayne followed his muse, writing songs with titles like "I Feel Like Dying" and "Pussy Monster."
Even his most wanton ideas, like sampling art-rock dinosaurs Yes and warbling over Gnarls Barkley tracks, sounded awesome in practice. He was unstoppably original, if not a great rapper in any traditional sense.
These days, though, Wayne sounds less like a genius savant and more like one of the many garden-variety hipster rappers he undoubtedly influenced; 2010's I Am Not a Human Being could have soundtracked a Rob Dyrdek skateboarding show on MTV. His recent work isn't terrible, as many would argue. It just has zero personality, as if market-programmed for teenagers who think Wiz Khalifa and Kid Cudi are "different" because they wear Vans.
So while Tha Carter IV is very likely the best of Wayne's recent albums, what does that mean? That it's better than Rebirth, which channeled post-grunge rock music to humorlessly overwrought results?
In fairness, Carter IV might be his most cohesive disc since 2005's Tha Carter II. Like that album, Carter IV is pitched halfway between New Orleans and New York, combining Southern-smoked production (hissing hi-hats, generous bass) with gritty East Coast workmanship.
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Nas and Busta Rhymes, both longstanding members of the NYC vanguard, add verses to the outro. Bronx-born Cory Gunz plays AZ to Wayne's Nas on "Six Foot Seven Foot," weaving 16 breathless, song-stealing bars.
"President Carter" loops a snippet of Jimmy Carter's inauguration speech into a nightmarish banger, Wayne echoing the grubby street-talk of mid '90s hip-hop: "Niggas ain't satisfied 'til they mamas is missing," he says.
"I'm Good" looks experimental on paper - there's even a proggy sample of the Alan Parson Project's "The Cask of Amontillado" - but Wayne spits unchecked gangsta venom, threatening violence against Jay-Z and Beyonce, bloodthirst clear in his voice.
There are no guitars, pretensions of rock stardom, or references to skateboards and skinny pants on Carter IV. If anything, what's striking about the album is how reserved it sounds. Wayne used to tell jokes like, "Even deaf bitches say hi to me/ She told the blind bitch and she said, 'I gotta see.'"
Nothing so eminently quotable surfaces on the new album. He is far more workmanlike, his nasal-pitched tenor less animated. Only "I'm Good" and "Megaman," where he threatens to "send them Bloods at your ass like tampons," recall the maniacal vintage Wayne.
Let us not forget that Wayne spent eight months of 2010 in Riker's Island State Prison, locked up on felony gun charges. His friend and protégé Drake even big-ups Riker's attractive female security personnel on "I'm Good."
Wayne rarely explicitly addresses those legal woes, but the rapper's incarceration gives Carter IV a sobering context. He claimed invincibility on crazed, Gaddafi-esque rants like "N.O. Nigga" and "Live From the 504." Here he thanks fans for their prayers and sounds, dare we say, mortal. Even "She Will," a presumably club-aimed dedication to strippers, is broody.
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The saddest song here is "How to Hate," which pairs a mirthlessly Auto-Tuned hook from T-Pain with slow, thudding MPCs. Wayne has made requisite stabs at pop radio before, but "Shooter," "Gossip" and "Lollipop" had imagination in spades.
"How to Hate," like too much of Tha Carter IV, just sounds timid by comparison.