Picking Apart Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III, Part 1
Ha ha ha ha you can't catch him you can't stop him
OK. So. Tha Carter III. It's out there now. Or, anyway, it's out in leaked form, which will probably look a whole lot like the finished product that'll hit stores next week. Maybe there will be another track or two. Maybe Wayne will do that thing he was talking about where all these younger rappers will spit over "A Milli"; I hope so. Probably not, though. The Carter III that's out there in the ether is probably the Carter III we're getting. Apparently Wayne pissed off some mixtape DJs, and then the mixtape DJs leaked the album. Or maybe the thing just leaked the same way every big rap album does; somewhere along the food chain, someone tried to make a few extra bucks. Usually, after all, a leak a week and a half before the album's release is a best-case scenario. Anyway, and this will shock absolutely nobody, I love the thing. It's not a perfect album, maybe, but there's a whole lot going on there, and for my money it disproves the idea that Wayne doesn't know how to make songs. For the past few days, I've just been drunk on the thing, playing it constantly. And so I thought I'd basically rip off Brandon Soderberg's Kanye West Week idea and just really sink my teeth into this album, taking it a track at a time, five tracks a day, for the rest of the week. There will be more to say when I'm done with this, but this seems like a good a way as any to get a handle on something this big.
1. "3-Peat." The intro track. Maestro's beat samples Philip Glass's score to Koyaanisqatsi. Or I'm pretty sure it does, but I'm really bad at spotting samples. Either way, those slow-motion string-burbles do the same work they do in the first trailer for Grand Theft Auto IV: they give this impression that something really, really big is coming our way, something so big that they can't quite hint at what exactly it is, just that it's big. It sounds like light glinting off a glass skyscraper when you're standing right at the building's base, looking straight up, unable to quite make out where the wall stops climbing. Maestro throws epic Runners synth-churns and gut-shaking 808 drum-whumps on top of it, but really, Wayne might as well be rapping over just that minimal, evocative Glass shit here. Wayne, finally, has purpose in his voice; it's a strained creak, not the indolent, stoned mutter he's been using way too often on his diminishing-returns mixtape tracks lately. But all that purpose in Wayne's voice leads nowhere because he refuses to stick to a topic, to rap about any one thing or put forth any one big idea beyond, like "It's me!" Wayne starts out hard and violent and nihilistic, threatening to kill your grandmother and kidnap your kid and fuck your baby's mother. By the end of the track, though, he's talking wistfully about rescuing his mother from poverty and buying her a house, so I guess he's pro-family after all. He also says this: "Two more inches, I'd have been in that casket / According to the doctor, I could've died in traffic." Usually when rappers mention near-death experiences, it's to prove that they're still here for a reason, that they've got a world to take over; think "Through the Wire." But with Wayne, it's a context-free aside. He doesn't tell us anything else about getting shot; he just moves on to the next nonsensical boast. And this track is full of nonsensical boasts: "They cannot see me like Hitler"? And so the point is that there is no point; Wayne's using this album to take us into his randomly-generated free-associative headspace. The hype and pressure mean nothing to him. He barely even notices anyone beyond himself.
2. "Mr. Carter." On the intro, Wayne tries to explain that he feels big and what exactly that means. He fails completely, stammering and resorting to total stoner-logic. Then the beat kicks in. Wikipedia says this is a Just Blaze track, but it doesn't have Just's usual frantic intensity, and nobody screams Just's name on it. Still, I believe it; it's got that stately, beautifully realized classicist NY thing going for it, sped-up soul-sample on the hook and everything. Wayne's calm and assured, rasping hard and ruminative, still kicking out random boasts that don't make much sense: "Got summer hating on me cuz I'm hotter than the sun / Got spring hating on me cuz I ain't never sprung." The Jay-Z appearance on the track is basically rap's ultimate status symbol; you have to have serious pull to get that guy on your album anymore. But it feels sort of stapled-on and unnecessary, like Wayne's bringing Jay in just because he can, making sure to get two verses in before Jay's voice comes in. There's talk that Jay destroys Wayne on this song, but I'm not hearing it. Jay's in the lazy, entitled groove he's been in, for better or worse, ever since that fake retirement, and he's fine, but there's no mind-melting line here. What's striking is how easy and comfortable the two of them sound, taking turns on that loping singsong chorus and both sounding like the thing was specifically concocted with them in mind. In a way, this song's placement on the album is a real move back from the adrenaline that "3 Peat" implies. This album isn't flying headlong into banger territory; it's taking its time to get there. And the Jay-Z collab isn't going to be a bold-name hype-fest the way Rick Ross's "Maybach Music" sort of was; it's a summer-afternoon shit-talk session instead. When Jay gets done, Wayne jumps back on, rapping over no drums at all before, telling us that he's right up there with his guest. Then a children's choir comes in, sunny and ecstatic. This is happy music.
3. "A Milli." The elegiac 70s soul-strings from "Mr. Carter" melt into the fake-orchestral intro to this one and then, all of a sudden, boom. We're in banger territory. I love that stuttering sample, a nattering mantra that keeps blathering throughout. And the bass, oh man. In a car, the bass on this track is enough to shake your glasses off. And still Wayne refuses to submit to anything resembling a unifying concept, snarling his boasts but still floating from loose idea to loose idea. On the Summer Jam stage Sunday, he started his set with this, staring off to the side of the stage even as fifty thousand or so bugged out right in front of him. And even as the track booms and pounds, he sometimes singsongs around it, mocking like a playground bully. The first version of this song I heard had a verse from Corey Gunz, a rapper I never cared about much before, who spits a delirious double-time machine-gun assault that pretty much completely overwhelms Wayne's skipping non-sequiturs. Gunz isn't on the album version, though, and for some reason Wayne's verses sound rerecorded, even though the lyrics are the same. I have no idea why. And it took me forever to figure out the "even Gwen Stefani said she couldn't doubt me" line. (It's because Gwen Stefani is in No Doubt, duh.) There's also a kind of depressing bit about how he doesn't trust women because of Eve eating the apple, that old classic excuse for assholes to justify misogyny. Whatever. Anyway, this shit just knocks. I punch walls every time I hear it.
4. "Got Money." When this leaked a few weeks ago, it seemed like the first evidence that Tha Carter III wasn't going to be that great, that it was just another rap album. It's the obvious move, the clubby trance-rap track with T-Pain, nothing exceptional about it. In the context of the album, though, I hear it as the joyous victory-lap after the fucked-up insanity of "A Milli." First off, the beat, from Play-N-Skillz is pretty good trance-rap, big and heavy but still fast and cluttered enough to not get boring. And it's amazing how exhilarated Wayne sounds here, especially after how still and zoned-out he was on "A Milli." Wayne actually manages to stick to a concept here, even if it's a concept as well-trod and nebulous as walking through a club with women admiring him. Wayne's vocal is Autotuned all to hell, of course, but it's one of the only tracks on the album where Wayne submits to that treatment. (It's also worth noting that "Got Money" is the one trance-rap track on the album, unless "Lollipop" counts as trance-rap.) And it's instructive how differently Wayne and T-Pain use those that Autotune. T-Pain is just a sound-effect; not a human presence; he sits right in the middle of the track, and his chorus repeats unchanged, mantralike. Wayne, meanwhile, scratches and kicks and claws against the walls of the beat, dizzily yelping on and off the beat throughout. I like how the handclaps come in after his clap-your-hands line, and I like how he says how the DJ takes the beat off to shout him out when he walks into the club and the beat actually drops out when he's talking about it; Wayne interacts with his beats. I also like how he flips T-Pain's "I'm N Luv (Wit a Stripper)" line; when you're Wayne, the strippers fall in love with you. Those are small rewards, maybe, but not every song has to swallow your brain.
5. "Comfortable." Hey, finally a song I don't care about! Actually, this is OK, at least as far as soft-batch rap&B relationship-songs go. Babyface is all barely-there silkiness on the chorus, and I had to listen to the song like ten times before I could adequately focus on what Wayne was saying because his chorus is so completely boring and generic. Kanye West, meanwhile, comes with a breezy waft of a beat, impressionistic synth-strings with smooth-jazz guitar-noodles and watery drums over top. But Wayne is actually almost shockingly down-to-Earth here, like he's actually inhabiting the same universe as the rest of us. He quotes Beyonce, threatens to dump his girl, and then tells her that she'll never find someone else as good as he is (because, see, he's the best). The big title-line, which Wayne sings along with Babyface, is "Don't you ever get too comfortable," which sounds like a threat. But really it's a plea; he's worried that he's being taken for granted, that he and his girl are settling into routine and getting too easy. That's a sentiment you don't hear too often in relationship-songs. Nobody's really talking about leaving; they're just trying to keep things from getting boring. When Wayne says he's a mess in the sheets, he means it as a boast, not a confession, sort of the way Bo Diddley uses the word in "The Story of Bo Diddley." And I bet Khia will be happy to hear that Wayne hasn't gotten sick of "My Neck, My Back" yet. (Actually, neither have I.) Still, I mostly hit skip on this one.
"Phone Home" through to "Playing With Fire" tomorrow! Unless, you know, somebody dies.
Voice review: Jon Caramanica on Lil Wayne & DJ Drama's Dedication Voice review: Keith Harris on Lil Wayne's 500 Degreez
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