A few days after Tha Carter III leaked, Lil Wayne ambled onstage at Giants Stadium looking like he only had the vaguest sense of where he was, half-consciously staring at his feet while “A Milli” thudded and a few tens of thousands of teenagers lost their minds. This was Hot 97’s annual Summer Jam, the show where the nation’s biggest rappers attempt to out-dazzle each other. Wayne’s set defied convention. No medleys. No big guest stars except Kanye West, who everyone knew was on the bill anyway. Only a couple of hits. A whole lot of time devoted to “Pussy Monster,” an endless, über-graphic ode to cunnilingus, which Wayne delivered while humping the stage and shoving his hand down his pants, daring the crowd to turn on him. Girls squealed; dudes stared ashen-faced. As the set ended, someone threw a bathrobe over Wayne’s shoulders while Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” blared over the stadium speakers. Kanye’s own set had fireworks and a robot-suited backing band and a Young Jeezy cameo, but he knew he didn’t stand a chance. “This the Carter’s night,” he dejectedly muttered between songs. “I’m-a take this L like a man.”
Six months later, Wayne returned to the Meadowlands, this time at the smaller, indoor Izod Arena for another radio station show. Tha Carter III had already sold upward of two million copies, a truly absurd figure in these new economic end-times. He had nothing to prove by then, and he proved nothing. Co-headliner Jay-Z refused to take the stage with Wayne for their planned “Mr. Carter” moment, reportedly disgusted with him for no-showing their Boston show together the night before. Wayne’s new backing band of session-musician hacks cluelessly soloed all over the skeletal boom of the backing tracks, inexplicably squeedling “A Milli” into stomp-rock anonymity; the rapper himself looked listless and slurry, as though he’d rehearsed his set enough to leach out all the unstable electricity of his Summer Jam appearance, but not enough that it’d actually be any good. When Jay took the stage later that night, he mopped the floor with Wayne.
Still, Wayne had a big 2008: He pretended to play guitar behind Kid Rock at the Country Music Awards. He brushed chalk off his shoe in Mark Romanek’s mini-masterpiece of a LeBron Nike commercial. He had a son. He sold more copies of one record than anyone else, in any genre. And he became the most divisive figure in recent rap memory. Wayne does not carry himself in a manner befitting a rap star. His delivery isn’t an ice-grilled snarl—it’s a freewheeling back-of-the-throat gibber. He doesn’t hammer away methodically at his subjects—he slides haphazardly between them, chasing down digressions and vividly distracting himself. He scored his biggest-ever hit with a miasmic robo-trance ode to head (that’d be “Lollipop”) and his biggest car-radio banger with an unhinged chorus-free rant over a beat that’s all maddening, world-swallowing repetition (that’d be “A Milli”). He was all rupture, no control. And no matter how thrilling his best moments were, even vocal admirers had to contend with scores of clanging dud moments like that Izod Arena show.
Even Tha Carter III, the album at the center of this whole mess, is a work of staggering heights and maddening inconsistencies. Wayne spent upward of two years putting the thing together, recording tracks at a frantic rate and then letting them slip out into the world, seemingly scrapping everything and starting over whenever a fresh batch “leaked” to the Internet. All the while, he churned out a constant stream of guest appearances and mixtapes, frying his brains over hundreds of all-night weed-and-codeine-driven recording sessions. By the time the album hit shelves, a few interviews indicated that Wayne wasn’t entirely certain which songs were actually on it.
And yet the album’s best moments still boast a ferocious sort of psychedelic clarity. On paper, this is a textbook focus-grouped major-label hodgepodge, replete with girl songs and club songs and street songs. But every facet of the album comes animated and atomized by Wayne’s absurdist drug-gobbling persona. The bit on “Playing With Fire” where a baby Wayne wields a cleaver and stares down his mother’s abusive boyfriend raises goosebumps every time; add to that the manic free-association of “A Milli,” the wounded empathy of “Tie My Hands,” the antic goofiness of “Dr. Carter,” and the glorious swells of “Let the Beat Build.”
But there’s also plenty of bullshit. Like, for instance, “Mrs. Officer,” a one-joke track that gets old immediately, thanks to that indefensible wee-ooh-wee-ooh-wee hook. Or the gleefully obnoxious circus-music beat for “La La.” Or the seven-minute spoken-word rant that ends “Don’t Get It.” My favorite moment of the album doesn’t even come from Wayne himself: It’s the masterfully dead-eyed verse from B-list guest Fabolous on “You Ain’t Got Nuthin.” When Wayne shows up later in the song, his stammering croak falls flat. Tha Carter III is a sprawling mess, and it clangs nearly as often as it clicks. Anyone defending Wayne in 2008 had to contend with a cavalcade of bad ideas.
But those bad ideas were always inextricable from the whole. The album revealed Wayne as a restless mind, rifling through concepts and subgenres with ADD frequency, ending up with something powerful more often than we had any right to expect. And the amazing part of it is that the masses followed him down all these different rabbit holes, turning the album into the sort of hotly discussed blockbuster moment that music never, ever produces anymore. In 2008, the only people who rivaled Wayne in terms of widespread water-cooler fascination were political candidates, Heath Ledger, and maybe, maybe, Michael Phelps. That’s a beautiful thing.
And ultimately, the real legacy of Tha Carter III might not even be the album itself; it’ll be the challenge it presents to anyone attempting rap stardom in the future. We’ll get plenty of shallow attempts to duplicate its success, of course. Chumps like Yung Berg are already ruining their voices attempting to replicate Wayne’s distinctive raspy yip, and producer Bangladesh is already ripping off his own “A Milli” beat for clients like Beyoncé and Busta Rhymes. But I can’t wait to see who responds to the album’s challenge on a basic, fundamental level. The old model doesn’t work anymore. You can’t just hire a phalanx of superstar producers, cobble together a few singles and a bunch of filler tracks, and call it a day. Old-model stars like 50 Cent and Nelly already seem helplessly, hopelessly out of date; any rapper hoping for Carter III–level success is going to have to let himself be weird. And so Kanye’s icy electro lament, 808s & Heartbreak, ranks as the first real post–Carter III rap album, a sideways bugout move that would’ve been unthinkable a year ago and still seems pretty bizarre today. If we’re lucky, we’ll get a few more of those.
As for Wayne himself, it is my great hope that he’ll live to see the end of 2009.