I used to think Lil Wayne was the best rapper in the public eye. Not the best rapper alive, as he brayed consistently while becoming the genre’s most transfixing artist by deploying lunacy, brio, and awesome technical skills on a series of mixtapes and guest verses in the run-up to 2008’s Tha Carter III, but the best rapper at playing both the old game of Maximize Your Radio Saturation! and the new game of Which Blog’s Comment Section Can I Inspire Fanatical Devotion In? Weezy was firmly a 21st-century superstar, maybe rap’s first, because he was more productive, more insane, and more entertaining than the field, and he got there by combining the youthful arrogance and above-average proficiency of his days as Cash Money’s wunderkind with a promethazine-and-weed-induced weirdness that made him reliably off-kilter and amusing. If you didn’t love Lil Wayne when he was on that tear, you missed out.
And given Wayne’s exploits of late—specifically, the execrable Tha Carter IV, out today—you may have missed the boat entirely. Nearly all of the attributes that once made Wayne great seem to have deserted him, leaving a husk of an artist with diminished heart, soul, and mind.
C4 is Lil Wayne’s first post-incarceration album, and theoretically his first post-narcotic album: terms of his probation in an Arizona drug possession case (unrelated to the New York gun charge that got Weezy his extended stay on Rikers Island) include a three-year ban on drugs and alcohol. That should mean no lean, no blunts, no “big tall glass of Some Shit You Can’t Pronounce-ier,” as Wayne rapped on his 2010 stopgap album I Am Not A Human Being; unfortunately, it may also mean a thoroughly uninteresting Wayne, if C4 is any indication.
Looking for the truly bizarre references and star-eating tendencies of Wayne’s best work? They’re absent on C4, replaced by an apparent interest in being America’s most proficient Blood (“Blunt Blowin'”) who is also an ace cunnilingus performer (“So Special”) and frequent sober strip club denizen (“She Will”). Wayne’s arsenal of looping, serpentine flows, still occasionally tapped for inspired work on other artists’ singles, has been reduced here to little more than a modified version of the plodding two phrases per bar flow that Rick Ross has trampled rap with for 18 months. The much-reviled hashtag rap style is all over C4, with clunkers like “For dear life you’re holdin’ on, En Vogue, nigga” thudding on nearly every track.
This is a bad rap album, and one that needed the shock of Internet promotion that the Jay-Z diss on “It’s Good” gave it when C4 leaked. It’s too bad that Jadakiss has the best verse on “It’s Good,” and was made to back off from the track as soon as the diss fallout hit: his hustle-by-numbers growl is preferable to the wounded hollering at Hov (and, by extension, Kanye) from hit dogs Drake and Weezy on the track, and better fits the brilliant, malevolent flip of “The Cask of Amontillado” by production team Cool and Dre to boot. (Most current rap albums, good or bad, have threats more entertaining or creative than Wayne’s to kidnap and hold Beyoncé for ransom, too.)
Lil Wayne, “How To Love”/”John” (live at the 2011 Video Music Awards)
I’m most interested in the aspects of C4 that are almost tangential to the music. It’s a composition of a lot of rapping styles Wayne’s dabbled in and production styles that have been bubbling in rap for some time, except little of it clicks. C4 doesn’t sound avant-garde, or even au courant; largely, it’s curiously stuck in a past where Wayne’s jacking for beats made for compelling mixtapes despite the absence of anything nearing the effervescence of those lyrics. This is the mixtape Weezy approach without the mixtape Weezy’s execution, and it makes for an album that is dotted with reminders of better days.
For example: the hookless “MegaMan” sounds like a combination of 2007’s “Ransom” and “I’m Goin’ In” from Drake’s 2009 So Far Gone EP; friend zone anthem “How To Hate” (“a bitch” completes the phrase, both predictably and lamentably) recalls the swirling production of the Wayne-featuring “Maybach Music 2.” “Abortion” is a reworking of a track that originally leaked after the release of The Alchemist’s Chemical Warfare in 2009. “President Carter”—on which Wayne samples Jimmy Carter’s inauguration and invites any scholars of both hip-hop and the Presidency to connect the “malaise” dots—is a bulked-up version of “Outstanding”, around since 2008. Between those four songs and the three singles that have been out for months each—”6 Foot 7 Foot,” itself explicitly framed as “‘A Milli’ on steroids”; Lex Luger-meets-unconvincing alien invasion track “John”; catchy Jason Mraz-biting confection “How To Love”—there’s a lot of music on C4 that has either infested radio listeners’ ears for a while or emerged a while ago through ancient New Music Cartel posts.
That recycling is somehow not the album’s biggest head-scratcher: that’s the inexplicably split up “Intro”/”Interlude”/”Outro” trio. The instrumental is the album’s best beat, with fat horns and explosive bass and drums. Reconstituted as a lyrical showcase that brings “Interlude” duo Tech N9ne and Andre 3000 together with “Outro” trio Bun B, Nas, and Busta Rhymes and Wayne (“Outro” interloper Shyne, who does the world’s worst impression pre-prison Shyne doing his Biggie impression, gets cut), it’s one of the finest rap songs of 2011. Split, it’s a guarantee that the two best tracks on C4 are songs Lil Wayne does not appear on.
I can understand the decision. Though Wayne drops “Life’s a crazy bitch, Grace Jones,” the best of both the too many hashtagged bars and the too-many Zen koans beginning with “Life is” on C4, in his nearly three minutes on the track, he’s naught but an afterthought on the combined track, where even a detail as minute as the way 3000 rhymes “borrowed,” “pharoah,” and “Cairo” blows Weezy away. When I listen to it, I rap along with Tech, nod to Bun, and can’t help but get excited that Nas and Andre might drop long-gestating solo albums in the future. That’s probably not quite the reaction Wayne wanted listeners to have to Tha Carter IV.