Lil Wayne could have made a much worse album than Tha Carter IV. Certainly, he seemed primed for a disaster. Released in 2010, the widely derided Rebirth was a sophomoric pop-punk experiment. Its follow-up, the I Am Not a Human Being EP, marked a retreat to his modus operandi as a Dirty South rhyme animal, but it sounded rote and joyless, and he seemed distracted by a pending prison stint for weapons possession (which he completed early this year). After those relative failures though both went gold on Wayne's brand name and his unquenchable fan base Tha Carter IV seems less likely to draw the same excitement and interest as 2008's Tha Carter III. And while teaser singles such as "John," "6 Foot 7 Foot," "How to Love" and "She Will" have been decent, none of them have equaled the classic minimalist attack of Vol. III's "A Milli" or the inexplicably popular pillow-hump ballad "Lollipop."
Does the fourth chapter in Wayne's deathless Carter series, which has proved more durable than the New Jack City crack house tenement that inspired it, benefit from reduced expectations? Possibly. As an artist famed for cranking out dozens of songs a year, he can't focus long enough to create a dense conceptual piece like Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy; as a man who's been a rap star since the age of 15, he doesn't entertain the fear of failure that gave pathos to Jay-Z's The Black Album and, to a lesser extent, this year's Jay/Kanye team-up Watch the Throne. Perhaps that's why Tha Carter III, with its Hurricane Katrina homage and broadsides against hack politicians like the Reverend Al Sharpton, didn't resonate as deeply as the first two Carter volumes or his classic Dedication mixtapes. It sounded like Wayne's earnest attempt at making an "important" album, instead of a very funny and slightly weird vocalist perfecting the art of trash talk. His performance on Tha Carter IV improves because he relies on his proven strengths instead of his unrealized ambitions.
As on I Am Not a Human Being, he riffs on familiar themes, namely his own greatness and the many accoutrements it affords (expensive vehicles, loads of cash, comely bisexual women). He remains the kind of guy unafraid to proclaim, "If I die today, it'll be a holiday." ("John" was originally titled "If I Die Today.") Yet he sounds fully engaged, gleefully delivering punch lines that would elicit groans if delivered by a less charismatic rapper. "Man this sh*t won't ever stop/ Suck my green light," he insists on " Intro"; "All my b*tches nasty like a cold dinner," he adds on " Megaman." He audibly laughs and chuckles throughout; several songs begin with the flick of a Bic lighter and the sound of a blunt cigarette burning. However, Wayne turns angry on "It's Good" when he answers Jay-Z and Kanye West's "H.A.M.," particularly Jay's lines against Wayne's mentor and "father," Bryan "Baby the Birdman" Williams. Rapping over one of the album's better beats (a dramatic sweep of violins from Cool & Dre), Wayne shoots back, "Talkin' 'bout 'baby money'?/ I got your 'baby money'/ Kidnap your b*tch, get that how-much-you-love-your-lady money. I'm a grown-ass blood/ Stop playing with me." It's not the first time that Wayne has touted his alleged association with the Piru Bloods gang.
When Wayne ventures into actual songwriting, he's usually addressing women. "How to Love" describes a woman struggling to find happiness: "You can't have a man look at you for five seconds without feeling insecure," he sings. He doesn't use Auto-Tune, so his voice sounds scratchier than on Rebirth, but it's also unadorned and honest. He comes off as slightly paternalistic, though full of good intentions. However, "How to Hate" lives up to its title, as Wayne and T-Pain rant about low-down and dirty "b*tches." With so many women at his disposal, you think he wouldn't mind if "She always used to say, 'F*ck my n*gg*s/ And when I went to jail, she f*ck*d my n*gg*s." Apparently, he does.
Overall, the production on Tha Carter IV is fairly mediocre, but it's just as well, since Vol. III included some excellent beats and few seemed to care (except for Bangladesh's "A Milli"). Polow Da Don's "John" conjures a heavily-synthesized D-boy menace that roamed the earth long before Lex Luger's sound-defining "Hard in Da Paint." Bangladesh himself revisits "A Milli" territory for "6 Foot 7 Foot," save for a slightly faster tempo and onomatopoeic vocal effects. Willy Will provides the soundtrack for three interludes, two featuring killer guest spots from Tech N9ne (on the first), and Bun B, Nas, Shyne and Busta Rhymes (on the second). It's all just wallpaper and frippery, though: Lil Wayne's often-spellbinding, sometimes-maddening, yet always-dynamic presence is Tha Carter IV's main attraction.