Album Review: Lil Wayne – Tha Carter III




“If you got money/and you know it/take it from your pocket and show it and throw it.”

The above line is indisputably terrible financial advice.  Besides the obvious carelessness of wasting money, pretty much anyone will tell you that waving your money in the air, figuratively or literally, isn’t a particularly smart idea.  The wealthy would say that such a statement is symptomatic of “new money” (fitting, since Lil Wayne chose to name his record label Young Money.)  But the hook of Lil Wayne’s “Got Money”, sung by T-Pain, could pass as a mission statement for a particular sub-genre of hip hop music.

It may seem presumptuous of me to attempt to coin a term for a thus far untitled subgenre in my first CoS review, but I find it a bit odd that there is no term currently being used to describe the dominant form of today’s mainstream rap.  Artists such as Lil Wayne, Young Jeezy, and 50 Cent are often lumped together as gangsta rap.  This may be close, but it is inaccurate.  To radio-reliant teenagers this is simply “rap”; it is all they know of the genre.  To snobbish hip hop heads it is “that radio shit.”  To those who, like myself, spend unhealthy amounts of time listening to rap music and studying hip hop culture, I propose the term “post-gangsta”.

Post-gangsta artists have varying rap styles, talent levels, and lyrical content.  What they share is the common overarching theme of wealth. While the theme of moneymaking was always present in gangsta rap, it was simply that: something to rap about.  To the post-gangsta artist, personal wealth is the very reason to rap, completing an odd cipher in which the artist’s wealth was achieved through rap.  To sum it up, the post-gangsta artist got rich by rapping about how rich he is.  To anyone unfamiliar with the genre this sounds absolutely ludicrous, but the post-gangsta rapper is brand name first and rapper second.

I don’t believe that any genre or subgenre can be labeled “good” or “bad”.  Artists within a genre can only be judged in relation to their peers.  To an extent this is obvious.  It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to argue over whether or not Digable Planets are better than Arcade Fire.  It gets dicey when we start talking about subgenres, especially within the contentious world of hip hop.  Your stereotypical hip hop head will immediately write off most post-gangsta artists while pining for the good ol’ days of Rakim and A Tribe Called Quest.  My stance is that current mainstream rappers should be judged on their own merits and not held up against completely unrelated folk heroes and underground icons.  Just like any musical genre, post-gangsta has its good (T.I.) and its bad (Rick Ross.)  And just like any genre it has an eccentric genius poised to push its boundaries to new creative extremes.

Just as Jay-Z demolished gangsta rap as we knew it, Lil Wayne now seems ready to do the same to post-gangsta.  In a subgenre where creativity is not necessarily the highest selling point, Wayne stands out as a breath of fresh air, easily the most creative and unique voice around.

But remember, Lil Wayne is still a post-gangsta artist at heart.  He is a brand name and true to form his first job is to sell himself.  He did this with “Lollipop”, C3 ‘s controversial first single.  Controversial only because after a steady rise in creativity, Wayne started collecting a hipster fan base, unfamiliar with the ways of post-gangsta rap.  These people did not want a silly club song about oral sex.  They wanted some verbal acrobatics about oral sex.  But Wayne is a businessman.  He went with a single that would go on to spend five non-consecutive weeks atop Billboard’s Hot 100.  And then, with the dirty work of making money out of the way, Wayne went ahead and released “A Milli”, perhaps the least conventional rap song to hit mainstream radio in several years.  And oh yeah…it hit number 21 on the Hot 100.  When you’re hot, you’re hot.

But the real gems are found beyond the radio hits.  “Lollipop” and “Got Money” seem to convince the masses that Wayne is par for the FM radio course.  But songs like “Phone Home” prove that he is not the same as his post-gangsta contemporaries.  He is, in fact, a self-proclaimed Martian.  On the previous track, Wayne embodies “Dr. Carter”, a surgeon charged with the unenviable task of curing whack rappers of what ails them. Don’t look now but Lil Wayne seems to be morphing into some sort of post-gangsta Kool Keith, and this can’t be a bad thing.

Wayne’s greatest strength continues to be his linguistic agility.  Throughout the album he throws his voice, rhymes words that have no business rhyming, and takes off on stream-of-consciousness rants that are either nonsensical or simply beyond earthling comprehension, but either way are jaw-dropping.  One of these comes at the end of “You Ain’t Got Nothin'”, when after very serviceable verses by fellow post-gangstas Fabolous and Juelz Santana, Lil Wayne proceeds to just go bat-shit crazy.  At one point in the song he squeezes in the phrase, “You say toe-may-toe, I say toe-ma-toe”.  This is a pretty good analogy because Wayne’s entire rap style is based on his ability to use words differently than anyone else has ever thought of using them before.

(I want to take a time out to point out that I have purposely shied away from quoting any of Lil Wayne’s lyrics.  I have read many reviews of C3 that did quote lyrics.  This seems logical since Wayne’s lyrical dexterity is what makes him such an appealing artist. But I find that his lyrics are never truly done justice on paper.  In fact, some of them look downright ridiculous.  And I don’t mean good ridiculous.  They just have to be heard.)

C3 ‘s production is highlighted by Kanye West.  West continues to have a hand in almost everything that is good in mainstream hip hop, so it is no surprise he is involved with Wayne here.  On “Let the Beat Build” he does just that, periodically adding elements to his trademark chipmunk vocals to create a lush backdrop for Lil Wayne.  West also produced the laid-back “Comfortable”, which features vocals from Babyface.  Other big name producers include Cool & Dre, Robin Thicke, and David Banner.

While Wayne’s lyrical themes are still primarily either nonsensical or misogynistic, he continues to move in the increasingly socially conscious direction that he first hinted at on Dedication 2 .  With all the atrocities that Hurricane Katrina wrought, it deserves credit for opening the eyes of the masses (at least the New Orleans’ masses) to some of the not-so-pleasant politics in our country. Lil Wayne, despite his millions, was no doubt as profoundly moved by the storm as any other resident, if not physically, certainly emotionally.  “Tie My Hands” is a heartfelt tribute to the people of New Orleans.  Wayne bypasses the typical anger and instead expresses faith in the human spirit of the city’s residents.  It is a beautiful song that seems to foreshadow the great things that may lie ahead when Wayne matures past the hustler state.

This is, of course, assuming that Lil Wayne is still around and making music when he moves past the hustler state.  Wayne shows his dark side like never before on C3.  Most great rap artists are emotional basket cases, a side effect of the progression from extreme poverty to extreme wealth (or simply an adequate income, in the case of most rappers.)  Wayne appears trapped between a dread of being killed and a desire for the hip hop martyrdom it would bring.

Wayne’s erratic behavior and dark content are warning signs of impending meltdown.  He yearns for the status of Biggie and Tupac, but he is just as likely to follow the destructive course of fellow Southern legends Pimp C and DJ Screw.  Of course, this presents a paradox that fans of any tortured artist must face: we want Lil Wayne to clean up his act, but at the same time it is the demons and the drugs that have helped make him such a fascinating personality to begin with.  Fortunately, Wayne possesses enough creativity and charisma that, provided he is able to keep his head relatively straight, should keep him on top of the game for a long time to come.