By Hanif Abdurraqib
October 01, 2018 at 08:09 AM EDT
Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

The arrival of a long-awaited album with a tumultuous history often comes with a feeling of relief or thankfulness. In the spring of 2014, leading up to what was presumed to be its release, Lil Wayne talked about Tha Carter V being his final solo effort, the last in the Carter series of albums that began in 2004. He said this chapter would be about growth, and then he would be gone. However, due to contractual disputes with his label, Cash Money, those dates came and went. Meanwhile, Wayne dropped mixtapes, kept up a steady stream of guest verses, and remained a presence in mainstream hip-hop, even as the genre shifted away from his prime era. He was a myth, but one that remained ever-present.

With Carter V’s long-awaited release last week, fans hoped for a renewed and revitalized Wayne, displaying the long-promised growth that hovered over talks of the record. What exists instead is a collection of songs that lean more into a rapper sounding like he’s half-heartedly fighting to reclaim a past era as opposed to a reflective and thoughtful take on what those times meant to him and where he’s at now.

Tha Carter V opens with “I Love You Dwayne,” which is a minute-and-a-half long message from Wayne’s mother, Jacida Carter. The practice of using a recording of a parent or loved one to propel an album’s narrative is not new, but it does ring effective nearly every time, as a way to tie a listener emotionally to the artist and their history. It works particularly well on Carter V, as Wayne’s mother speaks directly to her son about how proud she is of him and that she can’t wait for his album because everyone’s been asking about it.

The heart-beckoning intro leads straight into “Don’t Cry,” which includes a posthumous feature by XXXTentacion, the late rapper who was charged with  aggravated battery of a pregnant woman before his death. This contrast rings as another stark reminder (in a time overflowing with them) that men often only value women when they are tied to them by family. But the scope has limits beyond that. In fact, it is impossible to ignore the overtones of rudimentary misogyny which permeate the album. You can hear it in “Mona Lisa,” which finds Wayne straining through his raps, almost racing to be relieved by the feature turn by Kendrick Lamar. But what the song boils down to is “you can’t trust women.” On “Open Safe,” Wayne casually mentions sticking a woman’s hand in fan blades. It would be boring and exhausting regardless of the year, but it has a highlighted tone of skippability.

Wayne is, by nature, an exciting rapper. His breathless, consistently accelerating flow is still present here, though not varied enough to work as well as it used to. On “Dedicate” and “Uproar,” Wayne uses a similar palette, ending several bars with the same word and letting the interior rhyme structure carry the line. This is something Wayne does often and well, but the proximity of the repeated styles highlights a glaring flaw: his punchlines, which used to save him, aren’t as sharp as they once were.

The album’s highlights come when Wayne finds himself dabbling in regret, fear, or romantics. The gentle and somewhat apocalyptic “Dark Side Of The Moon,” a duet with Nicki Minaj, outlines a love that might survive the sky falling. “Dope New Gospel” manages to be triumphant without drowning the triumphs in generic braggadocio. Wayne is joined on “Famous” by his first-born daughter, Reginae Carter. The result is the album’s greatest moment of self-analysis, with Wayne picking apart what fame has made out of him and being honest about not liking the results. The song also stands out because it is Wayne sacrificing his natural strengths as an MC to speak plainly about the weight of his circumstances. It’s a rare point on the album where it feels like the mirror is turned directly on the speaker.

But Wayne fails to delve any further. Carter V — especially if it is his last — could have been his chance to embrace the role of someone who has seen it all, and wishes to pass wisdom down to the generation below him, or at least a series of stories, both cautionary and insightful. There are moments of that here, but few and far between. Ultimately, Tha Carter V sounds like someone chasing after their own glory days, with half-hearted energy, barely even believing themselves. B-

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