On the 16th anniversary of the release of "Tha Carter," we briefly reflect on Lil Wayne and Mannie Fresh's track record on wax.
The growth of Lil Wayne’s hair has coincided with the different stages in his career. When he was tyke running around with the Hot Boys, he’d wear a bandana tied to the back that protected his cornrows. The tight-kempt braids carried through his first three albums -- Tha Block Is Hot, Lights Out, and 500 Degreez. Those three albums showed significant signs that, despite being the youngest member of the Hot Boys, he was poised to become the biggest star to emerge from New Orleans, let alone Cash Money.
By the time 2004 came around, there was a stylistic shift, both aesthetically and musically, in Wayne’s world. The baby dreads made their debut on Tha Carter cover -- the first of five albums that would define his career and Cash Money as a whole. His dreads matured as quickly as he did. A young boy who was roaming the streets of America with grown men during his early Cash Money years; he was only 17 when his debut album dropped. Even at this point, it was a leap for him to curse on wax, though he did it. Songs like “Fuck The World” off of his debut album captured the essence of a teen star who was forced to grow up quickly in a world where little is meant to make sense for anyone at that age, especially for someone who was forced to balance the limelight and the streets of NOLA that ultimately took his stepfather from him at an early age.
From the days of braids and soulja rags to Funeral, the one person who’s played a pivotal role in Wayne’s artistic growth is Mannie Fresh. The sound of Cash Money would not be what it was without Mannie Fresh’s touch. The distinct production became synonymous with Southern hip-hop, though more deep-rooted than that, the sound of New Orleans. As Mannie Fresh scored the soundtrack of Wayne’s life for every album up until Tha Carter II, Mannie provided the perfect soundscape to compliment Wayne’s level of maturity by the time he released Tha Carter. Hues of blues trickle through the twangy guitar loops, thumping West Coast basslines, meshing with Wayne's distinguished voice, like on “I Miss My Dawgs.” Grimey synths and looming bass created quintessential bangers like “Cash Money Millionaires” and “Go DJ.” Mannie Fresh’s production defined an era of hip-hop, largely due to his work with Lil Wayne.
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Today marks the 16 years since the release of Tha Carter. It signified that transitional coming-of-age moment, in a sense. Wayne titled his third album 500 Degreez in reference to Juvenile’s 400 Degreez, though what was deemed “homage” at the time was ultimately up for debate. Wayne later explained that it was Baby who pushed to name the album that. He was the young bull in the group who was only at the start of an illustrious career ahead of himself. yet to grow into his own. However, the parallels that Wayne drew between his life and New Jack City marked his growth from the young boy under Baby’s wing to hip-hop’s next bonafide star. He was rapping with his chest puffed, along with a new sense of depth in his tone and lyrical content.
Along with his own last name, the album’s title also takes inspiration from the Carter apartment complexes that Nino Brown and the Cash Money Brothers turn into a crack house in New Jack City. “Let me show you my buildin’, man. It’s Tha Carter. The ins and outs. The ups and downs, you know what I’m talkin’ about? This is me. Fourth solo album. I came back around,” he declares on the intro to “Walk In.” He scatters references to the building throughout the project, weaving the title's theme throughout the project.
Tha Carter went on to be the only album in the series, and frankly, the last album in Wayne’s discography, that Mannie Fresh was heavily involved in from top to bottom. And though many can argue that Tha CarterII is the best Wayne album, Tha Carter was the gateway for Weezy’s mafioso era that helped spawn his mixtape run. There’s undeniable chemistry between the two. One that hasn’t lost its spark in the past 16 years since the release Tha Carter. Even on Funeral and Tha Carter V, Mannie Fresh is still able to bring the best out of Wayne, decades into their respective careers working with each other. “Mahogany” and “Piano Trap” showcase some of the highest levels of Lil Wayne’s technical prowess in recent times. Mannie Fresh’s touch on Tha Carter V’s “Start This Shit Off Right” brings out this vibrant, luxe Bad Boy-era vibe while Biggie’s influence on Wayne is as clear as day.
Even though it might not be the most famous album in Tha Carter series, Mannie Fresh, arguably, had a role in grooming Wayne’s artistry from a young age. Sure, some of Wayne’s best work on wax was on mixtapes, when he’d annihilate pretty much anyone’s song and make it better than the original. Mannie Fresh’s ability to craft Wayne’s overall sound, though, is unmatched. The two recently announced they’d be releasing a collaborative effort at the end of the year. Will they be able to create a hit record together in 2020? Maybe. Maybe not. But hit records aside, Mannie Fresh is possibly the only producer whose history with Wayne is damn-near flawless.