Ten years after its release, "Tha Carter III" holds up in spite of— or maybe because of— its pop crossovers and weirdo ambition.
99% of the time, I hate albums that are constructed like Tha Carter III. The regional star at the peak of their game, plucked away from local collaborators and thrown onto the court with producers and vocalists who have made enough recent hits to pop up on a major label's radar. Little to no regard for sequencing or plot. Tracks veering between sex jams, tearjerkers, club joints, and overly shiny attempts at reclaiming the rawness of the artist's "authentic" days. Delays, leaks, unofficial versions, swapped lyrics, unnecessary copyright infringement lawsuits.
Tha Carter III shares similarities with all of capital-driven entertainment's most bloated moments. It is the Golden State Warriors with Durant, it is The Avengers, it is the notorious shark-jumping episode of Happy Days. The fact that the album's great is a miracle; the fact that it's the best album of a generationally great rapper's career is a testament to just how unstoppable Lil Wayne was at his peak.
Everything Weezy touched from 2004's Tha Carter to its third installment (released ten years ago today) turned to gold, no matter the challenge. Take away Mannie Fresh, the producer he'd spent most of his life working with? Sure (Carter II). Create better versions of other artists' existing hits? No problem (Dedications 1 & 2, Da Drought 3). Carry his poorly-rapping benefactor/boss for an entire collab album? Done (Like Father Like Son). Combat devastating leaks with an impromptu EP? Yup (The Leak). In this period in his career, Wayne could've been saddled with an asaneene— damn, I mean asinine— Meow The Jewels-style task, where he could only rap over fart samples or something, and he would have made a great project.
Wayne seemed to approach everything in this hot streak like a challenge. He gets a rare beat from Dipset's go-to producers for "Tha Mobb"? He proceeds to spit five minutes of the hardest bars of his career. It wasn't enough that he bodied Mims' "This is Why I'm Hot," he had to do it in the same flow-switching, region-roaming style. With Tha Carter III, you can tell he went in with an understanding of the limitations and benefits of a break-the-bank major label album, and set out to exploit them. What that yielded was a Wayne album that somehow houses both his biggest hits and his weirdest impulses.
On one hand, consecutive singles "Lollipop," "A Milli," and "Got Money" all broke into Billboard's Top 10. Wayne's finest freestyles and previous solo singles never hit the radio like that. On the other, he goes deep into a metaphor on "Dr. Carter," plays up his extraterrestrial vibe on 'Phone Home," and sticks to a meta concept on "Let the Beat Build." Wayne's bars always displayed his experimentation, but it wasn't until the initial Carter 3 leaks that his original compositions began manifesting his full creative gift.
Wayne always had weirdo tendencies— his name-drops obscure and his vocals playfully melodic— but it wan't until leaks like "I Feel Like Dying" and "Prostitute Flange" that he started actually alienating some listeners with them. Weezy fans would soon experience this en masse in the wake of Rebirth and I am Not a Human Being, but for a brief moment from 2007 to 2008, Wayne's pop instincts and his druggy, oddball side balanced each other out. Tha Carter III would probably be improved if previously-leaked tracks like the two mentioned above, "I'm Me," and "La La La" were included, but even slimmed into what was probably seen as a more commercially viable product, the album offers an unparalleled portrait of Wayne at the top of his game.
After deeming himself the "best rapper alive" on his previous album, Wayne made sure no one could dispute the claim on "3 Peat," a peerless album intro that correctly warns competitors, "Get on my level, you can't get on my level/You gon' need a space shuttle or a ladder that's forever." It's the first of several songs on the album that features a surprisingly stellar beat from a relatively undecorated producer, this one being Maestro, a former keyboard player for David Banner with whom Wayne connected after tapping Banner for a few songs on the album. The "3 Peat" beat is lush and ornate but also retains the feel of Mannie Fresh's elemental bounce, which further suspends Wayne between the worlds of local hero and massive star. The song itself is a good metaphor for the album as a whole: the presentation is certainly more polished than that of Wayne's early material, but the quality of the meat ends up justifying the fancy china and real-silver utensils that are laid out with it.
The bars-on-bars onslaught continues with "Mr. Carter," a song that features Jay-Z for more of a status statement than an artistic one, and "A Milli," an all-time exemplar of all-rapping, no-hooks bangers. The song went through several incarnations in previous leaks, but as soon as you heard whatever rough-ass, 96kbps version you ripped off of Limewire, you knew: this was next level shit. The drum pattern alone has gone on to bolster everything from Mims' "Move (If You Wanna)" to Busta Rhymes, Chris Brown, and Wayne's own "Look at Me Now," but it's Wayne's completely unencumbered rapping that shoots "A Milli" into the stratosphere.
As unlikely as it is, a prime distillation of 2008's fizzy, infectiously catchy pop rap ("Got Money") and one of Kanye West's most gorgeous classic R&B flips ("Comfortable") pop up next. Five songs in, you're hard pressed to admit that Wayne can't do anything he sets his mind to. The rest of the album only carries through on that promise about 75% of the time, but that's pretty good considering the wild-ass shit Wayne attempts on Tha Carter III's back end. "I'm gonna play hip hop Dr. Frankenstein over an unadulterated David Axelrod sample" isn't exactly a Universal Records-ready pitch. Nor is "I'm going to talk about Jesse Jackson and a CNN broadcast on race for five-plus minutes over a Nina Simone sample," but Wayne did it because he could, and because he was in a position to do such ridiculous things, you couldn't help but listen and gape in awe.
"Is Tha Carter III Lil Wayne's best album?" is a question that very much outs certain schools of Weezy fans via their responses. Those who favor tha first two Carters are fast-growing sect of purists who probably turn up their noses at the cheesy "Greetings from Planet Weezy" intro on "Phone Home," and probably cry themselves to sleep at night envisioning a Wayne career completely reliant on Mannie Fresh beats. Those who immediately say yes might be right, but might also just know the hits. If you ask someone and they respond, "What about the mixtapes though?", then you've found a true Wayne fan.
Something about Wayne's best mixtapes capture something special that any carefully-manicured album could never hope to. The raw synapses firing in Wayne's mind have always been his most engrossing quality as an MC, and some of that non-sequitur brilliance is inevitably lost in the pursuit of pop songs (see also: Gucci Mane). If you're going on pure ability, as well as pure listenability, Da Drought 3 is Wayne's towering achievement. But in making a preposterously ambitious, shockingly great album in Tha Carter III, Wayne has his unicorn in the rap game. Nothing could ever live up to this as a statement and as an hour-long thing you have to sit through— it's a startlingly rare example of the major label formula paying off in terms of both hits and artistic freedom. The fact that Wayne made this is impressive; the fact he got to make his blockbuster moment this weird is incredible.