The year Lil Wayne dropped his ninth studio album, Tha Carter IV, the hip-hop landscape was in a period of flux. The artists we now consider OGs were reaching the comfy mid-section of their career, all while a crop of young rappers took advantage of what the internet had to offer, thus discerning themselves from their forefathers. For context, Drake, Mac Miller, Tyler, The Creator, J. Cole, Danny Brown and Wiz Khalifa all released their respective debut albums in 2011.
Leading up to the release of Tha Carter IV, Lil Wayne’s fans were anxious. Young Money artists, like Drake and Nicki Minaj ensured Weezy still had a firm grasp on hip-hop culture despite his time behind bars. Even so, the genre was transitioning to become the most dominant genre in America — while Wayne’s own career was seemingly experiencing a parallel decline in power.
This was the period of time right after Wayne’s “Greatest Rapper Alive” run, which he capped off with Tha Carter III before falling into legal trouble, jail time, and of course, a rock album. Despite announcing Tha Carter IV in 2009, it would only come to fruition two years later, following Wayne’s release from Riker’s Island.
Years removed from the point in time where Wayne had been freely calling himself GOAT (as were others), the expectations remained high with Tha Carter IV — as inherently dictated by a “Greatest Rapper Alive” run. It’s worth noting that somehow, to this day, expectations still remain at an ungodly-high level with every new Wayne release. Back in 2011, however, the excitement was a bit more vigorous considering the context– and lest we forget, we’re talking about a time when the genre as a whole wasn’t nearly as saturated, a time that still relied on physical CDs in some form (on top of the chance of digital leaks), and a time that had less 24/7, invasive media coverage.
There’s also the fact that Tha Carter IV, as its name clearly indicates, was part of a larger series. Thus, beyond Wayne’s incredible mixtape run and the GRA title, he still had to contend with three previous instalments in Tha Carter series — one of which in particular, Tha Carter III, received classic status rather early on. This type of creative pressure was reportedly part of the reason why Tha Carter IV took so long to release in the first place, as Wayne himself feared the expectations he’d set with its predecessor.
NY Times’ Jon Caramanica addressed this exact issue in his written review of Tha Carter IV at the time. After giving a brief summary of Lil Wayne’s then-contemporary antics and the lack of attention he appeared to be giving his rap career, Caramanica reflects: That it’s the least memorable Lil Wayne album in years might not matter — showcasing the crux of the issue. Caramanica goes on to note how the rapper’s prolific mixtape run years earlier set our hopes unusually high, perhaps tainting the way in which we view Tha Carter IV to this very day.
LISTEN: Lil Wayne “Blunt Blowin”
Now that we are ten years removed from the album’s release, with many more years having passed since Wayne’s much-discussed heyday, we can look at the album in a renewed light. When the album was released, one of the most prominent criticisms stemmed from a #BARS standpoint. Wayne seemed less engaging lyrically. There were complaints about the lack of eccentricities when it came to his typically-colourful one-liners and whimsical metaphors. Yet, this is the same album that gave us the iconic motto: “Real G’s move in silence like lasagna.” Lil Wayne’s zany observations, and weirdo-wisdom still runs rampant across Tha Carter IV, from “I touch the sky, get the clouds out my fingernails” (Nightmares from the Bottom), to his more blunt, sex-based quotables, “Been fucking the world and I ain’t come yet” (John). It is the culmination of these types of lyrics that helps us define the quality of Weezy content. While it’s true that certain themes within Wayne’s one-liners are repeated in some form or another, this has also become rather standard practice during the latter half of Wayne’s career, leaving very little to complain about when it happens on an album as pristinely-produced as C4.
As a whole, the album offers fans a glimpse at a younger, more care-free Wayne (28-years old at the time); this was a Wayne who had less to contend with as far as the industry was concerned, one who had yet to dive head-first into a years-long legal battle with Birdman. In this way, Tha Carter IV benefits from a certain levity, not quite as dense as his recent releases.
Tha Carter IV is also an interesting representation of hip-hop’s dominant sound in the mid-2010s. While not steeped entirely in melodic trap production like our trends du jour, the production can only be described as “big.” Hip-hop hadn’t yet lent itself to other genres, nor was it steering mainstream music or culture; it was still somewhat in its own bubble, and perhaps this is why every song on Tha Carter IV seems to hit harder. Songs like “Blunt Blowin” and “John” featuring Rick Ross show off that trademark-2010s energy, while other songs hint to where the genre would evolve: the shimmery, emo-style of “She Will,” or the futuristic, highly-addictive keys and inventive sample on “President Carter.”
LISTEN: Lil Wayne’s “President Carter”
If anything, Tha Carter IV actually represents peak-Post-Greatest-Rapper-Alive-Lil Wayne. After its release, despite every Wayne fan’s best intentions and prayers, there has been an undeniable, or rather, increasing, lack of luster with each drop. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Wayne is no longer a singular rockstar. There are a dozen rappers who claim to be aliens and who govern an already rap-dominated landscape. There is so much choice for the average hip-hop fan that even when Wayne’s highly anticipated albums do finally drop, the splash doesn’t spread as far nor last as long.
Tha Carter IV was the last time we were truly able to immerse ourselves fully in the Lil Wayne Album Experience without being rushed on to the next shiny, new drop; a time less geared towards playlists and singles, and more towards full-album consumption. The album contained all the necessary components, from lead-up anticipation, to delay, to chart-topping debut. And perhaps this is part of the reason why we can look back at the album with rose-coloured glasses; a sense of pure nostalgia and appreciation.