“Yes, I am the best—and no, I ain't positive, I'm definite”—Lil Wayne
A deserted throne cannot stay empty, a king is to be replaced by a king. JAY-Z’s faux retirement was a symbolic departure, the end of Hov’s era, and the genesis of Lil Wayne’s best rapper alive campaign.
The New Orleans hot boy didn’t await anyone to name him as Jay’s heir. Instead, he announced the self-appointed status with the unwavering conviction of a young Muhammad Ali and dared anyone to question his confidence.
What Wayne created was the biggest chip on his shoulder―a status heavier than the skies to uphold. A normal man would’ve crumbled under the pressure of living up to his own hype. There’s always going to be a part of me that believes Wayne was chasing the idea of being the best, to be so undeniably great that no one would ever denounce what he contributed to hip-hop.
The sheer volume of official and unofficial music released between the four years separating Tha Carter and Tha Carter III is without question an extraordinary streak of remarkable artistry. Rap had seen nothing like Wayne, his work ethic was an inexhaustible fire that refused to burn out. Anyone could get a feature, any beat could be destroyed, and there were no dry spells―new music from Wayne was as expected as clouds crying in April. He was a consistent, non-stop monster you couldn't keep your eyes off. By the time Tha Carter III was ready to hit stores there wasn't another rapper who had both the mainstream and underground waiting so eagerly.
What I remember most about the months leading up to Tha Carter III wasn’t how often radio played “Lollipop,” but the constant conversations about Wayne’s lack of a classic album and how C3 was expected to cement his place in hip-hop history.
Some will say Wayne’s testament as rap’s greatest alive is easily discredited because he lacks what so many other greats have accomplished. Good, but not good enough.
Where was Wayne’s Illmatic? His Blueprint? His Doggystyle? His Ready to Die? Where were his five mics in The Source? Despite all he had accomplished, Wayne lacked the highest acclaim a rapper can achieve. A timeless, universally accepted, classic album.
Wayne had to have been aware of this blemish. The Carter III album cover—a baby picture—symbolically follows in the lineage of Nas and Biggie Smalls, whose baby photos represent their most celebrated art. This is, in part, a major reason why the "classic" certification is such a big part of Tha Carter III’s discussion. It has always been a lingering thought.
A similar discourse took place in the lead-up to Drake’s Views. Despite all of Drake's achievements, some will argue he lacks the cultural trophy of a classic. Take Care, much like Wayne’s Carter II, is the album that fans will argue deserves the certification, but many hoped that Views and Carter III would be awarded the badge of honor through universal approval.
What makes an album a classic? It's an age-old question that continues to be asked when trying to determine definitive requirements, one that becomes more difficult when you introduce the concepts of personal classics, regional classics, and cultural classics to the conversation.
How an album ages, impacts, and influences are major factors that can only be determined once enough time has moved beyond the release date. Next year will mark the 10th anniversary of Tha Carter III, an entire decade with Wayne’s most grandiose offering. “Lollipop” conquered Billboard and awarded the rapping martian his first ever No. 1. “A Milli” was the underground offering, a street scorcher that had no hook in the age of ringtones, and selling a million albums in the first week only made the single a bigger monster. Across the board, Tha Carter III was a commercial behemoth. No one can take away such accomplishments, but determining an album's classic status has nothing to do with numbers and everything to do with music.
To judge Tha Carter III by its music has always felt like judging the second edition and not the first. A year before the official album was released, The Drought Is Over 2 (Tha Carter III Sessions)was unofficially released with music supposedly meant for the album. Some of Wayne’s best records can be found on that mixtape. I have no qualms with the David Banner-produced “La La” but it doesn’t hold a candle to the leaked excellence of “La La La.” There’s little desire to hear the Babyface-assisted “Comfortable” when you have “Something You Forgot,” and how can someone simply replace unforgettable records like “I Feel Like Dying" and "Gossip." It's impossible to look back on C3 without the gnawing realization of "what if" in regards to all the music that recorded for the purpose of making the final album.
The very leaks that assisted in Wayne’s underground dominance and prolific rise, increasing anticipation for Tha Carter III, would have made the album better than its final, retail version. “Mr. Carter,” “Dr. Carter,” “Tie My Hands” and “Let The Beat Build” are incredible career highlights, but as a whole, Wayne’s most daring album fell short of expectations. “Lollipop,” “Mrs. Officer” and “Got Money” are hits, but they’re skippable guilty pleasures. “Phone Home” is fun, yet teeters on the edge of forgettable. Even the strong intro, “3 Peat,” isn’t stronger than “I’m Me," from the pre-C3The Leak EP. In terms of artistic range, Tha Carter III is an excellent display of how far Wayne evolved, improved, and grew from rapping over Mannie Fresh's Southern slappers to a master of various eccentric styles, but all these death-defying leaps hurt the core idea of an excellent rap album.
Albums leak. It’s an occurrence that came with the rise of the internet. In Wayne’s case, so much music leaked that he was forced to call an audible. For fans who witnessed the massive amount of songs floating around blogs, spanning projects both official and unofficial, the songs that didn’t make C3 had their own acclaim. In many ways the standard for C3 was set by songs that preceded it and, as a result, the five songs from The Leak EP (and many other mixtapes) have aged better than some of the album cuts.
Tha Carter3 isn’t perfect, but you could easily make the perfect edition by creating a playlist of the best songs not from the album, but from the era.
Wayne’s unorthodox rise is too big to be summed up by a single album. Tha Carter 3 is Wayne’s climax, the cornerstone moment of his best rapper alive crusade, but it’s impossible to mention without talking about the leaks, the mixtapes, the features and the beat desecrations leading up to his most celebrated triumph. C3 is a good album, arguably great, but what should live on in infamy is everything surrounding the Wayne whirlwind in those few years leading up to its release, and not if he achieved the mark of creating a classic record.
Some artists have an album that defines their artistry. Lil Wayne has an entire era from 2006-2008 where he was arguably the best rapper alive. He went above and beyond what was believed to be possible. It would be shortsighted to discredit a legendary feat because a single album didn't live up to the standard of universal acclaim.
In an effort to succeed JAY-Z, Wayne built his own kingdom, his own throne, and classic or not, we won't ever have to rewrite the greatness that is the era of Weezy.
By Yoh, aka Tha Yoh III, aka @Yoh31