By the time Dwayne Michael Carter Jr. reached the seminal moment of his career, he’d already experienced four careers worth of drama, accolades, pitfalls, and resurgences. Discovered at the tender age of nine, Lil Wayne was famous before he could legally drive, collected a Platinum plaque before he could vote, and was abandoned and all but forgotten before he could rent a car.
Given a platform by New Orleans rap label Cash Money Records in the late '90s, Wayne took matters into his own hands following the disbandment of the label's Hot Boys core of artists, ripping off an unprecedented spree of work throughout the 2000s that turned him into the self-proclaimed "best rapper alive" and, in the process, completely reshaped the music industry. Wayne utilized free music and a breakneck work rate that simply could not be matched by any of his peers, to completely captivate the public and grasp control of an entire era of rap.
With his ambitious attack on the game, Wayne elevated the street mixtape to an integral part of any rapper’s repertoire, forever altered the genre's output standard, and seized ownership of hundreds of songs from his many peers. Still, many wondered if Wayne could take what made his mixtape run such a success and create a body of work that was not only original but lived up to the hype he’d spent years creating.
Enter the oft-delayed Tha Carter III, an album that was the culmination of Wayne's multi-year run. With his voice dipped in Auto-Tune bliss, and almost impossible-to-meet expectations before him, Wayne set the standard for what a pop-rap single could (and would) sound like for the next decade on “Lollipop,” chirping, cooing, croaking, and warbling his way to the top of the Billboard Hot 100. The single was a melodic masterpiece, instantly becoming his most successful commercial moment after several years of critical yet underground acclaim.
Wayne set the mold with “Lollipop,” but only so he could shatter it to pieces with his second single, the chorus-less punchline rampage that was “A Milli.”
For Wayne, the two singles served as a justification of the hype that shadowed his career for the better part of two years. “A Milli” was proof that the scorching mixtape run and the fascinating, rambling, stream-of-consciousness avalanche of similes, metaphors, punchlines, and non-sequiturs he exhibited across those mixtapes could be commercially viable. “Lollipop” was the vindication to those that said Wayne, at his most unique and most unrestrained, was a supernova of talent waiting to be unleashed on the world.
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More than anything, Wayne’s ascension to becoming one of the biggest and best musicians in the world worked because it felt organic and homegrown. Fans felt like they had a hand in his success—in their success. This was a fanbase that was cultivated through the Sqad, Drought, and Dedication mixtapes that resided in the recesses of DatPiff and ZShare and spindles of burnt CDs. In the minds of many, Wayne was propped up to such a lofty status by all those downloads, by the CD-Rs with his name sprawled across them in Sharpie, and by the word of mouth that helped them spread from car rides around the hood to house parties that had people asking, “Yo, what is this?” after Wayne spazzed over an instrumental that belonged to someone else.
Of course, two singles do not make for a classic album. Wayne still needed to fill an entire disc with his unique, scatterbrained approach, rapidly shifting between tones, moods, and sonic thumbprints. Unfortunately, what made Wayne such an intriguing artist is also what held back Tha Carter III from becoming the crown jewel of Wayne's album catalog (that would be Tha Carter II).
Scores of leaks meant that fans got both the final version of the album and the scraps that were left on the cutting room floor, for better and for worse. The unofficial mixtape The Drought Is Over 2 is supposedly wrought with songs that were meant for the album. “Comfortable,” featuring Babyface and produced by Kanye West, has all of the makings of a smash hit, but leaked prematurely on The Drought Is Over 4, another tape full of would-be Carter III hits.
Even though the album had critical holes, its commercial success outweighed the reviews. Tha Carter III became the first album in three years time to sell one million copies in its first week of retail and would be the last album of the 2000s to do so. It launched Wayne into the pop stratosphere, making the former runt of the Hot Boys litter the biggest artist Cash Money Records had ever seen, and one of the biggest in rap history.
For the fans who told everybody Wayne was the best rapper alive—and believed it—early premonitions turned to fruition right before their eyes. For those fans, the album became their crowning achievement, the proof of their beliefs, their footage of Bigfoot or their picture of the Loch Ness. They weren’t crazy, either. Now everybody could see what they had been yelling about.
So, in a sense, two songs did make a classic album, as “Lollipop” and “A Milli” propelled Carter III to heights seen only by Taylor Swift and Adele in the decade since its release. Those two songs left a lasting impact on commercial and underground rap for a decade to come, months before the supposed most influential album of the decade—Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak—was released. Remnants of the album are found in just about every stitch of rap’s tapestry in 2018—sonically, aesthetically, the way music is released, and the pace modern rappers are expected to keep or the standard of what is considered a successful rap release.
In another universe, Tha Carter III is an amalgam of all those leaked versions, curated perfectly and streamlined into a true capital "C" Classic album. In this universe, though, CIII is a classic for the moment it was and the moment it became. The moment where mixtape bravado and the fervor it created led to a leap from stardom to superstardom. The moment where all of the faith a fanbase cultivated over a decade turned a darling into an icon.
Tha Carter III was the rare album that became a classic, not because of what it sounds like, but because of what it meant, and what it still means today.