Does Lil Wayne Need 'Tha Carter V'?

For the first time since 2011, Wayne seemingly has the vigor and the creative freedom that he’s long desired. So what does that mean for 'Tha Carter V'?
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One of the most overlooked moments on Lil Wayne's Tha Carter ll is the way its opening track, “Tha Mobb,” functions within the album’s sequencing. Accompanied by a sped-up soul sample from Willie Tee’s “Moment of Truth,” the lyrically dense masterpiece appears before the album’s traditional intro, “Fly In.” 

Arriving only 18 months after the first installment of the Carter series, Lil Wayne understood the value of a prologue; a bridge between the grittier, but incomplete Wayne found on Tha Carter and the more ambitious, burgeoning superstar he was rounding into by 2005. “Tha Mobb” was more than just a haymaker thrown at the sound of the first bell; it was Wayne showing the world he could turn a one-off project into something grander. 

It’s been 14 years since Wayne released the original Tha Carter. Now, through all of the highs and lows, legendary runs and label conflict, we find ourselves on the precipice of the fifth installment in his defining album series. For the past seven years, since the release of Tha Carter lV, the tumultuousness of Wayne's recording career has made both fans and the artist himself question whether or not the series should continue in the first place. For as unimpeachable as the first three entries in the series are (yes, even Tha Carter III), every subsequent album, Tha Carter IV included, was a step in the wrong direction.

As a fan, the argument for the continuance of the Carter series is almost entirely wrapped up in nostalgia, or more specifically, the golden age of Wayne’s run in music from the mid to late 2000s. Tha Carter is familiar, and with it comes an established arena of expectations and allure that even the most dejected Wayne fan can cling to—if only slightly. Following failed albums like Rebirth and both iterations of I Am Not a Human Being, and multi-year gaps without an official LP, fans have gone from simply wanting another, better Wayne album to craving another installment of Tha Carter in hopes that Wayne would once again be able to find some artistic consistency.

Entangled in this desire for new material is the primary argument for why Wayne needs Tha Carter V as much as his fans do. One of Wayne’s most underappreciated qualities has always been his understanding of how to market his music through branding. Every medium in pop culture has attempted to commodify certain artistic works by extending them with sequels, remakes, and series, and Wayne is the best example in hip-hop of the success that such an approach can have if executed properly.

Over the course of his 20-plus-year career, Wayne will have delivered at least five Tha Carter albums, seven Dedication mixtapes, two I Am Not a Human Being albums, two Da Drought tapes, eight Sqad Up tapes, and two mixtapes apiece bearing the No Ceilings and Sorry 4 the Wait titles. Embodied in each of those projects is an innate marketability; a follow-up entry to an original project that forces his audience to press play in order to determine if Wayne has managed to either outdo the brilliance of or make up for the faults of previous entries. In that sense, the decision to move forward with the release of the long-awaited Tha Carter V is not a surprising decision, but rather, Business 101. By playing his Carter V card, Wayne is able to build instant intrigue, regardless of how well the music is received.

The same tactic was used for the release of Tha Carter IV. Following the massive success of Tha Carter lll, a prison stint for an illegal weapons charge, and an experimental failure in his rap/rock crossover album Rebirth, Tha Carter IV maintained a surprisingly high floor as an album despite formulaic singles and uneven quality. Even with Wayne falling from the peak of his powers and relying on declining songwriting abilities, Tha Carter IV was never going to be a complete failure because it had both the foundation of the previous Carter entries and the perpetual intrigue of a fifth entry, which allowed it enough air to survive.

The brilliance of the Carter series as a brand shouldn’t overshadow what Wayne did musically on its first four entries, however, and the argument for why he needs to deliver this fifth installment lays heavily on the series’ quality of music compared to the rest of his career. Other than the Dedication series (for the most part), his early-career 500 Degreez album, and singular mixtape entries such as Da Drought 3 or No Ceilings, most of Wayne’s musical output has either felt unfocused or unmoving. Both I Am Not a Human Being albums felt contrived and plagued by obvious punchline setups and bar structures, while mixtapes like Sorry 4 the Wait felt like throwaway freestyles from a lesser artist than Wayne at his peak.

The first three entries of Tha Carter, and even long stretches of Tha Carter IV, never felt constrained by the need for pop crossover hits. Tha Carter and its sequels contextualized Wayne as a maturing and versatile artist, and with each new release, we witnessed development in his artistry. Wayne always seemed aware of that, too, as even his most cringe-worthy material throughout the series felt more motivated and genuine than anything else he made. Wayne understood that his Carter albums could function as an artistic diary; an entry’s purpose didn't need to be perfect, but rather, to show us the humanity of growing as an artist.

The argument against Wayne releasing his next album as Tha Carter V, and the idea of this series continuing for as long as Wayne makes music, isn’t difficult to understand. As much as Lil Wayne is able to commodify the Carter experience and sustain a significant buzz based on that name without so much as a song for us to cling to, the more his need to keep Tha Carter V alive after seven years feels less like a return to something great and more like an act of desperation.

This isn’t necessarily Wayne’s fault. In addition to being artistically imprisoned by his own label over contractual issues, Wayne has been in a battle with epilepsy, a condition that has led to multiple seizures over the past five years. On top of those battles, Wayne’s biggest struggle has always been finding a new path in the current climate of hip-hop, despite a recent resurgence in his lyrical abilities. No amount of viciously layered freestyles from the supremely underrated Dedication 6 and D6: Reloaded mixtapes can breathe life back into the idea that Wayne has anything left but otherworldly lyricism with no direction. In that sense, then, Wayne’s need for a title like Tha Carter V to reboot his discography is worrisome at best.

There will never be an argument against the iconicism of the music from the first three installments of Tha Carter, nor the way in which Wayne made the first four entries an almost decade-long experience watching the process of a hip-hop superstar. With that, Tha Carter V has the backbone of an established and most successful brand of music to build toward Wayne's renaissance. For the first time since 2011, Wayne seemingly has the vigor and the creative freedom that he’s long desired; those perks should give him a reason to reconnect to the series that started his initial reign.

Let’s just hope the music is good.

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