In 2014, Lil Wayne said he intended to retire after releasing his 12th studio album, Tha Carter V. Rappers have always struggled with committing to retirement, but after dedicating 20 years to the craft, Wayne appeared serious. The possibility of one more Carter installment as Wayne’s final album was an enticing offer. He was no longer in his prime, but there was enough fire in his belly to see him enter the ring once more. Even after Muhammad Ali lost his lightning, it was still worth seeing him throw another right.
Wayne’s plans of leaving rap alone were canceled. By now, we all know what happened with Birdman and Cash Money Records. For the last four years, Wayne has fought for the money he was owed and the album he wished to release. The battle had been ongoing for so long there seemed to be no end in sight. In the throes of a multi-million dollar lawsuit is no place for an album. To the surprise of many, the drama with Tha Carter V kept Wayne’s grand goodbye relevant. Even after a string of improved yet imbalanced mixtapes, he still had the world waiting.
Well, the wait is finally over.
Lil Wayne is finally sharing the project that cost him more than any amount of money could ever replace. It’s impossible to know how much the album has changed since the initial version was ready for retail four years ago. Hopefully, during the process of regaining his artistic freedom, Wayne spent time fine-tuning and updating.
The biggest tragedy of all would be an album that sounds like 2014. While unlikely, we can only hope the album contains the best records in Wayne’s reinvigorated arsenal. There are enough strong verses from the last 18 months to convince any skeptic that Tha Carter V could be one last blaze of glory.
I believe in Lil Wayne. I’ve been a believer since “Go DJ” and I've stayed interested through an endless sea of albums, mixtapes, leaks, and loosies. September 28, 2018, isn’t just an album release, but a celebration of Dwayne Michael Carter Jr. winning what was always his. Whether the album is a "classic" or not, a return-to-form or another late-career misstep, let’s savor a body of work that almost wasn’t.
In usual 1-Listen fashion, the rules are the same: no skipping, no fast-forwarding, no rewinding, and no stopping. Each song will receive my gut reaction from start to finish. Weezy F. Baby and the F is for final.
1. "I Love You Dwayne"
Twenty-three songs, guys. 23. Z, how about a Red Bull sponsorship? The official energy drink of the 1 Listen Review. Wayne’s mom kicks off the album, an instant classic. She sounds so motherly and sweet. She’s talking about being proud of him. She’s crying. I’m crying. This is the most emotional intro of Wayne’s LONG career. I got chills, man. No one wants to hear their mother cry. You know Wayne loves his mom. There are countless raps with her named mentioned (*cues up the third verse on “Playing With Fire”*). Wayne lost both his father and stepfather so early; imagine that toll on her. She is so proud and thankful for him, I’m choked up. I don’t know the direction of this project but BOY, I’m even more excited.
2. "Don't Cry" ft. XXXTENTACION
Wayne’s lighter flicker is to hip-hop what LeBron James throwing chalk in the air is to the start of an NBA game. Honesty hour: this will be my first voluntary listen to XXX. Only Wayne could make me do it. Oh, this buildup is MOODY. Slow and ominous. The drop was heavy, like having five 100 lb. dumbbells dropped on your chest. Alright, X. I hear you. Heavy emo vibes. Wayne’s voice is something else. He’s super focused, laser-sharp, and introspective. Sharp enough to be packaged as a razor blade. He’s walking me through a graveyard in his mind. X’s voice has a striking intensity. Sonically, it's slicing through me. “That woman carried the future and Tunechi was born.” I like this a great deal. I wonder when this record was done. I’m assuming after X passed. It’s not lyrically heavy, but there is gravity to this vibe. This isn’t another mixtape. I’m 85% sure he’s pronounced that young man’s name wrong three times but if Wayne called me Yohgurt I would still answer.
Insane start. AY! This beat is HARD. These keys and Wayne’s flow are forming a cyclone. It’s a musical swirly. He has become a magician at finding new pockets. I couldn’t appreciate it until sitting with Dedication 6: Reloaded, but Wayne can dance with these flows. “I turned a goddamn into God’s Plan.” I’m hearing bars! Wayne just said we need Barack. He has spoken. Whose screwed vocals? Whoa whoa. I’m over here cheesing. “If I taught you some shit that’s like Harvard.” Wayne is giving me heavy 2 Chainz vibes. It feels so good to hear him putting together records again. The million-dollar smile bar. This is an elder statesman sitting on his throne and demanding you remember who he is! KEEPER. OBAMA! The clip of Obama mentioning Wayne is beautiful.
This album is impressive thus far. WHOA! SWIZZ BEATZ! And he sampled “Special Delivery.” I’m almost certain Wayne did something over this sample before. The swing is mean. A record that demands you to stand up and lose your mind. Wayne came in and snatched every dollar from the beat’s pocket. “I sleep with the gun and she don’t snore” may be a little cheesy but I laughed. I don’t know what happened to Wayne but this isn’t Ali ready to retire. Ali has returned. I haven’t been the biggest fan of Swizz Beatz post-Ruff Ryders work; I wish his beats sounded richer. I’m not mad, though. Wayne said he listens to Bono and you listen to Donald. This album might be more updated than the iPhone’s recent iOS. He’s cooking. He’s energized. Someone gave Wayne a Senzu bean.
5. "Let It Fly" ft. Travis Scott
The keys are putting me in a mood. I don’t recognize that producer tag. Travis sounds like C-3PO after a night of drinking oil and Actavis. I can’t wait for robots to discover drugs. I’m not a fan of his vocal pitch. Okay, he switched it. The verse sounds good. “By the way we working, you think I had a twin.” I like that. Solid production. This is giving me Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight vibes. I wonder if this is an older record. [Editor's Note: It is.] He just mentioned something about letting the thugs sing. The hook and beat feel out of place compared to the past three songs. If I could insert Young Thug here, I would. Running back Wayne is in for the touchdown. The line about boxes of Checkers fries having rough edges made me sweat. This man is melting the record. He deserves a beat with a stronger knock. “Talking about fake n*ggas based on true events” IS A BAR. “C5 best rapper alive.”
6. "Can't Be Broken"
Wayne has started the album rapping with purpose, moxie, and swagger. How can he keep this up for 17 more songs!? If you know Wayne, when he brings out the somber piano keys it’s about to get deep. Sample? Vocalist? She sounds sadder than the keys. I can almost picture her face stained with tears. These trap drums weren’t hard at all! I’m disappointed. I'm getting Eminem vibes… He would definitely choose this beat. Forget it, Wayne is RAPPING. The bar about money going from green to blue was tough. Sure, the production could’ve gone in a different direction but he’s making it work. Just gotta focus on the rapping. I’m not sure who he’s talking about with the G-code. “I got a lawyer that turn any case into a pillowcase.” I have to go back and re-listen when I'm done here. The message behind this one didn’t come through clear.
7. "Dark Side of the Moon" ft. Nicki Minaj
Shout out to my friend Dom who just texted me, asking how Wayne is rapping this good. I’m wondering the same. This is slower, like sitting on the roof and staring at the stars waiting for the sky to fall. I’m not Pink Floyd-savvy but I hope this song title is a PF homage. I like the mood. Not dynamic. Wait, the drums just added the missing flair. Wayne sounds like a sage poet. This is different, but I’m jamming. This is like a mature version of an idea that would’ve gone on Rebirth. Nicki just came in smoother than Michael Jackson rising from the casket. I’m usually not a big fan of her singing and, yeah, that high note was not for her. She has to do vocal stretches before trying that again. These two are like two alien lovers making out in public and you can’t look away. This record could’ve been dumpster juice, and Nicki’s vocals might get old sooner than later, but right now they sound sweeter than Cupid's Cocktail.
8. "Mona Lisa" ft. Kendrick Lamar
Wayne is doing everything right. Kendrick! This is a cultural moment. Kendrick Lamar on a Carter album. Remember when he remixed Tha Carter III? I love these hip-hop full-circle moments. Yep, Lamar gets to rap with WAYNE. This concept is something only Wayne would do. “I treat her halo like a frisbee.” I love the minimalism of this production. Heavy keys, thin drums, and a rapid-fire Weezy. He’s full of fire and passion. Wayne is such an absurd storyteller. The details he’s inserting are wild. Is this song about using women to trap men? Can you imagine sleeping with a woman who helps LIL WAYNE rob you? Cue Biggie’s “I Got a Story To Tell.” I can’t imagine what Kendrick Lamar was brought in for. Kendrick! No alien voice. This is raw Lamar. Damn, I’m having flashbacks to the standout verse he gave Drake for taking care of him. He caught the concept and is ripping it. Kendrick is so animated. Why is he so extra!? Haha. I’m crying. This is great. These two didn’t disappoint.
9. "What About Me" ft. Sosamann
I can barely see through the tears. I wasn’t ready for Wayne to pull off some of these records. Okay, a slower song. I don’t know about this one. He’s doing a little more singing than rapping. “What About Me” sounds like a Drake record. This cadence and delivery have his fingerprints all over them. The only song, so far, that sounds like it could go to radio. Also, the only record that isn’t gripping me. I like the production, though. I like the hook. Who is Sosamann? Where is Gudda Gudda? It’s a good time to mention that “Prostitute Flange” is an underrated Wayne record. Hmm. I’m conflicted. “What About Me” doesn't work for the album but maybe a playlist.
10. "Open Letter"
The violins. Some writing. I haven’t heard him lean into cinematic touches since “Dr. Carter.” He’s building vibes. 808s are really hitting hard. Perfect to capture this very rare introspective Wayne. An interesting record. Jumping from thought to thought like a mental game of leapfrog. More than a few mentions about death. Crazy that Wayne was the rapper who said, “If they don’t kill me this summer I'mma kill this summer” like 10 summers ago. The longer you live, the longer death looms. The intensity in his voice. I couldn’t imagine reading his mind. “I was so ready to talk I wrote an open letter.” Moments like this you don’t get from Mixtape Weezy. In fact, Wayne gave us so many mixtapes that I really forgot who he can be when it’s album time.
11. "Famous" ft. Reginae Carter
Eh, this hook isn't good. I know, it's his daughter, but it’s a no for me dawg. I see the vision, I totally understand the decision, but it’s not working. Another beat that sounds Eminem-esque. Shady would’ve rapped on these keys during Relapse. Yet, despite all that, Wayne sounds super solid. “I was your main man until I went mainstream.” Another one of those simple bars that still somehow catches you. These two working together is adorable. I enjoy all of Wayne’s parts and the concept is a good one. But, unlikely to return.
Oh! Zaytoven tag! He gave Wayne a thumper. It sounds like I'm riding shotgun with the goblins and goons. Another performance where Wayne is rapping with the same fluid style that Spike Spiegel fights with. He’s really making it sound effortless. “I should have a tattoo that says I’m not like my dad” is a concept. Not one I would personally attempt, but a concept nonetheless. I imagine Big Sean is somewhere overjoyed to hear Wayne rap like this. Don’t ask why I just imagined that Sean is the biggest Weezy stan. This one is a keeper. Zay didn’t give Wayne the Future pack, but it's still a slapper.
13. "Dope N****z" ft. Snoop Dogg
I’m feeling the fatigue. It’s late and the album is a lengthy one. Anyway, Wayne is awake enough to keep me right there with him. This production is good. Familiar. He’s dancing across… OH SHIT! A SAMPLE OF "XXPLOSIVE" JUST CAME IN. R.I.P. NATE DOGG! Snoop sounds as cozy as a lion in its den. He has such a short touch but I’m here for the Doggfather. This verse is saying a lot. Auto-Tune, Lil Wayne’s favorite musical accessory since “Lollipop,” barely has a presence. The unaltered voice is like the return of an old friend. Wayne rapping over a classic West Coast sample about the dope boys back in New Orleans. Now THAT is a contrast. This is a favorite. He really put both feet and an elbow into these verses. Rewind and keep. The guitar at the end is a sweet touch. Snoop has to start narrating feature films or something.
A sample of a Lil Wayne interview. Hahaha. Shout-out to the woman whose birthday party he performed at. The production is knocking hard than the police before a raid. The hardest knock thus far. “Money in the air who said white men can’t jump.” I'm DONE. Keeper. KEEPER. Flashes of a refined Mixtape Wayne. Is that a Three 6 sample? I wouldn’t be surprised. The bass line will inspire you to tear the club up. Each song almost has three verses. Wayne came with head full of rhymes. This is a rapper who wants to rap. Momma Carter back.
15. "Took His Time"
I love Wayne’s mom’s presence on the album. THIS IS A RECORD RECORD! Sonically gorgeous. It’s such a rich production. Wayne is pulling off magic tricks. “Took His Time” is a playground of bars. You will find me crying during A3C singing, “God took his time when he made me.” The second verse is something else. No stumbles, no missteps. My headphones just completely melted. Someone call for another body bag. These last few songs are making Tha Carter V a graveyard of beats. This may be the first time since Tha Carter II that Wayne has managed to fuse his mixtape explosiveness with album thoughtfulness.
16. "Open Safe"
DJ Mustard tags. This beat is unmistakably his. [Editors Note: The track is co-produced by Mikely "Mike Free" Adam.] Potential banger? I like the swing but something feels off. I wanted a banger for the club and it sounds like Mustard gave Weezy the soundtrack to a rave. Wayne doesn’t sound at home on this one. The claps work with Wayne, but I’m not sold. The beat sounds busy, distracting. He could’ve gone minimal and this could’ve still been a banger. “Kick push means grind and get paid, n*gga.” Lupe is somewhere wishing he said it first. He’s probably not, though. Man, I need the a cappella.
17. "Start This S**t Off Right" ft. Ashanti & Mack Maine
We bringing out the summer groove. Now, this is a beat. If this beat had an Instagram account I would follow her. Mack Maine is here bringing the summertime flavor. Whoever produced this is great. Shouts to TIDAL for having the production credits. OH SHIT, AY! Mannie Fresh and Wayne back! And they brought the last rays of summer with them. Ashanti sounds as good as she looks. Before Wayne even said a word, this was already the best-produced record on the album. I’m getting Tha Carter flashbacks. Beautiful flashbacks. Rapping over a lush cloud of grooves. “My homeboys proud of me like Barack’s homies.” Ashanti is back. I need this on the radio. I’ll listen to the radio again if we can get it played every hour on the hour. I need another Mannie Fresh and Wayne album. I know there’s already a thinkpiece arguing for why, but we really have to be consistent with mentioning the genius that is Mannie Fresh as one of the greatest to touch the boards. When you hear this record, do your best Carlton dance. I need a sweater vest and a scarf.
That was incredible! Okay, let's see where this is going. Wayne is spitting at a 100 miles a minute. I don’t know where he’s going but I’m a happy hostage. This is soulful! Is that a gospel sample on a song called “Demon”? Where is 2 Chainz!? Nevermind, Wayne just came back in. Chainz would’ve went 2 Beast if given the keys to drive this beautiful monster truck. This song is going right over my head. I like the sample a great deal, but Wayne picked a weird approach. Is this about a woman? Eh, I don’t know about this concept. I need to replay it. Still, one of the best better beats I’ve heard Wayne rap over on this album.
These keys sound familiar. Reminds me of... I can’t think straight. Too many songs… Eyes are getting heavy. I like where this is going. Wayne is telling you about his messy life. I love the production and how he’s striding over this tempo. Not much to say. I like it. It’s completely left field compared to almost everything else through 18 tracks. It doesn’t feel like it fits the album sonically. But in context to his openness, there’s something here that’s necessary. The variety is a nice touch. Wayne sounds like he’s asking for more ones in the strip club with no excitement. Wayne is making the strip club sound like Sam’s Club and that should never happen.
20. "Dope New Gospel" ft. Nivea
I like the sample. Marvin Sapp’s "Never Would Have Made It." It’s sweet. Love the dynamite energy that is causing the beat to have a life of its own. The flip is pretty clean. Nivea! Wayne went deep into his past and brought back an old friend. Eh, not in love with her vocals. I’ll have to run it back. Yeah, the beat is smooth enough to slide across a pond like a skipping stone. This is a solid record but also feels like a filler. The same with “Mess.” I’m certain there’s a purpose, but it doesn’t immediately make itself known.
21. "Perfect Strangers"
Three more records. This has been a journey. "Perfect Strangers" sounds like a filler track. There are a handful of songs and references about women and the lack of love. “It’s dangerous sleeping with these strangers.” Can we get Wayne into a church? I hear the good ones are there. My man needs a new lover. He’s been famous for so long it must be difficult to find a genuine partner who can deal with this lifestyle. I love the production.
22. "Used 2"
Daunting keys. “I used to smoke to get high now I smoke to get vibes” explains the lighter flicker. It’s like a nightmare was sampled to create this level of haunting. Wayne imagery is tough. He flipped the mixtape switch. The beat buildup has me flipping out. It’s transformative and Wayne is matching every change. I see why his dreads are blonde; this is Broly-tier. The coffee bar was simple yet clever. “If he dies, he dies,” says the guy who rapped, “I’ll leave you dead in the living room.” This one has some amazing moments. Feels like a mixtape record but I'm not mad. Momma Carter talking about Wayne’s gun accident.
23. "Let It All Work Out"
SAMPHA! Ah, Wayne sampled "Indecision." That’s a great record. If I wasn't familiar with that record, I wouldn't believe this is a sample. He comes through so clear. This is an energized Weezy. It’s a pleasure to hear him rapping with so much enthusiasm. No burnout. The TLC scheme was a work of art. I'm happy he’s closing the album on a high note. The last verse is about the shooting. This is chilling. Heavy to think about him going through a whirlwind of emotions as a teenager. We almost didn’t have a Lil Wayne. We almost didn’t have Tha Carter V. The juxtaposition makes you appreciate the two, for their highs and lows.
Final (first listen) thoughts on Tha Carter V:
At 23 tracks in length and a one-hour and 30-minute runtime, it’s safe to say Tha Carter V is a journey. There is fat and filler. There are songs that sound far more dated than others. There are good ideas paired with shaky execution and interesting concepts in the company of noticeable shortcomings. Brevity isn’t a practice Wayne has ever exercised. An album that’s long and imperfect will inevitably be deemed a chore. It’s the same critique that has been used to describe two other blockbuster 2018 albums: Migos' long-winded Culture II and Drake’s double-disc album, Scorpion.
Luckily, what weakens Tha Carter V doesn’t overshadow its most enjoyable strength: Lil Wayne. After spending four years in limbo, the veteran rap star arrives with a noteworthy second wind. There are several standout songs ("Dope N****z," "Start This Shit Off Right") where he becomes the keen, precise, and potent version of himself that wasn’t always present during our extended wait. When he’s great, it’s absolute. The schemes, flows, and quotables are the jewels that make the album shine. Even when the album begins to drag, a burst of enthusiasm isn’t far.
Wayne isn’t the only Carter who shines on the album. His mother, Jacida Carter, is a beautiful voice who gives the project an emotional weight that’s unlike any previous Carter installment. Her position on the project is similar to Gloria Carter’s narration on “December 4th,” but instead of hosting one song, Jacida arrives throughout the album.
Jacida's most touching appearance comes on the intro. Not only does it drive home the love she has for her son, but the uncertainty that his album would ever arrive. Her tears are the genuine worry of a mother who isn’t able to help her son. I wish Tha Carter V did more to touch upon their personal relationship. Wayne gives us a few glimpses, like on “Dope N****z,” but more would have been welcomed.
That’s not to say the album is void of emotion and personal reflection. Wayne has spent his career carefully writing pages rather than penning an open book, but the meditative records ("Used 2") start to show what’s been carefully hidden.
It’s exciting to hear Wayne rap again. Pressing play delivered a rush of excitement that took me back to the night Kobe Bryant scored 60 points in his final game against the Utah Jazz. Sure, 50 shots were taken, but what the box score didn't capture is the poetry of watching a living legend find his rhythm once more. If he so chooses, Wayne has room to further explore conceptual and intimate ideas. He still has room to grow in that aspect. Yet, if he chooses to just rap as if there’s no tomorrow, I’ll be in the stands cheering him on. Even if it takes 50 shots.
By Yoh, AKA Tha Yoh V, aka @Yoh31.
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