Features: The Weeknd, Chance The Rapper, 2 Chainz, T.I., Eruo, Jae Millz, Lil Chuckee, Mack Maine, Birdman, Gudda Gudda, Kidd Kidd

There's a telling interlude part of the way through Dedication 5 that explains the real difference between Wayne this year, and Wayne in 2005, or '06, or '07. "Competition is different these days," he says. "That competition is competing for my awesome fanbase... For them to still say that they love me... competing for them to still fuck with me. That's my competition these days." Wayne has nothing left to prove and no new land to conquer. He just has to maintain.

By the time Dedication 5 arrived last week, Lil Wayne's career was deep into a levelling-off period. Despite spawning successful singles ("Love Me," "Rich As Fuck") and a handful of great songs, I Am Not a Human Being II was hardly greeted with universal acclaim. The sensation of forward momentum his career once had has long since passed. Everyone knows what to expect from Wayne now, and in a slightly degraded form. He is no longer the lyrical animal who transformed a narrow range of subjects into a cornucopia of wordplay, musical experimentalism, creativity, and variety.

In the context of current rap, though, Wayne is still one of the only artists who can artfully blend the clever, the profound, the base, and the visceral, into a compelling product that appeals to a wide cross-section of American hip-hop fans. While most artists no longer release tapes of freestyles over industry beats, for Wayne, it remains an art form.

All the same, Dedication 5 is one of the more inconsistent offerings in the catalog. The metaphorical laziness that sometimes sinks Wayne is rampant here. Stuff like "It's curtains for these niggas, I feel like some drapes" or "Open her mind like a watermelon" barely deserves the word "punchline." But such phoned-in effort alternates with lyrics like "Smokin' on the gas, pass it like 'excuse you,'" which are, obviously, fire, in all their low-brow glory.

Wayne's take on "Started From the Bottom" and "Colombia" are hard, although a great David Banner beat is wasted on an average hook. "Bugatti" should have been an easy swipe for Wayne. The hook is one of the year's best, and Ace Hood's workmanlike verses are an underhand pitch that lands on a tee-ball stand. Wayne's version, though, ends up overwhelmed by another flat punchline. (What rhymes with "Bugatti," and relates directly to Wayne's interests?) 

The biggest highlight is Chance The Rapper's "You Song," over which Wayne drops one of his best verses in years—no doubt summoned to the sublime by Chance's star-making performance. Other guests perform well (Jae Millz) or not so well (Lil Chuckee) or transcendentally well (T.I. on "FuckWitMeYouKnowIGotIt," who surprisingly steals the song out from under his host's nose).

There are flashes of Wayne's old brilliance throughout. And in current hip-hop, he still has few real competitors. Even at sunset, he has a more powerful grip on all the contradictory tensions that make rap music worth listening to. And there is a brief moment of true urgency on "Levels" with Vado. One that references some of the news Wayne made this past year outisde of music. Whether he's being serious or flippant, it carries a chillingly profound weight: "This that motherfuckin' Dedication 5," he raps. "I just hope I be alive to see a Dedication 6."

Yikes! We do to. —David Drake