“I’m just getting high, thinking ‘bout Tha Carter V.” —Lil Wayne on “Million Dollar Baby,” 2009
We should’ve seen this coming. Five years ago, when songs from Tha Carter III were still on the radio and Tha Carter IV was over two years away, Lil Wayne was already contemplating the impending prestige of Tha Carter V. “I’m just getting high, thinking ‘bout Tha Carter V” was an early and subtle hint at the importance of this album. We should’ve known then that the climate surrounding its release was going to be special, even by Lil Wayne’s standards.
Wayne’s seen serious heights as an artist. He’s experienced record-breaking sales and chart success. He’s had career-defining verses and era-defining songs. Anyone who’s paid even a minor amount of attention to pop culture over the last decade is familiar with Weezy’s seemingly endless streak of wins. But no winning streak lasts forever. There’s the natural erosion of talent compounded by increasingly complacent masses that get bored and aggressively seek to tear down the very individuals who they propped up not long before.
More recently, that perceived downfall has been a major part of the critical narrative surrounding Lil Wayne. Really, ever since Tha Carter III, when he sold a million copies in one week and won the Best Rap Album Grammy and reached a point of ubiquity that’s happened to maybe like five rappers ever, the descent began. It’s the only direction anyone can go after such an incredible rise. Wayne hastened the process by following up Tha Carter III with an experimental rock album, Rebirth, underwhelming most with Tha Carter IV, dressing weird, and just giving people a ton of excuses to turn against him.
You can feel it in the air. There’s an increasing backlash to the backlash against Lil Wayne. People believe again.
But just as a cheerleading stance gets tired, so does a cynical one. Once haters have knocked an artist to what they believe is the lowest point, a new excitement comes from the question of whether that same artist will be able to surmount those depths, and it’s most exciting to witness it be done. People want to see that artist overcome those hurdles and reclaim their former glory. That’s why we love underdogs. That’s why even though Lil Wayne has never really fallen off or gone anywhere, he’s faced enough adversity to work himself into the position of the underdog, and there’s nothing people love more than a good comeback.
That same legend-turned-underdog advantage is what allowed Nas to win everyone over again after two widely panned albums with Stillmatic. Dr. Dre did the same with 2001 after The Aftermath compilation got a lukewarm reception and “The Firm flopped,” as he put it on “Forgot About Dre.” And it’s funny because Wayne’s current position shares a few more similarities with Dre’s before 2001, right down to his lead single from Tha Carter V, “Believe Me.” On the Vinylz and Boi-1da-produced track, Drake is the lead performer, carrying the chorus and spitting a scene-stealing verse, all while championing Wayne's return to prominence. This is exactly what Eminem did for Dr. Dre on “Forgot About Dre" and no one’s forgotten about Dre since.
You can feel it in the air. There’s an increasing backlash to the backlash against Lil Wayne. People believe again. There are songs on his last four albums that are as good as, if not better than, “Believe Me” and last night’s release, “D’usse,” but these two singles are finally getting the traction the other records couldn’t. People actively want Tha Carter V to be a classic, so I’m telling you, Tha Carter V is already a classic. Great music is a requisite, but it’s also the lowest barrier to entry. Timing and the storyline attached to a body of work are all more influential factors in determining a classic album than its content. Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is filled with excellent records, but it was all but guaranteed to be a classic before one record was sold because 50 Cent got shot nine times, signed a massive deal with the biggest rapper in the world, and murdered Ja Rule’s career.
Lil Wayne has something to prove. That’s his story with Tha Carter V. When he wasn’t nominated for any VMAs or BET Awards last year, he tweeted, “I apologize to my fans and I promise to work harder if it kills me.” It’s the perfect setup for a grand statement about the status of his career. The fact that it’s supposed to be the last installment in Tha Carter series amplifies this. Remember, Blueprint 2 came before The Black Album. It doesn’t take much to flip the entire conversation on its head. It’s happened before and it’s going to happen with Tha Carter V.
Ernest Baker is a writer living in New York City. Follow him on Twitter here.