What’s an album to a goblin, at this point?

It’s been six years since Lil Wayne announced Tha Carter V’s completion, and in that time audiences have been reminded of his propensity to come back hard from a layoff (à la the post-Rikers “6 Foot 7 Foot”) and for dropping lesser efforts in the downtime (Sorry 4 the Wait and its sequel). Releases came and went, some unremembered (T-Wayne) and some criminally underrated (“D’Usse,” “Big Bad Wolf,” ColleGrove).

Wayne has been uneven and prolific between albums, his stature allowing him to release whatever he wants or to broadcast his concerts whenever he wants via the internet. Given the herky-jerky release date announcement and pushbacks for C5, his commitment to putting out a proper album was at first met with anticipation and then, hard as that is to sustain, derision.

Now that it’s here, Tha Carter V provides Wayne with the forum to be intentional and calculated about his position in hip-hop. It’s a place to prove that, at his best, Wayne is worth any wait.

The album opens with his mother Ms. Cita’s teary intro, where she explains her gratitude for her son. “You make sure mama is tooken care of, even if… you don’t have it to give.” The allusion to Wayne’s finances goes unplumbed, but it’s hard not to tie it to speculation about what he did or didn’t do to underwrite Cash Money’s releases during the lengthy battle with label boss Birdman over unpaid royalties.

Ms. Cita’s is the first and last voice heard on Tha Carter V, with nary a peep in between about his father figure, whom Wayne addressed without ambiguity on 2017’s Dedication 6: Reloaded after the infamous Breakfast Club interview:

I come direct with my shit/I come correct with my shit/A blank check on your face, put some respek on my shit

The two settled a $51 million lawsuit back in June, paving the way for Wayne’s first non-Cash Money release ever. He doesn’t have to go there.

Instead C5 finds Wayne talking to his kids—literally on “Famous,” where he duets with first-born Reginae, and figuratively as he jousts with those he’s influenced throughout the rest of the album. After Ms. Cita’s stage-setting, Wayne arrives with a posthumous XXXTentacion cameo and the fully engaged bars that fans have been bracing for. Between X’s wails, Wayne is firmly in his pocket:

So if I die young, blame the juice/Bury me in New Orleans/Tombstone reads 'Don’t cry, stay Tuned/Bring me back to life/Got to lose a life just to have a life/But if heaven's as good as advertised/I want a triple extension on my motherfuckin’ afterlife/Rest in paradise

The moment is a lighter-flick that signals which Wayne has shown up for C5. With that, it’s easy to envision him in a booth, standing on tiptoe, spitting the wending punchlines that make you wonder when he’s gonna take a breath. It’s clear. Wayne leaned in.

Early on, C5 traffics in polished versions of the types of songs that have turned into tropes for his YMCMB progeny and, thus, the radio. The first half of the album, perhaps purposely, won’t let listeners get too high. The uptempo flame-throwing moments are interspersed with the downbeat earnesty of “Can’t Be Broken” and “Dark Side of the Moon,” the latter featuring Nicki Minaj at her most unadorned, on her “Pills N Potions” wave. 

Wayne is arguably the most influential New Orleans musician since Louis Armstrong

Later, on “Start This Shit Off Right,” Wayne reunites with Mannie Fresh on a production that takes its title from a 1992 bounce classic, DJ Jimi’s “Where They At,” which Wayne previously referenced on “Pop That.” It’s a lilting reminder of how long he’s been in the game (“Tell these niggas I been rich since the Hot Boys”) but also of the bounce influence on Young Money chart-toppers like Nicki’s “Truffle Butter” and the good songs from Drake’s Scorpion (“Nice for What” and “In My Feelings”).

Of course, there are moments that harken back to Wayne’s mixtape peak, the gold standard to which purists and diehards hold his every verse. The mid-aughts run of No Ceilings, and multiple rounds of Da Drought and Dedication series, have been cited as influences by performers ranging from ASAP Rocky to Lil Yachty to Chance the Rapper. It was Dedication 4 where Wayne first rapped over the “Special Delivery” beat, which C5’s “Uproar” repurposes with a Swizz Beatz assist. The song has already turned into an unlikely anthem (it’s a 17-year-old beat!) for its “What the fuck, though? Where the love go?” refrain. It’s a mood. The croaks of “Uproar” are balanced out by tracks like the standout “Mona Lisa,” a scammer tale in the vein of classics like Slick Rick’s original and Biggie’s “I Got a Story to Tell.” Here, Wayne’s staccato flow sets up Kendrick Lamar’s reveal as the mark in the story, at turns sprung and spiteful. It’s a long way from the K-Dot who tried on Wayne’s flow on the C4 mixtape, inspired by Carter 3.

Wayne’s mark on two rap worlds—albums and mixtapes—defines him as arguably the most influential New Orleans musician since Louis Armstrong. Biographer Thomas Brothers once that the jazz great had “a voice as different from the normative style of Broadway show singing as black and white...mixing scat, blues, double-time, and witty paraphrase, keeping things humorous and accessible.” Sound familiar?

Wayne’s always been equal parts vocal stylist and lyricist, and midway through the new release he angles into the second persona. The back end of C5 simply slaps harder than the front. Tighter sequencing could’ve helped the album’s pacing, but Wayne finds his groove on tracks like “Hittas,” “Demon,” and “Used 2,” a “Dreams and Nightmares”-lite workout that probably has to be featured on the Creed 2 soundtrack.

As anticipated as Tha Carter V has been, and for his prolific output in the meantime, Wayne still manages a revelation on the album-ending “Let It All Work Out.” Over a sample of Sampha’s “Indecision,” Wayne admits that his much-referenced accidental shooting when he was 12 was actually a suicide attempt. Wayne has guarded that info closely until now—on the intro to the song, Ms. Cita says she still didn’t know the real story to this day. When it happened, he didn’t even tell the 911 dispatcher the cause of the wound, only that "You will find out when you get here.” He was saved by an off-duty cop who broke protocol to drive Wayne directly to the hospital. On the track he’s both reflective and defiant, a combo berthed by the unlikelihood that he’s still here.

but as I was dying/God came to my side and we talked about it/He sold me another life and he made a prophet

If that sounds dramatic, be reminded of the fact that Atlanta prosecutors are currently mulling whether to charge Birdman and Young Thug in a 2015 shooting that targeted Wayne’s tour bus. Label drama and retirement threats aside, Wayne is breathless and buoyant for most of Tha Carter V. He sounds like he could rap forever. And if he’s here, rapping like this, for a while longer, the game is better for it.