Lil Wayne carved out an eccentric future for hip-hop on Tha Carter III
Original release date: 10 June 2008
Label: Cash Money Records
It seems counterintuitive to claim that huge sales figures can somehow add to an enigma, but the magnetism of Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III is enhanced by its astronomical commercial success.
Released June 2008, the record was an anomaly, diving off the industry’s sinking ship and achieving the impossible. Tha Carter III sold 1.1 million record copies in seven days – an accomplishment that hadn’t been achieved since 2005, as the industry had been struggling to adjust to the digital era. The record outsold Taylor Swift, Coldplay and a freshly auto-tuned Kanye West. Coming off the back of a legendary mixtape run, Tha Carter III was Wayne’s blockbuster arrival to hip-hop’s top table – complete with a tatted-up baby photo as artwork
First coming to notoriety in his early teens through New Orleans group Hot Boys, Wayne started moving forward after the turn of the millennium. But it wasn’t a conventional growth spurt. He was getting more strange, his wordplay more eccentric. Hot Boys had built a legacy as the ultimate New Orleans rap group and created a blueprint for a new generation of reality rappers, signed to Birdman’s Cash Money records. They’d asserted the South as rap’s new capital with grit and bounce. But Wayne was beginning to operate on a totally different axis.
From the mid-00s, he was challenging the limitations of the beats he was bodying with flow patterns spilling across bars and remarkably unorthodox rhyme schemes. He was finding agency in experimentation and the instant connectivity of web 2.0 meant that very little was getting left on the cutting room floor. His lyrical demeanour is fascinatingly blasé throughout. He cribs lines from other artists then thanks them for it; introduces surreal metaphors then drops them only to pick them up again a few lines later.
In the 2009 documentary The Carter, Wayne bluntly refuted a journalist’s suggestion that he is part of a lineage that includes New Orleans jazz. But stylistically, Wayne’s loose performance and freeform delivery on Tha Carter III could be interpreted asa modern translation of those earlier New Orleanian movements – rooted in the streets, born from improvisation and carefully laced with hope, tragedy and humour.
Wayne became a local hero on a global stage. Perhaps unwillingly, he was a Louis Armstrong-type figure – outperforming sounds from surrounding states by creating something novel and unique in the same way Dixieland jazz did at the start of the 20th century.
And it’s a post he took at a time when his city needed it. For all the bangers of Tha Carter III, there are a number of poignant moments dedicated to a post-Katrina New Orleans. “Take away the football team, the basketball team / And all we got is me to represent New Orleans,” he raps on Tie My Hands. When he performed that track at the 2009 Grammys, the performance was bookended by a homage to his city – complete with local brass band and a rendition of New Orleans funeral parade classic Feet Don’t Fail Me Now.
Though the album’s pathos is rooted at home, its magic is otherworldly, like a foreign transmission. There’s a reason why Phone Home opens with an automated voice saying “Greetings from Planet Weezy”. Much like André 3000 before him and Future after him, Wayne was keen to assert his power as something alien, something supernatural. The surrealist post-lyrical mumble-rap he exhibits feels like a prototype of the styles which are berated by old school fans today. Indeed, if you search “worst freestyle ever” on YouTube then a 2008 video of Wayne on the Carter III promotional trail is one of the top results. The studio album which came after Tha Carter III was Rebirth in 2010 – a poorly received rap-rock crossover record where Wayne shifted from extraterrestrial gangster to bigger-than-rap rock God. The album transcended the confines of rap through the lens of science fiction or rock music, blueprints which today’s luminaries like Lil Uzi Vert and Young Thug have followed almost like a script.
So that earth-conquering success, those numbers that now seem eye-watering, make more sense in light of what Wayne was doing on this LP. Carefully balancing touching themes of home with a novel delivery that carved out an eccentric future for commercial hip-hop. Rewriting rap’s DNA and phoning home from a distance.