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Lil Wayne and ‘Tha Carter V’ Are Finally Free

In the interminable delay before the release of his 12th studio album, Weezy suddenly found himself an underdog. But ‘C5’ heralds the return of a reinvigorated legend.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Until last Friday, the now-emancipated Tha Carter V was so long delayed that in our weaker moments we thought it shelved for good, like Detox or the movie Shanghai Dawn. “We” meaning anyone who still cared about or was still in awe of Wayne’s paranormal mid-to-late-aughts run of monumental mixtapes, unforgettable guest spots, and platinum-selling albums—and there are more of us than some might have initially thought. Wayne’s 12th studio album is on pace to have the third-largest streaming week ever. It’s poised to go no. 1.

But sales, while always an indicator of something, are never a complete endorsement or rejection of anything on their own. 2011’s Tha Carter IV, which was poorly reviewed by most critics, also debuted at the top of the charts and sold nearly 1 million album equivalents in its first week. (In his review for MTV News, music writer Andrew Nosnitsky suggests Wayne’s dismal 2010 Rebirth punk album and recently acquired taste for skateboarding were deft plays at a younger audience, which tracks.) But C5 is not the album that preceded it in many ways, the most crucial one being that it’s good! Too long at 87 minutes, but good! And while quality and commercial success should be inevitable for a rapper of Wayne’s ability and oeuvre, I don’t think it’s possible to say enough about how not inevitable all of this was.

As in, it’s a triumph that Tha Carter V even saw the light of day. Plenty of outlets have detailed the long, deadly, litigious road to C5 more exhaustively, but the short version of the story is this: We were supposed to get the album in October 2014, when it was last delayed indefinitely. The skeletal, Drake-assisted “Believe Me,” first previewed on Instagram by none other than Floyd Mayweather Jr., had for five months been the only successful teaser single. There were others (like “D’usse”) that people (like me) would argue as criminally underappreciated in their time, but none were anointed as undeniable (“D’usse” is). That early version of the album never came out, sparking a three-year legal dispute between Wayne and his mentor-cum-father-figure Birdman.

It was a mess involving everyone, from Rick Ross to Pusha T to defenestrated “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli. (Shkreli allegedly bought the album through a “legal sale” along with Wu-Tang’s one-of-a-kind Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, and ordered to turn both over to the state after being convicted of securities fraud.) In April 2015, Young Thug, the most capable of Wayne’s stylistic children, took another page from Wayne’s playbook, mimicking how Wayne once tried to one-up Juvenile’s 400 Degreez album by releasing his own called 500 Degreez. Thug’s Barter 6 is still as transcendent as it was then, and might have represented a kingly succession of sorts, in a different world where Wayne wasn’t creatively stifled, and Thug wasn’t named as a co-conspirator (along with Birdman) when Wayne’s tour bus was shot at that spring.

As to why C5 languished on a hard drive for as long as it did, the commercial reasons (no singles that stuck and thus no momentum) are good ones. However, the dispute over the album’s release was less about viability than it was about respect. Since he was a teenager in the late ’90s, Wayne had built up the Cash Money imprint as much as label boss Baby himself, uniting pretty much every type of rap fan—those that stump for lyricism, harmonies, rock vamps, and Adam Sandler references—and informing an entire new generation of artists’ approach to music. See, again, Young Thug, an offshoot of Wayne’s late-2000s Auto-Tuned experimentation, or the entire SoundCloud rap contingent, from their affinity for face tats to the practice of relentlessly uploading troves of free music onto the internet for fans to sift through. Wayne also signed both Nicki Minaj and Drake. He sued Cash Money for $51 million and the Young Money imprint. He eventually won the imprint, and a settlement exceeding $10 million, but not before threatening to retire.

Other songs that emerged between 2014 and now are more descriptive or gutting about the headspace Wayne was in while drifting through the doldrums. Some were better indicators that he still had it, and were generally more exciting—I yelped when he used the “Get Your Roll On” flow while justly claiming “Magnolia” from Playboi Carti; yelped. But “Pick Up Your Heart,” the closer to 2015’s Free Weezy Album—the project itself both a fuck you to Birdman and an attempt at escape from under his thumb—struck me as the saddest. He raps about being worn out, wrung dry, and disillusioned. It’s about fame, but as is his way, Wayne makes it about a woman. In a spoken outro, he also references a Progressive commercial. But before that he warbles earnestly, devastatingly on the hook:

Cause these hoes fuck anybody, these hoes fuck anybody
And I don’t want to do it no more, no
Hold up bae, I don’t want to do it no more, no
Hold up wait, I don’t want to do it no more, no
Hold up bae, I don’t want to do it no more, no

After so many setbacks and mishaps and broken promises, some wondered whether it might be better to scrap C5 altogether, or at the very least delude fans by calling it something else (remember Dr. Dre’s Compton?). But Wayne was in a unique position, as my colleague Justin Charity wrote around Wayne’s settlement in early June—the hype for what was once touted as his final album evaporated, and while still a living legend, he was now also an underdog. For the first time in his 20-plus-year career, it felt as if we were given time to miss him.

Which is why we can excuse him for tripping over the final two minutes of “Dedicate,” C5’s 2 Chainz–sampling third track, on Fallon on Tuesday night. Wayne wore a ridiculous outfit, he grinned wide, he let a few “bitches” slip while attempting to censor himself and, ever the chaotic neutral, told the kids to stay in school. It was all over the place, but heartwarming, and perfect, in its way.

Aside from “Start This Off Right,” which groups Ashanti and Mack Maine onto a Mannie Fresh beat, the album flits around the mid-to-late 2010s in terms of feel. There’s a Travis Scott song and a questionable, posthumous XXXTentacion feature (Wayne calls him “Triple Extensions”). Nicki Minaj sings, Kendrick Lamar attempts to kill us all, and Barack Obama provides an interlude, sort of. It is mainly fan service—at whichever point you became acquainted with Wayne’s music, there is something for you here. “Start This Off Right” recalls “This Is the Carter” from the first Carter album. The Swizz Beatz–produced “Special Delivery” clone “Uproar” and Snoop Dogg–assisted “Dope,” which takes a big sample of “Xxplosive,” harken back to the halcyon days of Mixtape Wayne, when he subsisted on a strict diet of rappers and beats.

It lags in places, but boasts some songs on its back half that are as solid as anything he’s released this decade. He warbles about dysfunction on “Mess;” he raps ably about his importance and durability on “Took His Time;” he gets into entirely new pockets on “Demon.” But what sets C5 apart from previous installments is its vulnerability. I’m thinking specifically about the album’s closer “Let It All Work Out,” on which he confirms a childhood suicide attempt. He describes his mother’s gun, a call to his aunt, and waking up covered in blood. Everything that happened after was little more than destiny: God “sold me another life and he made a prophet.”

Tha Carter V is better than Tha Carter IV, and Wayne seems both reinvigorated and contented, which is the most that anyone could reasonably ask of an album five painful years in the making. What comes next isn’t a knowable thing—perhaps Barter 7?????but let’s enjoy this moment while we have it. Weezy’s back.