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Lil Wayne Is Back … but Is Lil Wayne Back? Instant Reactions to ‘Tha Carter V’ Album

The long-awaited fifth installment of Lil Tunechi’s ‘Carter’ set is finally here, and Ringer staffers have some immediate impressions

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Seven years after the release of Tha Carter IV and one week after we thought it was finally arriving, Tha Carter V dropped at the stroke of midnight on Friday morning. At 23 tracks, with a movie-length runtime, there is a lot to process. Lil Wayne is back … but is he really back? We polled Ringer staffers on the highs and lows of the latest Carter installment upon first listen.

1. What is the best song on the album?

Micah Peters: “Mess” flattened me; it’s gorgeous, ridiculous, bluntly emotional, and reminds you that Wayne was once hip-hop’s most innovative stylist. But I know in my heart of hearts that I’m going to be listening to “Took His Time” until I hate it, wondering whether it would’ve been better or worse with a Future feature.

Rob Harvilla: Let’s just lean into the ugliness and say “Don’t Cry,” which is a maudlin, syrupy, and very effective deployment of what the kids of yesteryear used to call “cloud rap,” with a near-atonal XXXTentacion hook that is far more striking than I’d prefer given his wildly discomfiting power over the kids of today. Making the best of a terrible situation is what this year is all about.

Danny Heifetz: “Dedicate” was the song where I said to myself, “Oh thank God, his brain hasn’t melted.” It might not be the best, but it made me happiest.

Andrew Gruttadaro: I’m gonna cheat and say the three-act play from “Dark Side of the Moon” to “What About Me.” The depiction of the stages of a broken relationship—from romance (“Dark Side of the Moon”) to jealousy and anger (“Mona Lisa”) to betrayal (“What About Me”)—is gripping, honest, and unexpectedly nuanced. I was not prepared for Lil Wayne, Emotionally Aware Wiseman.

Keith Fujimoto: This one came down to “Problems” and “Demon.” The Zaytoven-produced “Problems” wins out at the buzzer. A Zaytoven beat is the Hennessey to Wayne’s J.R. Smith superpowers.

Donnie Kwak: My old-ass ears immediately perked up when I heard reboots of treasured songs of yore—G. Dep’s “Special Delivery” turned into “Uproar” and Dr. Dre’s “Xxplosive” reworked into “Dope N*ggaz” (featuring Snoop, natch). But the album closer “Let It All Work Out” is my standout. Over a Sampha vocal sample, Wayne recounts an attempted suicide and getting a second chance at life. It’s somber yet uplifting, and features Wayne at his vulnerable best.

2. What is the worst song on the album?

Peters: “Mona Lisa” is five minutes and 24 seconds of some of the most strenuous rapping I’ve heard in the past year; I have no desire to listen to it again. It is however, made for the layup line.

Harvilla: “Start This Shit Off Right” is sub–Wiz Khalifa, and well-sequenced at Track 17.

Kwak: I’m curious as to when the songs on Tha Carter V were actually recorded, because a lot of them seem slightly dated. On that note: It’s not terrible but there’s something so humorously early-aughtish about “Start This Shit Off Right,” from Ashanti’s vampy harmonizing to Mack Maine’s lunkheaded cameo. The song is bouncy and harmless … it just feels so old. Match it with a tall tee and a crooked fitted while you type on your Sidekick.

Gruttadaro: “Famous,” maybe? Because there’s already a better song called that, and because it reminds me way too much of “Hip-Hop Saved My Life,” or worse, a throwaway song on a late-era Eminem album.

Fujimoto: “Mess.” I’m rarely a believer in the guitar loop and this song proved my point. Weakest jawn from the production side.

3. What is the most quotable lyric?

Peters: “When money went from army green to navy blue I said salute,” from “Can’t Be Broken.” But “I sleep with the gun and she don’t snore” from “Uproar” is a close second.

Harvilla: I get that “Famous” is Eminem-style post-peak melodrama, but “I’m never alone / I got my demons and my angels / Can’t talk to myself ’cause Mama said don’t talk to strangers” still lands. Or maybe just “I’m never alone.” At this point he’s way more effective as a sad clown than as a regular clown.

Heifetz: Need at least three more listens before I can guess what he’s saying on any of these songs.

Gruttadaro: “Money in the air, who say white men can’t jump?”—“Hittas”

Fujimoto: “Money in the air, who say white men can’t jump?” I’m a sucker for clever cash-related punch lines and this one also mentions the Woody Harrelson–Wesley Snipes hoops classic.

Kwak: There are many, but I’ll go with: “I could change the world but I done lost the remote”—“Dope N*ggaz”

4. What is the best feature?

Peters: Kendrick Lamar on “Mona Lisa,” who just wants it more than everybody else.

Harvilla: “Dope N*ggaz” is the first time in years that I’ve heard Snoop Dogg’s voice and not immediately thought of Martha Stewart. Probably just the Dr. Dre echo though.

Heifetz: “They might think they got a pretty good jump shot, or a pretty good flow,” Barack Obama says at the end of “Dedicate.” “But our kids can’t all aspire to be LeBron or Lil Wayne.”

This is the first moment I’ve ever wished I had an Apple Watch because I genuinely want to know what level my blood pressure spiked to the first time I heard this.

Gruttadaro: Kendrick is the obvious (and correct) answer. The amount of character he brings to “Mona Lisa” takes that song to the next level and makes it the most magnetic track on the album. When he starts crying?! When he says “Bitch I’m emotional ’cause I’m in stress / I’m not supposed to go through this”? Weirdly timely.

Fujimoto: Sosamann. Admittedly my semi-washed self had never heard Sosamann prior to this, but I’ll be adding some of his discography to my Spotify queue after hearing him on this.

Kwak: Gotta be Kendrick on “Mona Lisa.” I appreciate storytelling in rap, even if the topic here—evil, double-crossing mistresses—is so clichéd. When we talk about “blacking out on a song,” this Kendrick verse is what we mean. And Wayne went off, too.

5. What is the most unnecessary feature?

Peters: Mack Maine on “Start This Shit Off Right,” but a Mack Maine feature was inevitable.

Harvilla: Travis Scott is still aural tofu to me. You kids of today enjoy yourselves, though.

Heifetz: Nicki Minaj. This isn’t personal, I’m just bitter that Nicki is on this album and Drake is not.

Gruttadaro: That was Nicki Minaj singing on “Dark Side of the Moon”? Hm.

Fujimoto: Ashanti should’ve just stayed away lampin’ and avoided this weak and lazy feature, beloved.

Kwak: Never heard of Sosamann before his closing verse on “What About Me,” and let’s just say I’m not too pressed to hear more of him.

6. Where does it rank among the Carter quintet?

Peters: Comfortably above Tha Carter IV, which is really all I was hoping for.

Harvilla: This feels as futile as ranking Police Academy movies or American wars: In 2018 there’s either no context or an overwhelming amount of context. The first two volumes are the work of an entirely different human in an entirely different rap universe; Tha Carter III is my favorite if only for the loopy joy of somebody that outré getting that famous; Tha Carter IV is a mess, and Wayne himself disappears for long stretches, which may have been a blessing. This new one has a surprising focus and intensity, which is to say it’s a pleasant surprise that it has any focus and intensity. And yet to beat IV it ideally needs one song that hits as hard as “6 Foot 7 Foot.” So basically it’s either the second-worst or the worst, which is a vicious curve to be graded on, but hey man, I didn’t pick the title.

Heifetz: If Tha Carter III is Mount Everest, this album is currently scaling K2 (and that rock guitar garbage album is buried in the Mariana Trench).

Fujimoto: Not on par with the first and close to the second, but definitely much more replayable than three and four.

Kwak: I’m bad at ranking things but it’s the best Wayne album in a long time.

7. Is Lil Wayne back?

Peters: He seems happy, which is the most important thing.

Harvilla: It’s plausible that with his newfound freedom and this record’s years-long albatross gone, he’ll finesse the transition from focal-point superstar to transcendent character actor who frequently outshines the young bucks who already owe him their careers. In boldface-name rap in 2018, just showing up has been enough; nobody is even pretending to chase greatness. He’s stuck in this age of shrugging bloat like everyone else; he’s back, but only because he never left and can never leave.

Heifetz: On “Open Letter,” Wayne gets right to the heart of “some real life shit.”

Sometimes I fear who in the mirror
That n*gga weird
He done died so many times
And still here
Why am I here?

Wayne is 100 percent back in my life as an entertainer. As a person, he’s somewhere I’m not sure you can ever fully come back from.

Gruttadaro: I don’t know how to answer this. Tha Carter V exceeded my expectations and stands up pretty well against a lot of rap albums that have dropped in 2018, but I can’t tell if this was an opening salvo or a closing shot. It comes down to how “back” Wayne himself wants to be. He is out here making the rap version of Vogue’s “73 Questions” and releasing albums when he says he’s going to, though, so if I absolutely have to answer this: Yeah, I’m thinking he’s back.

Fujimoto: He reverted back to prime DatPiff Wayne in pockets, but bottomed out during some verses. Overall: 75 percent back.

Kwak: I’m so glad that Wayne has (largely) forsaken Auto-Tune, instead relying on his main strengths throughout Carter V—an elastic tongue, countless timbres, and innumerable flows. The album is as rappity-rap as Eminem’s recent Kamikaze, except Wayne sounds mostly resilient and reflective rather than angry and defiant. So, yeah: Wayne back.