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Where is the best rapper alive?

Chris Collum | Tuesday, September 6, 2011

New Orleans’ Dwayne Michael Carter, Jr., known more commonly to the world as Lil Wayne, needs no introduction. The man, who for several years claimed the “Best Rapper Alive” tag without apology, made even more headlines last year when he was sentenced to, and subsequently served, eight months in prison at Rikers Island in New York City, on felony gun charges. He was released in November.

Prior to his time in prison, Lil Wayne released a startlingly bad attempt at rock-rap fusion called “Rebirth,” his last full-length since 2008’s blockbuster “Tha Carter III.” Later that year, while still behind bars, he released “I Am Not a Human Being,” a hit-and-miss, more traditional rap album.

“Tha Carter IV” is supposed to be his return to greatness, a continuation of his legacy and a reaffirmation that Lil Wayne is indeed the best rapper alive. Lead singles “6 Foot 7 Foot” and “John (If I Die Today)” did much to quell naysayers throwing around phrases like “over the hill,” “has-been” and “irrelevant.” But perhaps the most astounding thing about “Tha Carter IV” on first listen is that, whether or not Lil Wayne is indeed the best rapper alive, nowhere in this hour and 25 minutes does he claim that title.

How can this be? What is Lil Wayne without bravado? If he is no longer trying to propagate his image of a tortured, drug-addled genius, then who does he think he is? The answer becomes painfully apparent after repeated listens to “Tha Carter IV:” frankly, he has no idea.

The previous themes of drugs, women and wealth are all present, but that top-of-the-world, no-one-can-touch-me feeling is not. Even the weed songs, when Wayne used to be at his most genuine, feel hollow. Lyrics such as those on the hook of “Blunt Blowin'” don’t really have much appeal when we all know that if Lil Wayne was doing half of the things he claims, he’d be back behind bars instantly.

“Intro” presents a Willy Will beat that forms the song as well as “Interlude” and “Outro.” The latter two songs contain the bulk of the big-name cameos on the album, including Nas, André 3000 of Outkast, Busta Rhymes and Tech N9ne. For some strange reason, however, Lil Wayne is nowhere to be found on any of these tracks besides “Intro.” Is this humility? Surely not. If it is, it’s misplaced — “Outro” could really have benefited from a verse from Wayne.

The album has some dizzying highs — aforementioned singles “6 Foot 7 Foot” and “John (If I Die Today),” as well as current chart-burner “She Will” and “It’s Good,” both of which feature Young Money label mate and Weezy protégé Drake. On these tracks one occasionally hears streaks of the crazed genius Wayne once was.

“I lost my mind / It’s somewhere out there stranded,” he raps on “6 Foot 7 Foot,” but life at the top seems to be getting to the rapper.

“I rock to the beat of my drum set / I been at the top for a while and I ain’t jump yet,” he muses on “She Will.”

However, the album also has some terrible duds.  “How to Hate” and “How to Love” are both vanilla, mid-tempo R&B numbers. “Nightmares of the Bottom” is an interesting title for a song that emphasizes why Wayne is no longer indisputably at the top of the game.

And then there are the songs that would be standouts on many rappers’ albums, but don’t quite cut it when we’ve seen what Lil Wayne is capable of. “Megaman,” which carries the name of its producer, is a frenzied collection of one-liners with no hook that feels like recycled Weezy. “Abortion” is a pensive autobiographical attempt that retreads the same ground covered by “Rebirth” highlight “Drop the World” — which was arguably the only truly great song Wayne put out in 2010.

These are good songs, sure, but when compared to “The Sky Is the Limit,” “3 Peat,” or “Hustler Musik?” it’s a little embarrassing.

Lil Wayne is not the best rapper alive, he’s no longer claiming to be and apparently he’s also not trying to be anymore. Unanswered questions are present everywhere on “Tha Carter IV.” Why the dichotomy between pathetic collaborations with T-Pain (“How to Hate”) and blitzkrieg-style musical manifestos (“6 Foot 7 Foot”)? What about those eight months in prison that get no mention besides a few bars from Drake on “It’s Good?” How is someone whose entire image is built around drug abuse dealing with probation?

There is hope for the future of Wayne’s career, certainly. It may be many things, but “Tha Carter IV” is not a bad album. But the questionable choices make it a very disappointing effort from an artist who obviously still possesses an incredible amount of talent.

2.5 out of 4 shamrocks.

Contact Chris Collum at ccollum@nd.edu.