Lil Wayne and the increasing meaninglessness of new rap

“How soon to Tha Carter VI, tho?”
“How soon to Tha Carter VI, tho?”
Image: REUTERS/Mark Makela
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The rapper Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter V was finally released last week.

He first started talking about Tha Carter V in 2012 and the album was scheduled for release in 2014. Then Wayne got stuck in a dispute with his label that took four long years to resolve. Before social media and streaming and SoundCloud, this kind of long-delayed, long-anticipated release would have been enough to define the year, possibly longer. It would have at least dominated the cultural zeitgeist for a polite length of time.

But on the same day as Lil Wayne released his album, there were also new albums by Logic, Chief Keef, and Cypress Hill. Internet favorites Brockhampton and Action Bronson released new videos. And there were a handful of free mixtapes by young MCs looking to build their buzz, like a young Queens rapper named LouGotCash, who has noted, “I grew up listening to a lot of Lil Wayne.” On the same day.

Lil Wayne’s new album comes after an insanely bountiful summer of hip-hop. It’s almost impossible to keep track of who has released what. Kanye West kicked off the summer by releasing five different albums on five consecutive Fridays, including his own Ye album and a new Nas album (which, also, once upon a time, would have been big news on its own). None had any singles or hype before they dropped—a now common trope to draw attention to new albums. In the midst of that unexpected burst of dragon energy, Beyoncé and Jay-Z surprised everyone with their own joint album. And soon, Drake released his latest LP, Scorpion. That was just the months of May and June 2018.

This could have been the most action-packed summer in rap history, a veritable Avengers: Infinity War of hip-hop asserting the genre’s dominance of popular music. It also may have been the most irrelevant. Very little of the music seems to have much staying power. West’s Ye album, for example, debuted in mid-June at number one but is now already at 78. As charts are now heavily built on streaming, this is less a traditional test of sales than a measure of how much people are still listening to an album. The Carters are currently at 64, one behind Drake’s 2011 album Take Care. Would these albums be appreciated more if they were spaced further apart and people were prepared for them? Quite possibly. Drake’s Scorpion, which had the most traditional release of a long tease with three radio-friendly lead singles, is doing the best out of all of those early summer releases—it is still at no. 4 after 12 weeks.

Hardly any of the songs from those albums by huge artists (again, bar Drake) can be found on Apple Music’s new daily charts of the top 100 songs played in the US. Few can seem to find a way to hold on to the attention. After a snap decision is made on its brilliance in the first week, the hype soon moves on to the next amazing new project. Rap now feels like Netflix. Every week, there is something new—and it’s not that good.

Tha Carter V didn’t even get the rest of the week to itself. As soon as it dropped, fans were already looking forward the release of West’s second surprise solo album in the space of a few months, Yandhi, which was supposed to be released on Sept. 29—three days after Lil Wayne’s. (Yandhi did not come out; in an interview with TMZ, West seemed to suggest that this was a fully developed album as opposed to the five that came out this summer and will be released in November.) Tha Carter V also came out only weeks after Eminem’s surprise Kamikaze, his second album in the past year, which is mostly a response to people who hated that last album. J. Cole released a critically acclaimed, record-breaking album in April called K.O.D. In August, he put out a freestyle called “Album of the Year” to remind people that it existed.

The ballad of Weezy F. Baby

Lil Wayne’s five Carter albums themselves sort of encapsulate how much music has changed in such a short space of time.

Wayne’s first Tha Carter album came out in 2004, when people still bought albums on iTunes. His rise came with the sequel in 2005, when his cocaine rhymes, increasingly intricate flows, and weird metaphors started to bring respect.  He followed up with an endless series of free mixtapes, remixes, and freestyles. And just as people were asking whether Lil Waybe was, in fact, the best rapper in the world, Tha Carter III was released in 2008 and sold 1 million copies in its first week, one the last albums to do those kind of numbers. At the height of his powers, he was able to do anything he wanted. He called himself a martian. He made rock albums. He skated a lot. From the heights of rap superstardom, the only way was down.

By the release of Tha Carter IV in 2011, Wayne was overshadowed by proteges Nicki Minaj and Drake, both of whom were adept at creating meme-worthy music perfect for social media. Wayne was struggling with a culture that was shifting again, towards different kinds of rap and different kinds of rappers. In 2009, 50 Cent criticized Wayne:”He makes a lot of records and I think he’s gonna exhaust the public with his sound.” He was wrong. In fact, the public has demonstrated an unlimited appetite for new music as streaming took over. SoundCloud rap filled the extra space.

Whereas Weezy was once a pioneer of flooding the world with music, he was now being drowned by the tidal wave from everyone else. Future dropped two different albums in consecutive weeks last year—and have both go to number one. Under pressure from his  younger, more intellectual rivals and fighting his own label, Wayne’s sure touch also seemed to desert him. “When he has released music, it’s been ill-advised and coolly received,” Jon Caramanica wrote in the New York Times (paywall) of 2016 collaborative album with 2 Chainz. “His rhymes, once the most inventive in the genre, have been badly desiccated.”

Now, in 2018, Wayne is following the new playbook. Despite the hype, this album has had little by way of buildup. There were no singles. The artwork was released only hours before the album went live. And casual interest in a new release remains as high as ever. Lil Wayne’s newest is being streamed in huge amounts in its first few days. Of the top 25 songs played in the US on Apple Music on Sept. 30, 23 were from Tha Carter V.

Let us see what the chart looks like this time next week.