Lil Wayne will release The Carter III on May 13. Maybe. After all, the guy has spent the last two and a half years doing everything but making actual studio albums: seven or eight mixtapes, dozens of guest appearances, several arrests, and more hype than the“Loungin’” video*. Some of this attention has been warranted. The Carter II, his previous studio effort, is a good but not great record, with “Tha Mobb” ranking as one of the decade’s finest rap songs and “Shooter” impressively meshing hardcore raps with a crossover sensibility (though Alan Thicke will forever out-class his son). Moreover, Wayne’s ascendence benefited heavily from 2005′s ignominious distinction as one of the worst years in rap history, with critics so strapped for music to ride for that they actually tried to convince themselves that Paul Wall and Mike Jones were good.
Wayne’s drastic improvement from his Cash Money days, coupled with the South’s moment in the sun, ensured that narrative-hungry writers would annoint someone sub-Mason-Dixon as the new king of hip-hop. With Scarface and Andre 3000 falling back and half of UGK locked up, Wayne seemed like the best bet. In a way, his rise seemed tailor-made for the zeitgeist of this jangled Internet age, his songs blessed with a sense of ephemera that jibes with the notion of constant content fit to be devoured and forgotten ten minutes later. There are as many Wayne songs as there are blogs, and like the blogosphere, the quality is wildly uneven. For every show-stopping moment like “Cannon” or “Upgrade U,” there are ten tracks filled with repetitive simile-laden boasts that Wayne’s champions would like to call free-associative genius, but really just prove that it is somehow possible to be both the hardest working man in hip-hop and incredibly lazy at the same time.
Given the chance to appear on Graduation and American Gangster, two rap albums from 2007 that were good enough to receive burn beyond the turn of the decade, Weezy whiffed–squandering the rare opportunity to broaden his fanbase beyond his key constituency of Southerners, 13-year olds, and white music critics with 180+ IQs, prestigious liberal arts degrees, and questionable taste in hip-hop. Wayne apologists scoffed that their hero had already had so many great moments that year, but his detractors sagely pointed out that anyone purporting to be the best rapper alive shouldn’t suck this much on both of the year’s big-ticket rap records.
That’s perhaps the most frustrating thing about the Wayne question: only two opinions seem to exist, both of which are wrong. (Wayne is neither savior nor Satan. What he is a talented rapper with absolutely no concept of quality control.) The first swallows his hyperbole and concludes that he is the greatest rapper alive, a prolific, infallible genius who operates in a Bizarro galaxy heretofore reserved for such king weirdos as Mike Tyson, Cam’ron, and Kim Jung-Il. The other labels him complete garbage, a walking, talking, Baby-kissing plague on humanity responsible for SARS, Ebola, and the assassinations of both Kennedys.** Ultimately, what this yields is bad criticism, with his admirers refusing to acknowledge his myriad atrocious moments and his “haters” never conceding an inch, with both teams waiting for the “classic” album that will either confirm his place in the pantheon or halt the critical love train.
The notion of needing to drop a classic album seems slightly antiquated, but in fact it isn’t. While short stories, short films, and single MP3s obviously have their merits, no amount of postmodernist revision will ever alter the fact that the novel, the feature film, and the album will remain the standard-bearers of art. (Sorry.) Lil Wayne has not dropped a classic album, though if you lopped 20 minutes off Carter II, you could arguably state your case. Logically, Carter III would be make-or-break time, the chance for Wayne to either shut up the peanut gallery*** or leave the heads of the hype machine with a whole lot of omelet on their face. Neither of these two things will probably happen.
While it remains to be seen what exactly would convert Wayne’s naysayers, it is certain that no matter how bad Carter III is, some corners of the critical community will stop at nothing to convince you of its greatness. In particular, no two critics have been more strident in their homerism than Tom Breihan, of the Village Voice and Pitchfork and Marc Hogan, the main writer of Pitchfork’s Forkcast. ReadBreihan’s love letter to “Lollipop,” a song that he himself manages to call
a blatant sellout-move capitulation to everything lame in today’s pop-music world: gallingly obvious central lyrical sex-as-candy analogy, T-Pain-esque layered-up autotuned vocals, simplistic snap-music drum-pattern, hushed trancey synth-whooshes playing something that sounds suspiciously like the melody to Flo Rida’s “Low,” no rapping whatsoever and… screaming butt-rock guitar solos.
Forget the fact that “Lollipop” does have rapping, however terrible it may be; forget the fact that Breihan somehow manages to compare “Lollipop” to Earth Wind & Fire’s “Let’s Groove,” a piece of spin that would make James Carville smile. The review concludes by telling us that we should “celebrate the fact that Lil Wayne has made his “Candy Shop” without compromising his inner weirdness.”
In fact, there is nothing weird about “Lollipop,” a song that feels more cynically calculating than almost anything released in 2008. It’s lyrical content is a clumsy homework assignment from 50 Cent’s School Of How To Write Songs For 14-Year-Old Girls With Tacky Sex Metaphors For Hooks. (In particular, “Shorty Want a Thug/Bottles in the Club/Shorty Need a Hug” makes Benzino look like Arthur Rimbaud.) Meanwhile, it completely style-jacks T-Pain, a guy who stole every one of his ideas from Roger Troutman, never mind Snoop Dogg’s “Sensual Seduction.” Hell, even the “Lollipop” video is corny, a glitzy, formulaic romp through Las Vegas that feels suspiciously like a cliched combo of the videos for 112′s “Only You” and 2Pac’s “How Do U Want It.”
Incidentally, there is one defense for “Lollipop”: It’s a big, absolutely retarded pop song that you enjoy dancing to at clubs. This is its sole intent. As rap music, it’s garbage; as pop, it’s middle-of-the-road filler fit to be played until Labor Day and not a moment later. What it isn’t is “sly, heady… melodrama,” as Breihan puts it, or a “savvy pop move,” as Hogan calls it. What Snoop did was a “savvy pop move,” the sort of desperate sellout look that artists need to do when there’s nothing left in the well; “the greatest rapper alive” shouldn’t have to resort to singles you can Xerox (no Hillary Clinton).
If “Lollipop” is a shameless, poorly executed, but well-thought out play for the charts, “A Millie” is the opposite, a half-baked and sloppy street single with Wayne once again in mixtape mode, stringing together simile after simile for five and a half minutes of banal shit-talking. Of course, there are a few clever lyrical turns. “I don’t owe you like two vowels” is as good as anything Lupe Fiasco has written, but like Weezy’s entire discography, “A Millie” is maddeningly inconsistent. Its beat is a hiccuping, overly repetitive, minimalist mess that sounds like it could only have been selected by someone under the influence of too much drank and drugs. Meanwhile, Wayne attempts to mask his empty-calorie lyrics by relying on his now-familiar grab-bag of vocal tics, forcing syllables to stretch that shouldn’t stretch, modulating his voice without purpose, everything strictly for schtick and effect. At one point, he even boasts that “none of this shit is written down,” but that goes without saying. After all, any rapper who writes a lyric as lazy as “we pop ‘em like Redenbacher” deserves his MC pass revoked. (Can we all admit that Jay and Big’s claims that they never wrote down lyrics have caused more harm than any trivia tidbit in music history?)
But Hogan dismisses anyone with a gripe: “haters are already foaming at the mouth… the rest of us know better than to rush the flow.” God forbid, anyone gets between Hogan and Wayne’s uh…”flow.” “A Millie” is just mediocre, a boiler mix-tape track that would be met with yawns were it released by Papoose, most frustrating than is the one-sided nature of its criticism, with its arrogant tone and nebulous taunts at “haters.” Flip through the Pitchfork archives, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find inasmuch as a negative word about Wayne, with the one universally loathed Wayne record, Like Father Like Son, weirdly never getting a review despite its single, “Stuntin’ Like My Daddy,” receiving a glowing, four-star review from Breihan.
Granted, Wayne’s detractors are notoriously venomous and often misguided, but their anger partly stems from a critical vogue that refuses to praise anything that isn’t crack rap and/or nakedly commercial. In the past six months, hip-hop has seen strong output from a new generation of rappers–Jay Electronica, Wale, The Knux, Pacific Division, Blu and Clean Guns–yet not one of these worthy artists has gotten their own post on the Forkcast or Status Ain’t Hood, despite obviously needing the exposure a whole lot more than the platinum-plus “Young Money Millionaire.” It remains to be seen whether Carter III will be the masterpiece capable of validating the slavish Wayne worship that has taken place over the past few years. But what is certain is that judging from the reviews of its first two singles, you’ll be hearing the praises of its unmistakable brilliance.
Besides, no matter what, it can’t be worse than Mike Jones or Paul Wall.
* On another note, if “Loungin” is not the most quintessential mid-’90s rap video, than what is?
** Though if one were to judge Wayne strictly off his appearance–which is not unlike that of a drank and pills-addled Whoopi Goldberg–SARS seems like a reasonable guess.
***Likely filled with fans of Peanut Butter Wolf.