10 Years Ago Lil Wayne Released Tha Carter II & It Made Him A Hip-Hop Superstar
A decade ago, it could certainly have been argued that Lil Wayne had nowhere near the body of work to be considered one of the game’s best lyricists. However, 10 years after releasing Tha Carter II, he helped Billboard break the Internet after taking the 10th slot on the publication’s list of the greatest rappers of all time, a list infuriatingly (or thankfully, depending on the person) devoid of Tupac. At the time of the album’s release on December 6, 2005, few would have predicted the New Orleans’ MC would have such a meteoric rise to not only fame, but also to being considered as a lyrically adept artist. Arguably, the LP was the first time Weezy was taken seriously by many Heads, who had not exactly reacted to his first four albums with universal acclaim, and in the years since its release, he has become a ubiquitous presence in the world of Rap. The kid who first began as a nine-year-old signee to Cash Money Records and then graduated to become one of the Hot Boyz became a worldwide juggernaut in what felt like an example of overnight success, despite his solo debut (1999’s Tha Block Is Hot) going platinum. Generally speaking, his acclaim had not infiltrated the country on a nationwide basis, but his solid tenure as one of the South’s most celebrated representatives helped him climb onto the national stage, and with 2004’s Tha Carter, a diminutive Lil Wayne grew into Mr. Carter, a man who didn’t fully arrive until the following year.
One could have predicted Tha Carter II‘s more mature sound by judging a book by its cover alone. Its artwork, despite showing a shirtless Weezy nonchalantly posed alongside a Rolls Royce, is the most sophisticated of his albums’ artwork. From the choice in unassuming, fancy font (which originated with the album’s predecessor) to the black-and-white color scheme, it delivers an air of adulthood not echoed in previous covers, which featured bombastic elements like flames, jewelry, and aggressive poses. None of the projects released after would perform as well until Tha Carter III, which sold more than three times the amount of copies, a sucess bolstered by the release of a handful of mixtapes that helped Lil Wayne dominate the latter part of the decade. Musically, it was the first of his albums to lack production from Mannie Fresh, his longtime mentor and collaborator who had departed from the Cash Money family, ironically only months after scoring a top 20 hit for Lil Wayne with “Go D.J.” Whether or not Fresh’s departure from the team was a contributing factor in Lil Wayne taking the bold risks he did on the album is not certain, but it’s safe to say Tha Carter II helped Weezy spread his proverbial wings, and the result was an album relatively free of overly processed, radio-friendly Pop-Rap. The man on this album rapped like someone who was not at all doubtful of his forthcoming foray into superstardom; in fact, Lil Wayne’s performance on II is one of the most confidently delivered bodies of work from an artist who otherwise had not yet fully arrived.
Perhaps no review embodied the most prevalent reaction to the album’s quality more than Pitchfork’s. The longtime purveyor of opinions on music summed it up quite succinctly when writer Nick Sylvester wrote of Wayne’s progress since “Go D.J.”: “who knows what’s happened since then, but damn has he learned how to write.” Sylvester, like many others, credits much of Wayne’s growth spurt on the absence of Fresh, and he celebrates the “no-name nawlins producers [who] run the boards, their crackly soul sampling and that implied return-to-Rap roots a perfect complement to Weezy’s raspy, sometimes even Miles Davisian voice.” Most fans would agree – there was something more impassioned, more profound about the tone of this LP. The only signs of its being made with the hope of mainstream acclaim on the album are appearances from Robin Thicke – another dominating force in music at that time – and the one-off production from Cool & Dre. The other guest appearances, from Kurupt and Curren$y, did not carry the same oomph as did Tha Carter III‘s guestlist: Babyface, Busta Rhymes, Fabolous, Jay Z, T-Pain, and others. What Tha Carter III and subsequent studio efforts brought in collaborations, Tha Carter II had in exceptionally polished one-man shows, many lacking a catchy hook or any hook at all.
Enter: “Tha Mobb,” an album intro if there ever was one (“I’m here motherfucker, make room, boom”). With no hook, the opening cut is five minutes’ worth of bars and while Tha Carter also featured a hook-free intro, it was two minutes shorter and delivered with more angst whereas “Tha Mobb” lacks any hint of Wayne’s needing to prove anything. Next up is “Fly In,” mirrored by its closing sister track, “Fly Out,” whereas Tha Carter closed with “Walk Out,” suggesting Wayne had left the pedestrian and opted for the superheroesque form of travel. And, as if wanting to present the album in two acts, “Tha Carter” punctuates the album right in the middle, and is built upon the same beat as “Fly In” and “Fly Out,” certainly making the album a contender for the most conceptual of his career. Another carry over from Tha Carter are the “On tha Block” skits, numbers one and two, aspects missing from the third and fourth installments of the Carter series. Whereas the original “On tha Block #1” lamented over the deaths of his “dawgs,” the 2005 version was an anecdote about Wayne’s growing prowess and the attention it was receiving from challengers. The first “On tha Block #2” serves as a warning to potential victims of drug-related violence in the hood, with Tha Carter II’s serving as an extension featuring the same vocal actors. What sets Tha Carter II apart in this realm is that it features a third skit, yet another nod to his hometown-hero status, albeit this time featuring mention of his self-descriped “Pa,” Birdman. And, while the skits are the shortest cuts on the album, their inclusion indicates Wayne’s desire to carry on a tradition while also demonstrating his growth and departure from his former incarnation. Neither Carters III or IV feature skits, making II a more complete, thoughtfully executed album to many.
The album’s singles, “Fireman,” “Hustler Muzik,” and “Shooter” all performed moderately or less, with cuts like the Kurupt-assisted “Lock and Load,” “Money On My Mind,” and “Mo Fire” became instant favorites and could have easily been made singles. “Shooter” seemed to be the most acclaimed of the three, helping to introduce Robin Thicke to a Hip-Hop crowd (it worked both ways; the song also appeared on his 2006 album The Evolution of Robin Thicke), the same kind of crowd who appreciated sampling similar to Gang Starr’s “Mass Appeal.” Interestingly, the most “radio ready” tracks of the LP – “Grown Man” featuring Curren$y, “Receipt,” “I’m a Dboy” featuring Birdman, and “Feel Me”– were not selected, but nevertheless, the album and its selected promotion undoubtedly earned the seasoned yet underdeveloped MC a swath of new fans, many of whom remain loyal to him as he continues to navigate the tempestuous dissolving of his partnership with Birdman. As fans continue to wait for the highly anticipated (understatement) Tha Carter V, Lil Wayne’s trajectory from the 19-year-old who made songs with the likes of Lil Bow Wow and Lil Zane (remember “Hardball”?) to the artist of a generation responsible for more than 100-million records sold is a testament to tenacity and devotion. The Carter series could potentially become the longest in music history, and its fifth installment will represent – staggeringly – the twelfth solo studio album of his and the latest in his third decade as a recording artist. But all of those facts could prove to be merely conjecture, as V has yet to be given an official release date. Almost a year ago to today’s date, Wayne made a statement alluding to the album’s being held hostage, and a $51 million lawsuit against Birdman continues to embroil the situation. If it ever arrives, V will represent a Lil Wayne in transition: completed with the tutelage of his longtime label and musical family, but the last one to do so, released after a very public family feud, and the continued legal and financial troubles related to the album could potentially knock the wind out of Weezy’s sails.
But, as he reminded us ten years ago, Lil Wayne is already a legend if he ever leaves.