Monday, January 5, 2009

Tha Carter III


Band: Lil Wayne
Album: The Carter III
Best song: Oh, man, pick it. Just about every song on the record is amazing, from the long political tome "DontGetIt" to the standard club jam "Got Money" to the introspective romance (yes, romance) song "Prostitute 2" to the slow jam of "Lollipop." I could go on.
Worst song: "La La" isn't as good as the rest of the record and has a pretty typical David Banner beat.

Hip hop has a strange relationship with the (mostly white) music press. While the vast majority of opinion makers are bent toward a certain brand of music -- independent rock, for the most part -- hip hop gets different treatment.

Take the simple topic of consumerism. If any rock artist talked about Rolexes, Bentleys and the like in a song, Pitchfork and Stereogum reviewers would tear them a new one. Just destroy any rock artist like that. There wouldn't even be a question.

Hip hop has a different relationship, for various reasons. Of course, hip hop is still experiencing growing pains as a genre and a culture (which is not to excuse the cultural issues. Sexism and homophobia isn't OK.). Moreover, the simple fact that the hip hop equivalent of independent rock -- what is known as "backpack" -- isn't all that great. Mos Def put out one good (OK, Black on Both Sides is great.) record and did the Black Star record with Talib Kweli. Pharaoh Monche is wonderful.

So, when "mainstream" hip hop artists show some level of introspection, knowledge and intricacy within their music, they are fawned over. Jay-Z is wildly talented, but, lest we forget, he made a whole fucking lot of money on songs like "Big Pimpin'." Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac both carried on the tradition of gangster rap (which is too complex to recount here), but also showed some level of knowledge of their mortality. Therefore, royalty.

As such, certain artists get extreme treatment. Tupac and B.I.G. are looked at as gods, when they both did their fair share of promoting violence. Jay-Z is considered the best in the game. And Eminem, well... To quote myself:

But, the B.I.G.s and Jay-Zs of the world toss around "faggot" somewhat often and we all know that a gun takes a starring role in their songs more often than it should. And, come on. "Money, Cash Hoes" was one of Jay's singles. "Big Pimpin'." That sort of thing.

So, I hate to go down this path, but do we hold Eminem to a higher standard because he's white?


That's how the music press sees hip hop, sadly. Eminem -- who, regardless of skin color, is talented -- is looked at as a homophobe, while Jay-Z is a luminary.

Which brings us to Lil Wayne's sixth album, Tha Carter III. Let me first say that I adore this album. It's weird. Like, very weird. Like Kool Keith weird.

But, amongst his claiming he's an alien ("Phone Home"), the album is full of hooks and some very very weird vocal cadences. It has introspection, social consciousness and even Lil Wayne's own terrible guitar playing. It features some of the hottest producers around and, as such, a whole fucking lot of Auto-tune. Which is fine by me.

That's not to say that I'm probably falling prey to the same issues I've outlined above. The singles from Tha Carter III -- mostly the best songs, by the way -- are not free from the regular issues in hip hop. "Lollipop" is a song about, well, oral sex. "Got Money" is about Lil Wayne's most infamous lyric ("make it rain") and literally throwing money around. "A Milli" is the worst of the bunch, but still a fun song, while "Mrs. Officer" is an awesome run through Wayne's bizarre mind. But, again. The song is leering and sort of sexist.

With that said, Lil Wayne's an exceptional rapper. Like, exceptional. He's strange and smart and rapid-fire and, boy, does he pick the right producers. Kanye West -- an unparalleled producer, but a mediocre rapper -- contributes three stellar tracks, while David Banner has three, as well. Play-n-Skillz bring out Wayne and T-Pain's interplay on "Got Money" and whoever Maestro and Deezle are, they give Wayne the room to play on "Prositute 2," a strikingly good track. Something called "Rodnae & Mousa" use Nina Simone's version of "Misunderstood" to back up "DontGetIt," another song that lets Lil Wayne stretch himself.

Indeed, "DontGetIt" and West's "Tie My Hands" show Lil Wayne doing the most with the important issue of his hometown, Katrina. "Tie My Hands," well, addresses it pretty bluntly:

They try tell me keep my eyes open
My whole city under water some people still floatin'
and they wonder why black people still voting.
'Cause your president still chokin',
Take away the football team the basketball team
Now all we got is me to represent New Orleans.
No governor, no help from the mayor
Just a steady beating heart and a wish and a prayer.


The song's sweet ease of West's production has Lil Wayne finessing his lyrics through, while still sounding affected and sensitive. It's a really sincere record and one that fits West' new direction.

"DontGetIt" is more troubling, if only because it's about six minutes too long at nearly 10 minutes. With that said, the final few minutes are occupied by Lil Wayne recounting his political viewpoints in a spoken-word -- not rap, by any means, as there is little in the way of rhythm-- section that varies from the prison population ("You see one in every 100 Americans are locked up/One in every nine black Americans are locked up") to the inherent racism in the system ("We probably only selling the crack cocaine because we in the hood"), while the actual song again addresses the storm:

Please slow down hurricane
The wind blow, my dreads swing
He had hair like wool, like wayne
Dropping ashes in the bible
I shake em out and they fall on the rifle
.

Again, the song openly takes from Nina Simone, but it remains a passionate bout of intelligence and introspection.

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Like the best rappers, Lil Wayne understands his mortality. Despite his age -- he's 26 -- he references his own life and legacy several times, including when he was shot in 2001 (The album opener "3 Peat" has the bit "Two more inches I'd have been in that casket/ According to the doctor I could've died in traffic."). In typical bombast, he outlines his skills on "Mr. Carter" in saying "Blind eyes look at me and see the truth" and compares his skills to being hated by the seasons, for some reason in a bit of amazing wordplay.

Swiss Beatz provides the production on "Dr. Carter," a concept song in which Lil Wayne uses the doctor/patient metaphor to outline the problems with modern hip hop. Over a Tribe-esque beat, he treats three patients. In an odd twist, (spoiler alert, I guess) he only saves one. It's just another in the twisting nature of Lil Wayne's current skill set as he takes hip hop on a different route.

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As strange as the record is, the album's pop highlight remains the thoroughly standard "Got Money." The song's evident hook is infectious, as are the varying verse enders that Lil Wayne brings out (when the beat drops out and he says "Bitch, I'm the bomb, like, tick tick tick" or his recitation that he's "Lil Wayne on the 0s, Mr. Make It Rain On Them Hoes"). T-Pain's lovely computer-assisted hook is wonderful. And, of course, even a standard hip hop song about money can't contain Lil Wayne's weirdness as he grunts and make David Lee Roth-esque noises over T-Pain's hook.

"Lollipop" is a close second, if only because of the "He's so sweet, she wanna lick the (w)rapper" bit.

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Two of the album's extra tracks -- one taken off because of a lawsuit and one that was included on the digital copies -- are among the album's best. "Playin’ With Fire," produced By Streetrunner, was the subject of a lawsuit from Abkco, which owns the rights to the old Rolling Stones' songs. Being that the song isn't parody, the suit made some sense, though it also features more Lil Wayne weirdness: He plays guitar a lot on the song and, more importantly, he talks about how he's, uh, the same as Dr. King:

When you're great it's not murder, it's assassinate.
So assassinate me, bitch
'Cause I'm doing the same shit Martin Luther King did
Checkin' in the same hotel, in the same suite bitch, same balcony.


Um. Bizarre, but great. Really great. And memorable.

"Prostitute" has the confessional quality of an old R&B number, but with Lil Wayne taking a complete 360 on the subject of sexual mores. The song's key is that Lil Wayne has no interest in a girl's sexual history, because, after all, love rules. As the hook sings:

I wouldn't care if you was a prostitute,
And that you hit every man that you ever knew.
See, it wouldn't make a difference if that was way before me and you girl,
And you don't ever have to worry about me as long as you keep it real,
Whatever is on your mind, speak on how you feel.


The song is long -- almost six minutes -- and amazing. But, Lil Wayne's tenderness is sweet and sincere, as he finalizes the verses with a final bit, professing his final love:

And I'm trying to share the rest of my whole life with you
And if it gotta be a thong, so be it baby,
And if your friends cant understand.


It's an odd about-face for a guy who denounces Beyonce's "Irreplaceable" on the Babyface-assisted (and West-produced) "Comfortable" by saying that "If you don't love me, somebody else will." Still, it's striking and pretty and sweet and, well, amazing.

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Like Eminem's best work, Tha Carter III brings up more questions than it answers. Is Lil Wayne really so into himself to think that he can cure hip hop, as in "Dr. Carter?" Is he so strange that he thinks that his skill set is so alien, as in "Phone Home?" Why does he use every vocal cadence possible, including a nasal drone (that, oddly, sounds like a Richard Pryor's version of a white guy's voice)? Is the album an homage to B.I.G. and Nas or, simply, mocking them? Is he a sexist ("making it rain") or a man who puts women on a pedestal ("Prostitute 2") or something in between ("Comfortable")? Does he really think he can play guitar?

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It is sounds like Tha Carter III hits a lot of places, it does. It's a bizarre cavalcade of Lil Wayne's mind, both the highs and lows. It's almost-sexist -- though, I don't think homophobic in any way, a nice change -- and sings the praises of thugs and money. But, it's also aware of the plight of Katrina, the black male in America and the complexities of relationships. It addresses hip hop's deficiencies and, quite frankly, corrects them. It is, in a word, weird. But, also, wonderful.

2 comments:

Bradford Pearson said...

I think the multiple producers (though not uncommon on rap albums) really shows how difficult Lil Wayne has become to work with.
I love the album, but like most great artists, dude's kind of a dick.
His older albums were mostly just produced by Mannie Fresh; now I know it's a circular argument (more popular=more producers), but one worth noting I think.

M.R. said...

Great review (as usual); very insightful.

I was wondering what your thoughts on T.I.'s new album were, assuming you've heard it.