A few years back, when Lil Wayne was going around calling himself the “best rapper alive,” he really was. The rhymes that came spilling out of his throat were complex and colorful and wildly charismatic. The guy could stack metaphors like the teeth of a closing zipper. In an accelerating digital age, he was a rapper — the rapper — moving at the speed of life.
Now, with his disappointing ninth album, “Tha Carter IV,” the 28-year-old has taken his foot off the accelerator. And the timing isn’t good. “Tha Carter IV” comes after a botched left-turn of an album, his disastrous 2010 rap-rock experiment “Rebirth,” and a career-stalling prison sentence at Rikers Island where he served eight months on weapons charges.
But who didn't expect a post-prison opus when Wayne dropped the album’s dazzling lead single “6 Foot 7 Foot” way back in December?
Over a thundering, chattering beat, he croaked out rapid-fire boasts, reasserting himself as hip-hop's triumphal outsider superhero: “So misunderstood, but what's the world without enigma?” (Later in the song, he drops an even trippier koan: “Real Gs move in silence like lasagna.”)
Nothing else on “Tha Carter IV” comes within miles of this tune — and Wayne seems to know it. He already sounds fatigued on the second track, “Blunt Blowin,” which mutates Aerosmith's “Dream On” into a club-friendly shape. “I stick to the script/I memorize the lines,” he raps. “Cause life is a movie that I've seen too many times.”
It's hard to flush those words out of your head for the remaining 16 tracks. Wayne sounds over it throughout, imitating the laziest cadences of the acolytes signed to his label, Young Money.
Imaginative couplets spring up as if by accident. “I touch the sky/Get the clouds out of my fingernails,” he declares over the strange jazz of “Nightmares of the Bottom.” It's the kind of dreamy image that used to overrun his verses. Here, it feels like an Easter egg.
The biggest whiff comes with “President Carter,” an Oval Office fantasy that tingles with promise. The music is gorgeous — a twinkling harp floating over an evocative boom-bap beat — but still offers enough sonic space for Wayne to flood the proceedings with ruminations on power, prestige and politics.
Instead of punching the gas, he spins his wheels. His verses are nothing more than roundabout boasts, rote tough talk and a few malformed policy initiatives. “I change the stars on the flag into crosses,” he raps. “So now, instead of pledge, we pray.” Then he congratulates himself with a stonery giggle.
Let's pray he hasn't settled into mediocrity for good.
RECOMMENDED TRACK: “6 Foot 7 Foot”