Lil Wayne was on a run in 2007 and 2008 unlike anything rap had seen before.
Think Michael Jordan in the 1990s. Tiger Woods in the 2000s. Barry Bonds in 1994.
We now live in a world where Kendrick Lamar owns a Pulitzer Prize and Kanye West has squandered his good will with a Twitter rant and an album that arrived with a whimper. A world where Pusha T and Drake have a beef so rich, it’s basically Wagyu.
But the rap world a decade ago was an entirely different place, a world singularly ruled by one rapper: Lil Wayne. And it was all leading to one album: “Tha Carter III,” which was released 10 years ago this Sunday and coroneted Wayne as the best in the game — a title he quickly lost.
Wayne began calling himself the “best rapper alive” around 2005, the year Hurricane Katrina ravaged his hometown of New Orleans. By then, he had been around for a while — when he was 11 years old, he was signed to the New Orleans label Cash Money Records, home of Juvenile and Birdman. The squeaky voice of a teenage Wayne still stands out on the Juvenile hit “Back That Thang Up.”
But he was far from a superstar when he began dumping songs by the dozens online in mid-2000: He was the only one who considered himself the “best rapper alive,” so he flooded the marketplace with music. In one profile, Wayne estimated that he recorded and released more than a thousand songs in the 2000s. “Recording is an addiction. I can’t stop,” he told Rolling Stone.
He dropped hundreds of verses via mix tapes in 2007, but he only officially released five songs. Artists since him, like Chance the Rapper, have struck gold off mix tapes, but it was a rare strategy at the time. And it worked: You couldn’t escape Wayne’s music, the way you can’t dry off under a waterfall.
His bizarre lyrical twists — such as “I been around, I’m still around, like them Geico cave men” — caught the public’s attention. The excitement was palpable when he finally released “Tha Carter III” on June 10, 2008.
It lived up to expectations as one of the strangest rap records ever recorded — a title it arguably still holds. While today’s rap consists mainly of the political (Lamar), the personal (Drake), or boasting (Pusha T), Weezy was just … weird.
He called himself a Martian. Not in a metaphorical way, just in a weird way. In another song, he played a doctor attempting to save hip-hop. And like many other rappers, Wayne boasted about having been shot with lines like “Didn’t wear bulletproof, so I got shot and you can see the proof.” What he omitted is how he received the wound: accidentally shooting himself in the chest with his mother’s gun when he was 12 years old.
But then, like the eye of a storm, the album’s centerpiece “Tie My Hands” appears: a painful, beautiful ode to a suffering New Orleans. The metaphors slip away, as he solemnly raps: “My whole city underwater/Some people still floating.”
The album sold more than 1 million copies in a week. It eventually sold nearly 4 million copies and went platinum three times over.
Those numbers only tell part of the story, though. It also made Wayne a cultural force.
Within rap, he was crowned king. When Eminem returned from his fall into drug addiction and subsequent sobriety with “Recovery,” he confessed to his deepest sins in verse. One of the most dire, he rapped, was that he “almost made a song dissing Lil Wayne/It’s like I was jealous of him ’cause of the attention he was getting.” Later he raps, “Thank God I didn’t do it.”
Outside of rap, Wayne became so sought after that he became an on-camera guest analyst and blogger for ESPN. Suddenly, the rapper was everywhere, including in a chair across from Katie Couric, explaining that he wouldn’t ask President Bush a question about the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina if given the chance because “I’m a gangsta, and gangstas don’t ask questions.”
While the album highlighted a career peak after an unprecedented run, Wayne’s star fell as quickly as an asteroid. He went from Jordan winning six rings with the Bulls to Jordan batting .202 with the Birmingham Barons.
Several factors contributed to his fall from grace.
Primarily, that weirdness, the quality once so lauded for making Wayne a singular force, proved to be his downfall when the rapper decided he wanted to make a rock album, despite his subpar talent (to put it nicely) when it came to guitar playing.
The album, called “Rebirth,” arrived in 2010 — and it was a total disaster. New York Times music critic Jon Caramanica wrote that “the songs might have been better as parodies than as imitations,” and that was one of the kinder reviews. Jeff Weiss of the Los Angeles Times, for example, wrote that it “deserves its reputation as one of the worst albums of the year.”
While it was eventually certified gold, the sales of “Rebirth” paled in comparison to “Tha Carter III.”
Just after the record’s release, he spent eight months incarcerated at Rikers Island for gun charges. He tried to stop a documentary that showed him in the depths of codeine binges from being released, and threatened a lawyer during a filmed deposition.
Hip-hop has changed drastically in the decade since Wayne’s dominance, and he’s never come close to climbing the mountain again. He’s released a string of poor to mediocre albums (by critical consensus). He no longer opines about sports for ESPN. His health seems questionable, as he’s suffered a number of seizures in the past few years. He’s alienated fans by saying racism doesn’t exist and angrily dismissing Black Lives Matter. Finally, he grew embroiled in two long-running lawsuits against a hodgepodge of his former supporters, including Birdman, Cash Money Records and Universal Records.
Those lawsuits were reportedly settled Thursday, and Universal said it would finally release an album that’s been waiting in legal limbo, “Tha Carter V,” according to Pitchfork. Maybe it’ll be the spiritual sequel to his peak. But back then, we had hundreds of songs as little tastes and teases of what was to come. He’s still a constant fixture on hit songs by artists such as Nicki Minaj and Drake, but the taste is much more sour this time around.
Maybe being crowned the best by others doesn’t matter to Wayne. The record will likely sell, regardless of how good it is. And as Wayne once explained in one of his hazy, surreal raps in 2007: “It’s a bakery here, I’m just trying to get dough.”