After a spectacular half-decade run of virtuosic mix-tapes and ever-more-audacious albums, Lil Wayne’s hot streak ended in early 2010 with the dual disappointments of his misconceived rock record, Rebirth, and an eight-month prison sentence that sidelined him at the height of his stardom. Since his probation, he’s been as prolific as ever, but his verses have been spottier. He’s traded his free-association lunacy for more grounded, predictable flow, and where he once lobbed surreal, funny quips, he now settles for the most humdrum one-liners. Over the course of Tha Carter IV, his proper follow-up to 2008’s blockbuster Tha Carter III (generously counting Rebirth and last year’s stopgap I Am Not A Human Being as mulligans), Wayne “tears it up, like loose-leaf paper,” is left out to dry “like a towel rack,” and brags that he’s “100, like a fastball.” Wayne has never been able to resist the occasional groaner, but here, he dumps them by the dozen. As he puts it on the T-Pain feature “How To Hate”: “When it Waynes, it pours.”
With the rapper so off his game, Carter IV would be a letdown even without the high expectations of its title, yet the album is too well-curated to be a complete flop. Pristine production and brisk pacing go a long way toward compensating for Wayne’s linguistic rut, as do the album’s many savvy guest spots. “She Will” is devilishly sleazy, with a lecherous chorus from a never-oilier Drake. “John” is a curious choice for a single—an open rewrite of Rick Ross’ “I’m Not A Star,” it speaks volumes about the album’s desperate trend-chasing—but Ross’ presence galvanizes Wayne, sending him into fired-up fits. Best of all are the two tracks that Wayne sits out, “Interlude” and “Outro,” which showcase truly astounding verses from Bun B, Nas, Busta Rhymes, Tech N9ne, and an uncredited André 3000, all of them in peak form. There’s plenty of great rapping on Tha Carter IV, but for the first time, most of it isn’t coming from Lil Wayne.