2 stars (out of 4)
The self-proclaimed “greatest rapper alive” had an enviable run for a few years, churning out free mix tapes, song-stealing cameos and major-label blockbusters with dizzying aplomb from 2004 to 2009. “Tha Carter III” was ‘08’s biggest-seller, and then Dwayne Michael Carter Jr. took an enforced leave of absence. He spent most of 2010 at Rikers Island prison after pleading guilty to a weapons charge, and released two wretched, placeholder albums: the rap-rock “Rebirth” and the outtakes collection “I Am Not a Human Being.”
Lil Wayne’s reputation, but it falls short. At his best, Wayne was positively psychedelic in his wordplay, capable of creating entire alternative worlds out of a few surrealist metaphors. But he sounds slower, more methodical, less unhinged on “Tha Carter IV.” His flights of fancy still pop up occasionally, whether likening MCs to tiramisu and short-bread in “President Carter,” declaring that “real G’s move in silence like lasagna” in “6 Foot 7 Foot” or contemplating the clouds buried in his fingernails on “Nightmares of the Bottom.” But they’re not nearly as plentiful or sustained as on his best albums.
His prison term gets only glancing references, but it’s clearly a subtext for many of the tracks. With his frequent allusions to clocks and hour glasses filled with gunpowder, Wayne is preoccupied with mortality and how a mega-star makes the most of the time he has left. “This a crazy world and life is shorter than Bushwick,” Wayne raps on “Megaman,” referring to the Geto Boys’ diminutive Bushwick Bill. Sex is less about pleasure than distraction, a means of blocking out the world. Wayne hunts for gratification, as if trying to bed as many women as possible while outrunning a multitude of bullets.
Yet many of his performances sound strangely circumscribed, as if hemmed in by the repetitive subject matter – even Wayne sounds bored by trying to flip yet one more clever couplet about blunts and ‘hos. Predictable cameos from Auto-Tune maven T-Pain, gangsta Rick Ross and R&B crooner John Legend don’t help dispel doubts that Wayne has covered this territory before, with more exciting results. When Wayne does step outside the margins it’s for a saccharine acoustic ballad, “How to Love,” that sounds like the work of a milquetoast soft-rock band with a shaky lead singer.
Oddly, two of the album’s strongest moments have nothing to do with Wayne at all. Over Willy Will’s ominous string loop, Tech N9ne and an uncredited Andre 3000 of OutKast run wild on “Interlude.” “Outro” is another posse cut over the same Willy Will backdrop, and this time Nas and especially Busta Rhymes bring an urgency that is missing from many of Wayne’s raps.
Oddly, Drake gets more worked up than Wayne over the rapper’s prison term on “It’s Good.” Wayne, instead, saves his ire for Jay-Z, swatting back at a perceived insult by threatening to kidnap Beyonce. Next to Drake (and Jay-Z), Wayne just sounds petty. It’s a telling role reversal: once Wayne used to hop on other rappers’ tracks and blow them away. Now his guests magnify his lack of engagement.