Hip-Hop Shelf life: Reviewing ‘Tha Carter V’
Tha Carter V may have dropped two weeks ago, but I’ve been a Lil Wayne fan since his Cash Money Millionaires days in the late `90s—when he was a member of The Hot Boy$ with Juvenile, Young Turk, and B.G. I remember being in fourth grade when I heard “Back That Azz Up” by Juvenile, not even fully understanding the implications of the lyrics, but knowing that my favorite verse came from the youngest of the group: Lil Wayne (who was only 16 years old at the time of the song’s release).
The following year, “Tha Block is Hot” was an anthem outside of my fifth grade classroom in Oakland, CA, and when I argued with my friends who was the best rapper out of Cash Money, I always came back to Wayne. Years later, when I heard “Go DJ” on the first Tha Carter album that was released in 2004, I was still rocking with Wayne even though that album wasn’t my favorite.
When I really fell in love with Wayne was during the mixtape years from The Dedication to No Ceilings; I was in college playing Wayne’s version of “Wasted” on replay as if he originated the song. From “A Milli” on Tha Carter III to “She Will” on Tha Carter IV, Wayne followed me from elementary school to college not purely on hits alone, but off of my love for him as an artist. His sound was unique, coming out of NOLA, and he rapped in a way where we hear today’s “mumble rappers” try to mimic.
Yet, I let out a heavy sigh after waiting more than five years for Tha Carter V album release. I wanted a mix of old Wayne, mixtape Wayne, and some new heat. I played the first four songs into the album, and I immediately said to myself, “Nope, I’m not feeling this at all,” because I didn’t hear a hit record. It was bland for the level of expectation I had as a childhood Wayne fan. When I heard “Start This Sh*t Off Right” with Ashanti and “Uproar” with Swizz Beats, I found my taste of nostalgia that I was desperately longing for from the album, but I didn’t find a song compelling enough to say, “Wayne is back.”
Twenty-three tracks later, Tha Carter V left me questioning something that many have chosen to steer clear from in honoring the talent of our beloved, yet aging rap artists: Do rappers have an expiration date?
If we compared rap to any other genre, we can’t necessarily say it is a timeless genre. Some genres and artists can get away with making songs well into their age, like Paul McCartney or Willie Nelson, because their music is timeless and somehow we have grown to expect nothing more than the sound they’ve always delivered. However, with hip-hop (and especially rap) there’s a constant freshness that we as consumers always want to hear.
Is it unfair to hold our now aging rap stars to the same level of newness as their younger and hungrier counterparts? We hear the whispers. Eminem’s Kamikaze album came out earlier last month and his older fans who grew up listening to his music expected fire, but what we got was a warm stove. Jay-Z’s 4:44 album this year also had a lot of preemptive buzz around it from current and former fans alike, but fizzled as it lacked a major radio hit. Likewise, Kanye West’s most recent album, Ye, was coldly compared to the heat of TLOP (The Life of Pablo) or any of his other major albums.
Is it even fair to compare these albums to Travis Scott’s Astroworld released earlier this summer? The “old heads” aren’t measuring up. It seems our expectations don’t meet the reality of where these artists are at in their careers. Jay-Z is rapping about his former cheating allegations, Kanye is rapping about being bipolar and the Kardashian family, and Wayne is basically coming from an angle of having made it. The hunger that we heard in these artists at the beginning of their careers (when they weren’t multimillionaires, moguls, or high-profile celebrities) is not there anymore—with age came more success and less struggle.
It seems that by the age of 35, we see these artists begin to lose their appeal, and by 40, it’s completely gone. We literally don’t want to hear anymore of their music. So, what does this say about the future of hip-hop? Is rap a 20-something-year-old game, and if so, are there other ways to feed into our nostalgia without producing another potential waste of an album?