There are two tracks on his new album, Tha Carter IV, in which Lil Wayne does not appear at all. Those he puts in his place — including Bun B, Nas, Busta Rhymes, and rap's unicorn Andre 3000 in a rare, uncredited guest appearance — sound aggressive and invigorated even before you consider calculating their collective age. (Sad face for Shyne, whose presence manages to bring the guest verse average way down.) And yet it's an odd choice for Wayne, coming off of a jail sentence, two minor albums, and a middling mixtape, to not only allow himself to be shown up, but to sit out minutes at a time. Post-prison Wayne just isn't the same.
Which is not to say he is bad by any means! The maniacal pace of Lil Wayne circa 2007 is unlikely to be matched by anyone in any genre, and in a syrup and weed haze, his creative peaks and willingness to experiment were equally unprecedented. Carter IV, on the other hand, is just a rap record and it's a pretty solid one, especially for an artist never overly concerned with his own official album output.
Family values single "How to Love" is the only appearance of singer-songwriter Wayne and, good as it is, that's a blessing. He spends the remaining thirteen tracks rapping dutifully, but for any regular listener it can slip into staleness, whether from recycled flows or an overreliance on clichés, hashtag rap, and punch lines he's already perfected: Again, if money talks then Wayne is the "ventriloquist." Elsewhere, we find him still sticking to the script, high as the stars, and fucking the world. He's most animated on the nine-month-old "6 Foot 7 Foot," over the piano plinks of "Nightmares of the Bottom," and throughout the poorly named "Abortion" (from the man who brought us "Gonorrhea"). Although Wayne has never been valued for his beat selection, here they're surprisingly strong, like the lurching bursts behind "Intro," "Interlude," and "Outro," and the History Channel minimalism of "President Carter."
But never does Wayne sound more virile or vicious than on "It's Good," where he, yes, takes aim at Jay-Z and Beyoncé in response to a few bars on Watch the Throne's "H.A.M." Over an Alan Parsons Project sample that allows even Drake to sound mean, Wayne defends his dad and snarls, "Talkin’ bout Baby money, I got your baby money / Kidnap your bitch, get that how much you love your lady money." It's an empty threat and an old marketing trick to come at Jay (see also: Game, Cam'ron, and Game again), but when Wayne started prematurely calling himself the Best Rapper Alive it was a hollow Hov slight, too — then, for a minute, it came true. Whatever it takes to get back to that place is worth a shot.