What’s the Best Album in Lil Wayne’s Carter Series?

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After years of delays, Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter V is finally out. Wayne is no stranger to album sequels, but his Carter records occupy a specific place in his staggering discography: they’re the big budget albums that draw in all of his wild mixtapes experiments. They’re home to the most famous version of Wayne — the Wayne who gave us “A Milli” and “Got Money” and “Go DJ.” But what can looking back at the previous four installments tell us about Wayne as an artist? About how he’s evolved, and what his entire career means? Vulture editors Sam Hockley-Smith and Dee Lockett got together with Vulture music critic Craig Jenkins to discuss.

What does the Carter series mean in the context of Lil Wayne’s entire discography? Is he trying to do something specific with those albums? Does he succeed?

Dee Lockett: Well. If I had to get inside the mind of the Martian, I’d say the Carter series exists for whenever Wayne feels like acknowledging the commercial side of rap just so he can say he did it and still can do it, or so I would assume is the point of Tha Carter V. It’s the highlight reel, in a sense.

Sam Hockley-Smith: I agree with that. My impression was always that he used his mixtapes as a testing ground for different flows, and weirder lyrics, and whatever worked for him would end up on one of those Carter albums.

Craig Jenkins: I think the answer to the question is in the name. In New Jack City, “the Carter” was a crack factory fashioned out of a Harlem apartment complex, the cornerstone of Nino Brown’s business, essentially. Wayne’s Carter albums are the ones he stakes his reputation and well-being on, the formal events the mixtapes feel like dress rehearsals for. He still conceptualizes rap as a binary where mixtapes and albums exist as separate entities, which makes sense since he had a hand in building the distinction. To me, that makes the “albums” a little stiff and the tapes sorta wild.

Sam: If we’re operating under that assumption — that his albums are stiffer “final products” and the tapes are wilder — it’s pretty safe to say that Wayne works best when he’s not trying overtly to do something specific or to make any point larger than “I’m a better rapper than everyone else.” Much like how he kept telling everyone he was the greatest rapper alive until people actually started to believe it, it’s as if he positioned his Carter albums as the must-listens in his collection by sheer force of will. It almost doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. So much of his catalogue is buried in expired Mediafire links or scattered amongst unofficial DatPiff tapes, it looks like the way time will evaluate Wayne is through these albums.

What is your favorite Carter album?

Craig: I’m gonna get technical and say that my favorite Carter is the version of Tha Carter III that leaked in advance of the album we now know as Tha Carter III. (A.k.a.The Drought Is Over 2 for you Datpiff heads.) It seemed like what Wayne was going for with that album is carrying the insane spirit of the Drought and Dedication tapes into more polished studio recordings. The finished album came out too mannered and sporty for my tastes. (There’s a palpable jock jam quality to the first two Carter projects that keeps me away.) The OG Carter III had outrageous sample chops: “Help” is the best use of a Beatle in a rap song this side of … It’s just the best one, period. “Diamonds and Girls” outdoes the incredible Cam’ron song that also flipped Prince’s “Diamonds and Pearls.” There’s solid boom bap like “La La La” and based madness like “I Feel Like Dying.” The range is incredible. C3 as it exists now isn’t nearly as fun or funny. The less is said about C4, the better. Great interludes, beautiful interludes. RIP Aretha.

Sam: Tha Carter III is not my favorite, but it’s a close second. It certainly seemed like Wayne was able to translate some of the manic energy of his mixtapes there. It also arrived at the peak of Wayne’s fame. It was the Wayne album people were waiting for so we got all-time great posse cuts like “You Ain’t Got Nuthin” and “A Milli” which ended up changing the sound of rap entirely. Do you feel like the seriousness of the final product vs. the leak is what did it in for you?

Craig: Carter III did arrive at the crest of a wave, but it always felt like concessions were made in order to grow dividends. The difference between what went in and what came out is like Fox taking bleak, weird X-Men stories and turning them into popcorn movies. You can catch the original spirit if you squint, but the product is more streamlined than the property deserved. Wayne packing the album out with radio rap like “Mrs. Officer,” “Comfortable,” “Tie My Hands,” and even “Got Money,” as hard as that one goes, always felt like an insurance policy. Like several attempts at recapturing what happened with “Shooter.” For my tastes, it needed more “Let the Beat Build” and “Shoot Me Down” and “La La.” Maybe that wouldn’t have sold as much.

Dee: I rock with Tha Carter II. To me, it’s just not the best of the series, it’s his best body of work, period. The versatility and range Craig describes of the C3 leak is I think what C2 was building the bridge for. He was on the cusp of commercial phenomenon where he could still get wildly manic with the boundaries of his sound without being dismissed as a novelty for being too out there, like some of his later failed lab experiments (looking at you, Rebirth). He took a hiatus from Mannie Fresh, recruited a bunch of New Orleans productions Whos (at the time), and made what still feels like one of the last mainstream regional rap albums of this era. Even still, it’s all over the map: You’ve got reggae (“Mo Fire”), funk, no-frills southern rap, soul, and lo-fi rock. I play back “Greatest Rapper Alive” to this day and can pinpoint it as the moment where Wayne believably became a rock star. C2 felt like when Wayne really started abandoning all rules to rap. That album also contains the lyric “But this is southern, face it / If we too simple then, y’all don’t get the basics” and that’s just unfuckwittable, sorry. Also: C2 is the album where Wayne started stacking hits before he thought he even knew how to write one. People think of “Fireman,” “Shooter,” and “Hustler Musik,” but let’s not sleep on “Hit Em Up,” “Money on My Mind,” and, “I’m a Dboy.” This all on an album that barely concerned itself with hooks. Whew.

Craig: I wish more Wayne albums concerned themselves less with hooks.

Sam: It’s pretty fascinating to think back on the response to C2. I remember some critics being really excited that he’d stopped working with Manny Fresh, which is weird to think about now. To my ears, his work with Mannie Fresh will always be his best. C2 was also the moment when people finally started believing his claims about his abilities as a rapper. Again, weird to think about now! He’s always been a great rapper. Why do you think C2 was the album where people started accepting that he was as great as he’d been saying he was?

Craig: There’s some regional divide at work here, maybe. Only a year and a half passed between the first two Carter albums, but it’s a year where Jeezy and T.I. break nationwide, and Texas rap goes nuclear.

Sam: That timing is really important, but secondary to Wayne’s undeniable skill as a rapper. Like, the guy was always making great rap songs, he just did it for long enough that he was able to overcome New York’s regional bias (which still had some power back then), and make pure rap music that appealed to non–rap fans.

Craig: Oh, it’s definitely talent that grew him from the first Carter to the second. What I mean is that the timing of the album’s release was lucrative because there were suddenly new eyes on southern rap that maybe hadn’t been there before.

Dee: I truly don’t think the general public can accept a rapper as technically great until they have a proven track record of hits — which doesn’t make sense, but casual fans aren’t exactly known for being sensible — and, prior to C2, Wayne just wasn’t there yet. Close! But not there yet. He was still so young.

Sam: Speaking of Tha Carter 1 — that’s the one I will always ride for. It’s probably too long, and there are certainly some misses, but it’s also my favorite version of Wayne: he’s switching up his flow mid-song, going completely wild over (mostly) Mannie Fresh production, and, crucially, he was able to do it without having to play to the version of himself that he put forward after he crossed over. The first Carter was a massively popular album on its own, but it feels as if it’s part of a patchwork of Cash Money releases, meant to be listened to next to those Hot Boys and Big Tymers records, as part of a larger story. Still, “Go DJ” stands up right next to all of Lil Wayne’s later singles, and Wayne casually drops devastating lines like “I be around when the times get ugly, when the wheels fall off and the tires stop running / the magazine empty and the nine stop buzzing / I bang my fist til my palms get bloody” (“The Heat”). The eerie silence and calm in a violent situation he’s able to evoke is a telling sign of what was to come. As a lifelong rap fan, though, I do recognize that maybe Mannie Fresh’s production on this album — which is really busy, overly synthetic on purpose, and at times kind of chintzy (which I love)‚ could be alienating for those that didn’t vibe with Cash Money’s aesthetic. Does it hold up for you guys or is that a roadblock?

Craig: I definitely have to be in a very specific mood for certain Mannie Fresh stuff sometimes, although I will say there is no wrong time for “Go DJ.”

Dee: I …. do not like (most) Mannie Fresh. But yes, “Go DJ” is oddly timeless for as dated as the beat actually sounds, whereas most of C1 hasn’t aged well.

Craig: Do you like his beat selection since parting ways with Mannie Fresh? I think my biggest issue with Wayne is what he chooses to rap over. And the poop bars.

Dee: Very rarely. Wayne has a terrible ear for beats. To meeeee (ducks for cover), it’s one of the strongest knocks against his whole Best Rapper Alive self-aggrandizement. He’s not even in the top 20. But that’s just me!

Sam: He’s really hit or miss when it comes to his beat selection, and his creative partnership with Mannie Fresh meant that he was free to experiment without having to worry about cohesion (maybe he’s never worried about that). If those albums were to come out now, I’d hope that Mannie Fresh would get equal billing on the covers. I am personally offended by Dee’s Mannie Fresh opinions, but in the interest of keeping this moving, I guess I’ll have to advocate for The Mind of Mannie Fresh as a forgotten rap classic some other time. We’ve all talked up our favorite Carter albums, and seem to be avoiding discussing C4 entirely. What happened there?

Craig: C4 and I Am Not a Human Being and Rebirth are where Wayne’s distaste for edits finally turns into a liability. They’re also the nadir of his issues with picking beats and caring too much about hooks. It’s all gristle, all the other album’s little faults combined. We should probably be thinking about it more because if the two of you find the trajectory of the Carter albums to be a kind of downward slope, I wonder what that means for the new album. I feel for Wayne fans the way I felt for people who love Star Wars after Phantom Menace. We have to see where the story goes, but expectations are just so low. Maybe C4 is a gift in that respect. There’s very little C5 could do to be worse. Well, C4’s not all gristle. Bless “Nightmares of the Bottom.”

Dee: I actually don’t think C4 is a total miss (“Nightmares of the Bottom,” “John,” and yes, “She Will.” Fight me!) but I do think that if the masses have already decided for you that your best album (C3, meh) is behind you, what’s left to offer them? I also agree with Craig. Wayne got it in his head that he could do whatever he wanted after achieving peak cultural saturation. And that would’ve been fine had it felt like there was even the slightest thought or intent behind tossing bad beats and bad rhymes at the wall figuring something must stick eventually. I also think Wayne burnt out. He’s been doing this since he was a child, at a prolific rate the likes of which rap had never really seen. He also found an outside passion to invest more time in (skateboarding) and rap became the side hustle instead of the only hustle. I get the sense that Wayne has fallen out of love with rap. Nothing wrong with that.

Sam: Wayne and Kanye (who has the other big release of this weekend) both seem to have lost interest in the making-music part of being musicians, but are unwilling to accept that — which, on some level, I understand! C4 had its moments, for sure, but Wayne can be great because of what he’s saying, but also how he’s saying it. So much of Tha Carter IV sounded like an echo of Wayne in his prime. He was going through the motions, but it was especially glaring because Wayne on autopilot still sounds like the great version of Lil Wayne, just minus the enthusiasm. My one hope for C5 is that he’s re-engineered all the different versions of himself we’ve loved and spent a proper amount of time actually putting together this album.

Craig: I think the issue Wayne has going into C5 is that he has so radically altered the DNA of mainstream rap since the last studio album he endeavored to sell — Free Weezy Album is not canon — that I wonder how he’ll stand out among his successors. I would love to see him take a sort of quirky elder statesman path, but I have no illusions about Lil Wayne being interested in “grown man rap” in the vein of the last few Jay-Z and Rick Ross albums. I have a feeling he’ll come back more like Dave Chappelle, doing the same thing he did ten years ago for the same people who liked it back then. Maybe that’ll work. Tha Carter is a project about summation, not innovation.

What’s the Best Album in Lil Wayne’s Carter Series?