We now live in a world where Kendrick Lamar owns a Pulitzer Prize and Kanye West has squandered his good will with a Twitter rant and an album that arrived with a whimper. But the rap world a decade ago was an entirely different place, a world singularly ruled by one rapper: Lil Wayne. And it was all leading to one album: Tha Carter III, which was released 10 years ago this Sunday and coroneted Wayne as the best in the game - a title he quickly lost.
Wayne began calling himself the “best rapper alive” in 2005. By then, he had been around for a while. When he was 11, he was signed to the New Orleans label Cash Money Records, home of Juvenile and Birdman. The voice of a teenage Wayne still stands out on the Juvenile hit Back That Thang Up.
But he was far from a superstar when he began dumping songs by the dozens online in mid-2000. In one profile, Wayne estimated that he recorded and released more than a thousand songs in the 2000s. “Recording is an addiction. I can’t stop,” he told Rolling Stone.
He dropped hundreds of verses via mixtapes in 2007, but he only officially released five songs. Artists since him, like Chance the Rapper, have struck gold off mixtapes, but it was a rare strategy at the time. And it worked: You couldn’t escape Wayne’s music, the way you can’t dry off under a waterfall.
His bizarre lyrical twists caught the public’s attention. The excitement was palpable when he finally released Tha Carter III on June 10, 2008. It lived up to expectations as one of the strangest rap records ever recorded. While today’s rap consists mainly of the political, the personal, or boasting, Weezy was just weird.
He called himself a Martian. Not in a metaphorical way, just in a weird way. In another song, he played a doctor attempting to save hip hop. And like many other rappers, Wayne boasted about having been shot with lines like Didn’t wear bulletproof, so I got shot and you can see the proof. What he omitted is how he received the wound: accidentally shooting himself in the chest with his mother’s gun when he was 12.
Wayne was praised by critic after critic for his weirdness. Rolling Stone called him “one of the most unusual rappers of all time. And right now, he’s the best around”.
The album sold more than 1 million copies in a week. It eventually sold nearly 4 million copies and went platinum three times over.
Those numbers only tell part of the story, though. It also made Wayne a cultural force.
Within rap, he was crowned king. Outside of rap, Wayne became so sought after that he became an on-camera guest analyst and blogger for ESPN. Suddenly, the rapper was everywhere.
While the album highlighted a career peak after an unprecedented run, Wayne’s star fell as quickly as an asteroid. Several factors contributed to his fall from grace.
Primarily, that weirdness, the quality once so lauded for making Wayne a singular force, proved to be his downfall when the rapper decided he wanted to make a rock album, despite his sub-par talent (to put it nicely) when it came to guitar playing.
The album, called Rebirth, arrived in 2010 and it was a total disaster.
New York Times music critic Jon Caramanica wrote that “the songs might have been better as parodies than as imitations,” and that was one of the kinder reviews.
Just after the record’s release, he spent eight months incarcerated at Rikers Island for gun charges. He tried to stop a documentary that showed him in the depths of codeine binges from being released, and threatened a lawyer during a filmed deposition.
Hip hop has changed drastically in the decade since Wayne’s dominance, and he’s never come close to climbing the mountain again.
He’s released a string of poor to mediocre albums. He no longer opines about sport for ESPN.
His health seems questionable. He’s alienated fans by saying racism doesn’t exist and angrily dismissing Black Lives Matter.
Finally, he grew embroiled in two long-running lawsuits against a hodgepodge of his former supporters. Those lawsuits were reportedly settled last week, and Universal said it would finally release an album that’s been waiting in legal limbo, Tha Carter V. Maybe it’ll be the spiritual sequel to his peak.
Maybe being crowned the best by others doesn’t matter to Wayne. The record will likely sell, regardless of how good it is.
And as Wayne once explained in one of his hazy, surreal raps in 2007: It’s a bakery here, I’m just trying to get dough.