Tha Carter IV, the follow-up to Lil Wayne's 2008 best-selling album, Tha Carter III, is scheduled to drop on Aug. 22. The second leg of his "I Am Music II" tour began earlier this month and ends in September, which means that, like most acts riding a train of commercial promotion, he'll tour right through his album release.
But Wayne won't necessarily tour in support of it: If the creation of his latest is like that of any of his previous albums, it might easily be delayed by Wayne's wandering attention span. On the tour bus, he's bound to happen upon a few new beats or drum up a few new lyrical conceits and knock out some more songs, starting the whole process over again. If Tha Carter IV actually comes out in the middle of the tour, it will be a minor modern hip-hop miracle.
Lil Wayne's a superstar in an almost old-fashioned sense—you can buy a poster of him at Kmart and his T-shirt at Hot Topic—but he's not too interested in playing the fame game on anybody else's terms. Tha Carter III's success came after three-plus years of constant recording (he gave away hundreds of songs for free before everyone was doing that sort of thing) and a ubiquity achieved by handing guest verses over to anyone who asked. He worked really hard on that glut of material, too, often running away with the songs on which he guested. Along with a reputation as a kush-smoking, syrup-drinking workaholic, the ridiculous output transformed Wayne into some sort of outsider artist—the Henry Darger of this rap shit.
But by 2010, Wayne's reputation as one of the biggest and busiest rappers in the world—not to mention the immense workload—began weighing too heavily; he lost focus. Perhaps the best example of Wayne being a bit out of his mind and too distracted is Rebirth, a misguided butt rock/ hip-hop hybrid. In March, a month after Rebirth's release, Wayne was sentenced to one year at Rikers Island, thanks to a 2007 gun charge. Rather admirably, if quite stupidly, he requested to do his time with the general prison population.
In Wayne's absence, hip-hop's new stars were Wayne's friends and acolytes. Drake and Nicki Minaj ascended to full-fledged fame and helped fill the void left by Wayne, respectively occupying his primary roles in the rap game: Drake became the rambling pop rapper who sang, while Nicki worked as the manic, off-the-rails next big thing. Meanwhile, Wayne's odds-and-sods collection I Am Not a Human Being arrived last fall. Thanks to the regal "Right Above It" and the stoner noir of "I'm Single," the sudden dearth of bona fide Lil Wayne material was partially satisfied.
It was, of course, also overshadowed by his impending release, which came on Nov. 4 of last year. Wayne stepped out of Rikers and back into rap. It was as if the past two troubled, blunted, syrup-drunk years had never even happened. He first appeared as a guest on a remix of his buddy Birdman's "Fire Flame," inexplicably comparing himself to Lucille Ball and a Rubik's Cube. The singles for Tha Carter IV followed as declarations: "6 Foot Seven Foot" was like an even more unhinged and exuberant version of "A Milli," while "John," with its free-associative punch lines like "banana clip, let Chiquita speak," invoked the surrealist gun talk Wayne had partially abandoned. Even "How To Love," a ballad that's beyond cheesy, invoked the obsequious goofball side of Wayne, which, you know, is part of his appeal. Lil Wayne had returned in every way.
To suggest that Wayne returned from jail refreshed and better runs the risk of validating the American prison system as a reformative institution. Rather, most of Wayne's verses contain pointed, disturbing references to jail. "Bitch, I'm on probation, so my nerves bad," he exclaims on DJ Khaled's "Welcome to My Hood." But the yearlong absence somehow refocused the rapper. And now, for the first time since 2008, he's got something to prove.