Lil Wayne's recent Tha Carter III sold a million copies in its first week. It is the first album to do so since 50 Cent's The Massacre way back in 2005, and judging by the present inclinations of the marketplace, it may well be the last traditionally released album ever to do so.
Last September, when deposed champion 50 was battling it out with Kanye for release-week numbers, the dunderheaded G-Unit boss made his ideas on the matter clear: The rapper who sells the most records is the best rapper. In 50's paradigm there could be no artistic or aesthetic factors to override this granite fact.
At the time, Wayne was well into his three-year-long artistic ascent, exploding with prismatic grandeur across the most prolific slew of mixtapes and cameo appearances the Western world has ever seen. Wayne's stature in hiphop could not have been higher. But there remained the question of the monolithic, massively successful, and artist-defining album. 50, briefly dipping his toes into a public beef with Lil Wayne, cited this missing component as decisive in the younger rapper's quest for hiphop consecration. Where was Wayne's Blueprint, his Illmatic, his All Eyez on Me?
Lamentably, Tha Carter III is not that record.
In interviews leading up to the album's long-delayed and fervently anticipated release, Wayne seemed conflicted in his intentions and aspirations, alternately regarding Tha Carter III as the definitive mountaintop of his career and as just another collection of his constantly outpouring songs. The album aimed to be both a massive seller and a staggering artistic achievement. The problem is that, in a climate in which merit and mainstream success are further apart than ever, it seems unlikely that such an album can exist at all.
The dramatic furor of many of Wayne's recent mixtape tracks, as well as the strongest moments of Tha Carter III, suggest that the rapper could have made an aggressively triumphant album. However, in pursuing its bifurcated mission, Tha Carter III ends up clogged with soggy, zeitgeist-stroking collaborations with T-Pain, Robin Thicke, and the like. The nonlyricism of the astonishingly vapid radio single "Lollipop" is diametrically different than the thought-spiraling greatness of Weezy's best mixtape material. But without "Lollipop," there would be no platinum plaque.
The record does succeed in the continued extolling of Wayne himself, parading both his advanced-placement strides in lyrical acuity and his star-making alien eccentricity throughout. More than any of his contemporaries, Wayne's power exists more in the realm of character and stylistic uniqueness than in any Apollonian skills of songcraft or architectural vision. The record's best moments are largely its most id-saturated, like the wilding-out, freestyle-like "A Milli." Or on the deft Jay-Z duet "Mr. Carter," in which Wayne resoundingly outshines the former god MC with vitriol-packed, well-metered darts ("I got summer hating on me 'cause I'm hotter than the sun/Got spring hating on me 'cause I ain't neva sprung/Winter hating on me 'cause I'm colder than ya'll/And I will neva I will neva I will neva fall") as well as utterly swagger-sold throwoffs ("Flyer than Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice").
Wayne's is a strange time, defined by both the accelerating pitch of digital-music consumption and the last gasps of the record industry as we know it. When record executives as salty as Lyor Cohen now describe their businesses as "music-related content companies," it is evident that for artists at Weezy's level, the soluble future lies not so much in the production and distribution of carefully crafted records as in the development of celebrity, character, and brand identity. For massive pop stars, the artist-as-brand is continually gaining ground over more traditional focus on the excitement and event of released albums.
Wayne has proven an adept navigator of this modern age; his mixtape campaign dominated not only because of his songs' quality and inspired lyricism, but also because of their sheer volume and frequency. Important, too, was that all this music was being released essentially for free, more as continual advertising for Wayne's creative mind than as any sort of well-honed art objects. But Wayne, like the rest of the record industry, is still susceptible to romanticism for the forms and figures of the past—namely, the blockbuster album as event—even while this sort of nostalgia grows increasingly irreconcilable with the future. Wayne stands as an ambivalent champion at these crossroads. He grew in stardom exponentially by embracing the disposability and cannibalism of modern pop on his mixtapes, but has now channeled all of his momentum into the failed monument that is Tha Carter III.
His warpath has earned him the title "Best Rapper Alive," and now, by the sales-figure criterion of 50 Cent and many others, he now stands clearly in that spot, with his first number-one album in Tha Carter III and his first true radio hit in "Lollipop." But he has also presented as his magnum opus a collection that is less consistent in quality than even some of his mixtape double albums, squarely missing the target of crowning masterpiece. In trying to dominate the game of previous generations, Wayne may have missed an opportunity to lead the way toward a new paradigm of hiphop stardom.