Tha Carter IV will almost certainly fail to match the pop culture domination of Tha Carter III, and that might be the best thing going for it. III was an event by necessity, the culmination of an unprecedented artistic transformation that mostly occurred out of the eye of the mainstream. IV comes from the opposite trajectory of very public failures: Wayne’s No. 1 spot was eclipsed by labelmates Nicki Minaj and Drake; he served an eight-month prison stint for gun possession, issued mixtapes of wildly varying quality and put out two anticlimactic commercial releases, one being Rebirth, a nu-metal disaster that unintentionally doubled as an effective anti-cough syrup PSA. The scattershot, yet unyielding output caused equal worry that Wayne was either doing too many drugs or not doing enough. Fittingly, Tha Carter IV stays within that sort of confusing middle ground, simultaneously labored over and rushed, nowhere near as bad as it should’ve been, but also not as good as it could’ve been, completely valuated by your expectations.
Despite how many of these tracks were previously available as singles, what’s surprising is how little this sounds like a pop concession — soppy loverman joint “How To Love” gave IV a much-needed hit, but the T-Pain-assisted “How to Hate” and Drake collaboration “I Will” are R&B pieces that are nastier, more vulgar and undoubtedly more Wayne. Likewise, a fleet of lesser-known producers give Wayne unobtrusive yet steely beats that do a decent approximation of Lex Luger’s domineering synth fanfares — the typically grandiose Rick Ross feature “John,” an interpolation of his own “I’m Not A Star,” rocks harder than anything from Rebirth and “It’s Good” fires back at Jay-Z’s diss from “H.A.M.” with fire-breathing ferocity.
It’s also heartening to hear arguably the planet’s biggest rapper still obsessed with wordplay, but the passion and discovery of his astounding run of mixtapes is lacking: Densely packed punchlines abound (“I’m fuckin’ ready/ so I come prepared”), but so do tired hashtag rhymes (“have it your way…Burger King”) and shopworn similes within his increasingly claustrophobic topicality. Literally and figuratively, there isn’t enough Wayne — when he’s not sounding a less inspired version of himself, there’s the once unfathomable meeting of Tech N9ne and Andre 3000 (“Interlude”) that finds both of them on their A-game, and Nas and Busta Rhymes’ staggering speed raps closing the LP (“Outro”) — Wayne inexplicably sits out both of them. His lack of total investment seems apt; considering all the delays, Tha Carter IV feels like something that just needed to happen already so Wayne could put it behind him and move on.