Dusting 'Em Off
Revisiting an album, a film, or an event on its anniversary

How Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III Resurrected Hip-Hop

on April 14, 2018, 12:00am

Midway through his landmark album Tha Carter III, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this June, Lil Wayne plays doctor. On “Dr. Carter”, a female voice fills him in on the status of his patients, unnamed rappers that lack flow, metaphors, and respect for the game. If Weezy is an M.D., then Tha Carter III is a signed blank prescription pad, opening up a supply closet of pills and syrups, verses and hooks. It cures what ails you.

When Tha Carter III dropped on June 10, 2008, it capped a jaw-dropping run of mixtapes where the rapper born Dwayne Carter Jr. made it his business to show up every other rapper on their own beats. In a pre-streaming era, these tapes were tossed into the online ether for free download, sharing space with fan-made mixes, and a steady stream of leaks. Enough tracks originally meant for the album leaked to eventually form their own tape, The Carter III Mixtape. Even with all the Weezy material flooding the market, anticipation was sky high for TCIII. A major label album with radio and video support could reach far more people in its rollout than a DatPiff link ever could.

The first single took full advantage of that spotlight to completely revolutionize pop music. “Lollipop” is a supremely syrupy anthem, glistening with Auto-Tune. (I don’t have to tell you this. You know this song.) Wayne raps about a woman with swag like his who, to put it simply, wants to hump. The chorus is simple enough to yell and flirtatious enough to croon. Stephen Garrett co-wrote the track, and he’s featured as Static Major singing the hook. Garrett was a popular R&B songwriter working on his own debut. He wrote for Destiny’s Child, Pretty Ricky, and most notably the majority of Aaliyah’s final self-titled album. Wayne on “Lollipop” sounds like the man in an Aaliyah song, compensating for her icy confidence by laying bare exactly what he wants. Garrett unfortunately never heard his masterwork on the radio. He died 16 days before its release of complications during a medical procedure. The song’s video is dedicated to his memory.

When the song dropped on March 12th, Auto-Tune had already been used in the industry for years, and it even hit the spotlight a decade earlier on Cher’s “Believe”. Wayne himself had experimented with the effect on his earlier mixtapes. “Lollipop” was the inauguration of a sound that would get paradoxically more lucrative as it sunk to emotional depths. It’s “Sexual Healing” for a new era of horny robot vocals. Wayne’s anguished vocals on the later choruses are locked into a melody they bristle against, revealing layers of desire, doubt, and drugs beneath a club track. It topped the Hot 100 for five weeks. The song was also the highest-selling ringtone of the year because it sounds just like you’re living in a future where you carry around a telephone that can play music. It still sounds like the future after anticipating the following decade of hip-hop and R&B.

On “Lollipop”, Wayne simplifies his rhymes to nestle into the lush production, but on “A Milli”, he takes the opposite approach. The beat is barely there, two syllables trimmed from a A Tribe Called Quest B-side looped ad nauseam over the platonic ideal of rap drums. All the more space for him to absolutely bug out on the mic. (Again, I don’t have to tell you this. You know this song.) The first verse is dizzying, internal rhymes piling up on each other as Wayne darts all around the beat. “Cause my seconds, minutes, hours go to the almighty dollar,” he rhymes, “and the almighty power of that cha-cha-cha-cha-chopper,” those five extra syllables punctuating his point like gunfire. Wayne’s verses are the epitome of rapping about how good you are and proving it through that same rap, cause and effect existing simultaneously. The closest thing “A Milli” has to a hook is “Motherfucker, I’m ill,” and it’s true.

At the start of the third verse, Wayne compares himself to his own Mount Rushmore, saying that “they say I’m rapping like Big, Jay, and 2Pac, Andre 3000.” Notice that he doesn’t say, “I’m rapping like these amazing rappers,” or even rap in a way that’s particularly reminiscent of any of them. He tells us that other people say that he raps like those legends. Cause meets effect. Weezy drops lines that have become rap standards just like the works of his idols. “They don’t see me, but they hear me/ They don’t feel me, but they fear me/ I’m illy.” Not only was he unstoppable, but he was inescapable. Which was true! This song is nothing but bars, and it was another hit. At the age of 13, with no hip-hop knowledge beyond clean Kanye West and Jay-Z CDs, I stumbled across the “A Milli” video. As Wayne bounced out of his trailer onto the “Got Money” set, the track redefined my idea of rap and my entire understanding of rhythm, the way the syllables could stack into threes over a 4/4 beat. It seemed like it could play forever, and Weezy could keep up.

2008 was an election year, and Wayne scattered political lyrics throughout Tha Carter III accordingly. It’s not an overt part of his image in the way it was for Public Enemy and Ice Cube, but Wayne has always voiced his thoughts on current events, peaking with the stunning Dubya rebuke “Georgia…Bush” that closed out Dedication 2. He continued his criticism of the Fed’s reaction to Hurricane Katrina on “Tie My Hands”. Bluesy guitar and sparse organ combine on the Robin Thicke-produced track, sounding more like a bar band after hours than a typical rap beat. Wayne sounds like he’s sinking under the weight of the floods when he rhymes, “They talked that freedom at us and didn’t even leave a ladder, damn.” The song was originally recorded in 2005, one of the oldest to end up on the final album, but the hurt in Wayne’s voice resonates through time.

At the end of the album, that hurt has curdled into bitterness and resentment. Wayne concludes “Dontgetit” with a lengthy monologue summarizing the hypocrisy of the American justice system, juxtaposing the harsh sentencing for poor Black drug dealers with the sex offender that recently moved in down the street from him and his daughter. From there, he turns to Al Sharpton, berating him for publicly criticizing Wayne without reaching out to him personally first. It’s a little ideologically muddled, but it’s as electrifying as his best verses. As Wayne says, “Fuck if you understand me, I love being misunderstood.” Even a goofy track like “Mrs. Officer” is spiked with a reference to Rodney King.

“Mrs. Officer” is based around a conceit pulled straight out of porn, a lady cop so impressed with Wayne that they get busy in the back of her squad car. “All she wants me to do is fuck the police,” he grins. The album is full of incredible hedonistic boasts like that. On “Let the Beat Build”, Wayne uses a soul sample and an 808 to brag about “approving million-dollar deals from my iPhone,” which sounds perfectly normal now, but in 2008 that was the biggest flex in the world. “Phone Home” is about how Wayne transcends the human race entirely. “We are not the same, I am a Martian,” he says, Ziggy Stardust toting two Styrofoam cups. And then there’s “Pussy Monster”. It’s an entire song about Wayne’s dedication to oral sex, added to the album last minute as a replacement for a track facing copyright issues. It’s a fun but slight track, one that was pointed to constantly by his detractors as evidence of his lack of depth.

Wayne had plenty of haters at his peak and likely because of his success. Tha Carter III was the best-selling album of the year, and it eventually went triple-platinum. If you didn’t like hip-hop, you didn’t like Lil Wayne, inked up, screwed up, and rhyming about eating pussy. And if you didn’t like Wayne, you simply didn’t like hip-hop. He tried a little bit of everything on this album, and its sprawl set the blueprint for the next decade of major-label albums by mixtape stars. Furthermore, it proved neither free mixtapes nor leaks were enough to impede commercial success if the talent was there. Wayne’s still a great rapper now when he’s not on auto-pilot, with some excellent projects like No Ceilings and Collegrove scattered throughout the subsequent decade, but his talent never reached these heights again.

Tha Carter III’s cover shows a young child wearing a suit and a pinky ring, his face and hands decorated in Wayne’s numerous tattoos. At the time, it seemed near blasphemous to use a cover concept so close to Illmatic and Ready to Die. But Wayne has been professionally rapping since he was nine years old. Hip-hop is his entire life. The grogginess he exhibits at the beginning of “Dr. Carter” matches the disorientation that comes with spending hours in the studio, cueing up beat after beat until the sun goes down and comes back up again. In 2006, Nas declared Hip Hop Is Dead. At the end of “Dr. Carter”, Wayne pulls off his surgical mask and triumphantly declares: “Welcome back hip-hop, I saved your life.”