“Tha Carter II” is where Lil Wayne came into his own, transforming into the most dominant rapper of the mid-2000s.
OutKast’s “Best New Rap Group” acceptance speech at the 1995 Source Awards has been cited again and again as the turning point for Southern Rap, the moment when it became viewed as more than a novelty and began its gradual game of catch-up to the East and West Coasts. The South, as André 3000 famously announced, did “have something to say,” but without one nationally-recognized lyrical genius, it struggled to achieve widespread respect. The Dungeon Family, UGK, and Scarface all became household names to small sects of devotees, but for the most part, the recognition they all deserved from the rest of the country came after their respective heydays. What it took was one brash veteran younger than most rookies proclaiming himself “best rapper alive,” no asterisks, no regional qualifiers, nothing. Ten years, four months, and three days after the 1995 Source Awards, Lil Wayne released an album that contained a track with that title, and to borrow a phrase from one of his future protegés, nothing was the same for the South in the decade that followed.
Tha Carter II arrived just 18 months after the first installment of Dwayne Carter, Jr.’s (hopefully ongoing) autobiographical series, but the 23-year-old MC seemed to have aged years since his breakout release (remarkably his fourth album, seventh if you count the Hot Boys releases). Punchlines were still his bread and butter, he still cackled like a class clown, and still only stood a few feet taller than the hood of his Rolls Royce, but the changes he did make came to define the rest of his career. Mannie Fresh‘s outmoded bounce was replaced by an eclectic palette of swaggering, cinematic funk. Standard flows and references evolved into dazzling displays of charisma and humor. The 32-bar-verses-into-chanted-hooks formula went out the window in favor of freestyle-esque tracks and more nuanced structuring. Instead of walking in and out to a brassy fanfare, he flew atop a magnificent beat that was equal parts delicate and driving.
He was self-mythologizing, giving himself an abundance of nicknames over 22 tracks: “Young Tune, the big kahuna” “a gorilla, but lighter,” “Mr. Carter,” “Pac-Man” (“my ghosts is blue”), “The Fireman,” “Heatman,” “Weezy F. Baby,” “Birdman Jr.,” “Quick Draw McGraw,” “New Orleans’ finest,” “The heart of New Orleans,” “Ammo Mammal,” “W-E-E, crooked letter, Y,” “The Quarterback,” “Black Peter Pan,” “Automatic Weezy,” “Young Pimpin’,” “Stunna Jr.,” “Black Rambo,” “Chaperone of the South,” but most importantly, the “Best Rapper Alive.” It’s doubtful that anyone would have handed him that title when his two biggest claims to fame were “Bling Bling” and “Go DJ,” but after crafting an expansive album that captured the country’s attention without the help of big singles (“Fireman,” which didn’t crack the Top 30, was the most successful), he became a viable candidate. He campaigned tirelessly for the title, appointing it to himself, reiterating it, and trying to convince voters that by ignoring him for Northern candidates (most likely Jay Z at the time), they were being “rapper racists, region haters.” Wayne claimed to “bear a name only one can live with” (word to “Highlander”), and even if we didn’t believe him at the time, it set off the world-conquering mixtape run that soon followed and cemented his dominance. Three years later, 2005’s safe bet for the title would accept an invite to Tha Carter III.
People debate Carters II and III as fiercely as they do Kanye albums, with the end results usually coming in at about 50/50. They’re vastly different and showcase an evolution of sorts, with Weezy moving from straightforward underdog to the weirdest major label star of his time, and thusly marking the tentative beginning and end of his now-legendary ’05-’08 run (some extend this to include Dedication 3 and No Ceilings). Perhaps the debate we should be having then, is not between Wayne’s own projects, but between his three-year dominance and the hot streaks of other modern rappers. Jay pretty much ruled the world from Reasonable Doubt to The Black Album, but had nearly as many missteps (The Blueprint², The Best Of Both Worlds) as classics; Eminem was tough to beat from The Slim Shady LP to The Eminem Show, but stayed more insular and didn’t do many features to keep his buzz up; Kanye’s rarely (if ever) dipped in quality, but has never been as prolific as Wayne was during those years. Wayne dominated every aspect of the conversation in those years, from quality albums to song-stealing freestyles to song-stealing features to bar-for-bar brilliance. Even Future, whose current run may be the closest analog, can’t boast the show-stopping lyrical prowess or guest verse consistency of ’05-’08 Wayne. For three years, he simply could not be stopped, whether he was singing hooks, appearing alongside other “best rapper alive” contenders, or making albums with notoriously horrible MCs.
Although it only hinted at the artist Wayne would become on the other side of that streak (discovering auto-tune, doing more and more drugs), Carter II is unquestionably the moment he seized the throne and threw open the gates for other Southern rappers. Immediately, guys like T.I., Gucci Mane, Jeezy, Curren$y, Lil Boosie and Slim Thug began getting national coverage the likes of which Bun B and Juicy J could’ve never imagined when they were starting out, and Weezy was even able to form a label of his own that still proves influential (despite the fact that its two most successful artists are from Toronto and Queens). Liberated from the Mannie Fresh sound that has come to earmark a certain era of New Orleans music, the album became a sonic smorgasbord from which other Southern artists drew to create their own regional sounds. As a vocal stylist and A&R, Weezy’s most influential moves may have come a few years later, but as an icon, a beacon of hope for an under-appreciated region, his most powerful statement is still Tha Carter II.