At the beginning of all but a few tracks on Tha Carter IV, you can hear a lighter click, a crackle and, occasionally, a deep inhale. On first listen, it’s a charming detail. Upon return visits, one wonders whether the sound is even real. What is it doing there? What more can the quiet lighting of a bowl signify than a now-perfunctory ritual?

Lil Wayne

Tha Carter IV
Young Money / Cash Money

Tha Carter IV is an album that forces us to reconsider our faith in Lil Wayne, if it hadn’t already been challenged. That “faith” centered on a few romantic tenets — that a rapper with massive popular appeal could be prolific, talented and consistently thrilling. Back from his stint in Rikers, hinting at this album as his last and now supposedly straight-edge, there’s not much Wayne-heads can count on any more.

When it comes to Weezy, the consensus seems to rest on the platinum Tha Carter II as his peak (arguably correct), with some solid mixtapes and the triple-platinum Tha Carter III getting his music played at high school dances. He can release a dead-in-the-water “rock” album and it’ll still go gold. President Obama references him in speeches to impoverished inner-city youth. He face-plants on his skateboard and is TMZ’d in hours. Lil Wayne is more popular than ever.

And with that superstardom comes the aesthetic ping-pong game applied to any iconic “artist” in pop’s mainstream; he will be evaluated almost solely on the merits of his past success and our expectations. He’s achieved his own criteria. At this point, these standards revolve around moderately athletic and impassioned displays of absurdist self-aggrandizing, intoxicating charm and the occasional nugget of starkly emotional bloodletting. We expect his chest-thumping to begin at Olympian/Dalí and go from there.

So let’s be realists for a moment. IV’s got a shelf of average beats from above-average producers and below-average rhymes from pop-rap’s MVP. It’s still a compelling listen, but a fractured one, with too few fun moments.

Much of Wayne’s flow has been weathered to a barrage of slow hash-tag punchlines, so it’s hard for him to come up with anything more than a handful of sub-clever riffs on his standard topics of choice. Ladies (mostly strippers), weed and violence get their due, but he doesn’t seem particularly thrilled about any of them.

Tracks deploy their tricks without much thrill. “Megaman” is one of many “A Milli” palette swaps, “John” is basically Rick Ross playing his part in a tune that would like to be Lex Luger’d, “Abortion” is all prog-rap sample-gazing tailor-made for Lil B to bring it down to earth. Wayne punches the clock on all of them. A couple times, Wayne finishes a pun, takes a pause and calls out, “I’m going back in,” sounding more exasperated than excited.

And if Wayne didn’t already jump the shark with “Lollipop” for all the “real hip hop” fans (please get an internet connection and leave us alone), then he does it with the Starbucks-core “How To Love,” an acoustic ballad layered with synth squiggles and a chord progression that’s Mayer/“Yoshimi”-era Flaming Lips with bass rumble, some b-boy “ey”s and Weezy telling a lady (a stripper) she’s “beautiful.” Hearing Weezy’s croak aspiring to croon gives it an earnesty, a wistfulness and, ah, my water just broke.

Doing Wayne reverse favors is the slew of single- to triple-A cameos, from the now-obligatory Drake to Nasty Nas himself. The majority of them sound more excited to be here than Wayne, which for an underdog like Tech N9ne, is wholly understandable. Busta does his double (triple?) time flow, which either astounds or manages to manhandle the beat (in this case, forcing it to stop for a few bars). An uncredited Andre 3K shows up rapping of (an apparently peaceful) Egypt, staring into the sky, all cosmic and deified, kissing our foreheads.

The martian is suddenly earthbound.

When our short-term memory fails us, this album will pass by, quickly forgotten. Reluctantly, we keep on chasing the highs of moments already gone. Ah, disappointment’s a bitch. Or a lady — depending on your outlook.

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