Photo: Jamie McCarthy/WireImage.com
"Lollipop" To "A Milli": Lil Wayne's 'Tha Carter III' 10 Years After
Few hip-hop albums are referred to as an "event" rather than a "release." However, on June 10, 2008, Lil Wayne created an event with the third installment of his Carter album series, the aptly titled Tha Carter III.
Before delving into this project, it's important to reflect upon two years prior. At the close of 2005, Wayne dropped Tha Carter II, an album that true Weezy aficionados regard as one of his most potent works, though the buck stops there. By the time the calendar turned to 2006, Wayne's fifth album flew under the mainstream rap radar, as other projects from budding acts took precedent, including the Game's Doctor's Advocate, Rick Ross' Port Of Miami, T.I.'s King, Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor, and Nas' declaration heard 'round the world, Hip Hop Is Dead.
"I feel like in 2006, every great artist — save for Eminem and Dr. Dre who were in hiding at the time — made their album," recalls Ambrosia for Heads Editor-In-Chief Jake Paine.
Meanwhile, Wayne dropped Like Father, Like Son, a 2006 collaboration with Birdman, an album described as a cult classic by Complex. In the two-year period between Tha Carter II and Tha Carter III, Wayne was seemingly everywhere.
"Here's Wayne bulldozing through songs — being featured on songs every other week, more song leaks, mixtapes — there was a flood of Wayne music coming out," says Yoh Phillips, DJBooth senior writer. "If you were tuned in, it was a very exciting time because every week there was new music and every song was better than the last."
This period of ambiguity ultimately created what Jay-Z referred to as "Mixtape Weezy," an artist who saw commercial success yet voluntarily spelunked into the underbelly of rap's mixtape scene. Mean and full of lean, Wayne did the opposite of what most rappers did during that period, which was go into hiding into his next major release.
"He was at the top of his game," recalls Young Money/Cash Money Records' Senior Vice President Katina Bynum, who was VP of Marketing at the time. "Every verse he was dropping was different and next level. Just by him being on a song could save a career or break a new artist."
Anticipation was certainly reaching a boiling point for Tha Carter III based on these chess moves.
"He teased us with all of these incredible blows and wordplay and punchlines, so he had to wow us with his next album," Yoh expresses. "I don't think a rapper has done that well of a balance as Lil Wayne during that time. It all helped build the anticipation of what this album was going to sound like."
Then it happened — at a time when summer releases could get lost in the proverbial shuffle — Tha Carter III was unleashed June 10. Before the week's end, projections reported it was already bound for a cool milli in sales.
"I think Nielsen reported the million first week projections very quickly and that was the currency of rap thanks to 50 Cent," Paine explains. "Wayne was completely legitimized in that moment."
The album skyrocketed to No. 1, indeed pushing more than 1 million units in the first week alone — at that time marking the first artist to do so since 50 Cent in 2005. To date, it's certified triple platinum.
At 16 tracks deep, Tha Carter III is lengthy, yet packs enough diversity to solidify any listener as a Lil Wayne fan. Commercial releases like "Lollipop" gave Weezy his most successful single to date, while "A Milli" showcased his unwavering lyrical skill.
"When I heard 'Lollipop' I knew he had created a new lane," adds Bynum. "There was nothing that sounded like it on radio or anywhere else."
"Mrs. Officer" fed the ladies (despite being one of many arguably misogynistic songs on the project), and "Mr. Carter" was an unlikely win due to its collaborators, since no one expected Wayne and Jay to show up together. Then there are songs for the mixtape heroes like "Dr. Carter," where Swizz Beatz lays a boom-bap foundation for Wayne to lay on (rumor has it the beat was originally for Jay-Z).
"It's a David Axelrod loop, and was such a satisfying moment to hear Wayne rap over a DITC-sounding beat and just kill it," Paine says.
Other songs like "Tie My Hands" bring a politically charged Wayne with lines such as "Born right here in the USA/But due to tragedy, looked on by the whole world as a refugee."
Of course, what's a Wayne album without braggadocio and loose gang ties? "He's still set trippin', he's still making threats to anonymous adversaries, feeling his own fame," Paine says.
And while it's frequently slept-on beyond live performances, "Phone Home" anchored Wayne's trademark as extraterrestrial. "[Wayne] did an unbelievable freestyle over Jay-Z's 'Show Me What You Got' from [2006's Kingdom Come]" explains Dre of Cool & Dre, who produced "Phone Home." "On it he says, 'We are not the same. I am a martian,' and it always stuck out to me.
"Me and Cool were in the studio and wanted to flip that line. but make a beat that sounds out of this world. We had the whole sound effects, we were beaming him down to Earth. I laid down the hook, 'Phone home, Weezy! Phone home!'"
At the time, Wayne was recording at New York's Hit Factory, and it only took a short while for the hit to be made.
"A few hours later Wayne called him to come down to the studio," Dre continues. "He goes, 'I went to the boogeyman in the closet, Dre. And I came out with this.' We were blown away, and he even kept me on the hook." Per Dre, the heavy use of rock elements on the song led to the concept for Wayne's 2010 Rebirth album.
Strategic collaborations came with the aforementioned Jay-Z, but also T-Pain on "Got Money" (a precursor to the 2017 T-Wayne mixtape) and production from Kanye West, David Banner, Alchemist, and more. While Tha Carter III traveled in many directions, the undeniable focus of Wayne was evident on the work; though its success was also hinged to his omnipresence at the time.
The result was his most commercially received project. He won Best Rap Album, Best Rap Song for "Lollipop" and Best Rap Solo Performance for "A Milli" at the 51st GRAMMY Awards, in addition to scoring a nomination for Album Of The Year.
"We still can't get over not winning Album Of The Year at the GRAMMYs that year," Dre says with a laugh.
Tha Carter III's impact remains a huge footnote in the history of Weezy F. Baby. So much so that Wayne's Weezyana Fest this year will be dedicated solely to the milestone anniversary of the album, a further testament to its "event" status.
At the end of "Dr. Carter," Wayne smugly declares, "Welcome back, hip-hop, I saved your life," an obvious response to Nas' death claim from two years prior. While it's a large badge to place upon his chest, Wayne did save hip-hop in a sense. From itself.
"Wayne completely changed the game," Bynum says. "He's an original, a classic and there will be no one like him ... period."
(Kathy Iandoli has penned pieces for Pitchfork, VICE, Maxim, O, Cosmopolitan, The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, Billboard, and more. She co-authored the book Commissary Kitchen with Mobb Deep's late Albert "Prodigy" Johnson, and is a professor of music business at select universities throughout New York and New Jersey.)