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'Tha Carter III' Takes Lil Wayne Platinum

Lil Wayne's latest album is <em>Tha Carter III</em>.
Getty Images/Handout
Lil Wayne's latest album is Tha Carter III.

In the week after its June 10 release, New Orleans rapper Lil Wayne moved a million copies of Tha Carter III, his first official album in two-and-a-half years.

Tha Carter III's first-week sales, which were easily pop's strongest since Kanye West's Graduation last September, were spurred by a daring marketing strategy that doubled as a cocky musical challenge. In the two-and-a-half years between major-label releases, Lil Wayne whetted his fans' appetites by giving away more songs than anyone can count.

Most hip-hop artists nowadays prime the pump with gray-market mixtape CDs that add guest tracks, skits, freestyles, and other second-drawer material to scattered previews of their next album. But Lil Wayne was so prolific on the mixtape scene that he redefined it. He seemed to record all the time, free-associating verbally and vocally. Twice he put out double-CDs of his own new songs, some over famous beats, some over original music. Many of these songs were supposedly slated for the official album; very few ended up there. A bunch of them are wilder than anything on the hit release, and at least as good.

"Help," off the Carter 3 mixtape isn't Lil Wayne at his very best, although I love it — just Lil Wayne at his most blatant. The Beatles sample with the submerged bass drum could never have been cleared for commercial release. Theoretically, this is OK because the Carter 3 mixtape where it appears isn't for sale, although artists and bootleggers do sell mixtapes under the counter, at brick-and-mortar holes in the wall and online. I own about half a dozen Lil Wayne mixtapes, and there are many more out there. My favorite is called Da Drought 3.

Lil Wayne was born Dwayne Carter. At 25, he's been rapping professionally since he was 11. Tha Carter III is Lil Wayne's sixth official solo album. On his mixtapes, he's evolved out of conventional bling-thug rhetoric into something much looser and more playful, treating gangsta rap's antisocial themes primarily as an arena for wordplay. That tendency is all over the official album as well.

The chuckles, singsongs, and timbre shifts of a song on the new album called "Mrs. Officer," typify Lil Wayne's shape-shifting rap technique. The range of his style is even clearer on "Dr. Carter," where he dons scrubs to try and cure a fake rapper. Notice too the chopped-up bass-and-drums.

It wasn't just mixtapes that built demand for Tha Carter III, which also includes his first No. 1 single, the double-entendre confection "Lollipop." There's a Kanye-produced slow jam called "Comfortable" on the album as well. These are OK, I guess. But I prefer Lil Wayne in untrammeled mixtape mode, and there's plenty of that on the new release as well, especially the slightly pricier deluxe version.

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Robert Christgau contributes regular music reviews to All Things Considered.