For a half-decade or more, he stood as hip-hop's tatted-up anomaly, the self-professed monster who ate rappers for breakfast while inhabiting a universe of his own creation. But in the time since Lil Wayne's late-2000s breakthrough, when platinum albums and a flood of mixtapes tipped him into cultural ubiquity, nothing has done as much to keep his legend alive as the music he didn't release. After years of creative, financial and legal struggles with his industry daddy Bryan "Baby" Williams, the rapper reached a settlement this summer freeing him from his longtime label Cash Money and clearing the way for him to release the album fans have awaited since 2011, when the last installment of his Carter series fell on ambivalent ears.
Today, after years of rumor and speculation, the case was closed in a message from the man himself. Tha Carter V is scheduled to arrive the night of Sept. 27 — Wayne's 36th birthday — along with a decade's worth of baggage.
In the annals of mythologized LPs, Tha Carter V falls somewhere between Guns N Roses' Chinese Democracy (released in 2008 after nearly 15 years in development) and Dr. Dre's Detox (still just a rumor). Anticipation for it has birthed a cottage industry, from artists who piggybacked off the hype by daring to release albums with the same title — though Young Thug was legally forced to change his to Barter 6 — to rap's nerdy nemesis Martin Shkreli leaking tracks purportedly ripped from the real thing. Meanwhile, the industry changed, as did Wayne's status in it, from an artist ahead of his time to one so emulated that hip-hop's vanguard may well have outrun him by now.
And so, as you prepare for an album whose myth has lasted longer than some artists' entire careers, it's worth taking stock of where Lil Wayne has been all this time: In prison, in court, in the hospital, and in our ears — be it on smaller releases, as a guest on other artists' songs or as a clear source of inspiration. To help put Tha Carter V in proper context, here are five key factors in the recent life of the man who made it.
"I'm a gangsta, Miss Katie." When Lil Wayne uttered those infamous words to Katie Couric in his 2009 interview on CBS, the "best rapper alive" was living his best life. He'd just released his sixth solo studio album, Tha Carter III, cementing his image as rap's styrofoam-cup toting Martian with the codeine-coated flow. Raised in the crime-infested New Orleans neighborhood of Hollygrove, Wayne had already survived a self-inflicted gunshot at 12 that struck just shy of his heart. Indeed, the kid had heart: He was a gangsta, he told Couric, but one mannerable and Southern enough to respectfully address her as "Miss Katie." "I don't take nothing from no one," he added. "I do what I wanna do." That mentality would eventually catch up with him: He racked up drug possession charges in Arizona, Atlanta, even an arrest in Idaho. But it was New York's tough gun laws that eventually landed him in one of the nation's most notorious correctional facilities. Following a conviction on weapons charges after a July 2007 arrest, he was sentenced to serve eight months on Rikers Island. Not since Tupac or T.I. had a rapper at the top of the game fallen so low.
Ultimately, a prison sentence couldn't even compete with the major stall his contractual issues would later put on his career. Wayne acknowledged as much in the introduction of Gone 'Til November, a book of his compiled prison journals, released in 2016. "Because of all the bulls*** I'm going through with my record label, I wanted my fans to have something from me while they continue to be ever so amazing and patient," he wrote, sounding every bit the courteous gangsta. -- Rodney Carmichael
"I want off this label and nothing to do with these people." Wayne's unique set of label and legal woes leading up to Tha Carter V is the largest pillar in the conversation, not just because it has delayed the record, but also because it threatened to dismantle one of rap's most formidable modern-day dynasties. After two years of revised release dates, delays and loosies, Wayne vented his frustration with Cash Money in a string of tweets in December 2014. "I am a prisoner and so is my creativity," he wrote. "Again, I am truly sorry and I don't blame ya if ya fed up with waiting 4 me and this album." After that, things escalated quickly.
On Jan. 20, 2015, Wayne dropped the free mixtape Sorry 4 The Wait 2, where he dissed Baby on wax, calling him a snake. Days later, he filed a $51 million lawsuit against Cash Money for withholding millions and not allowing him to release Tha Carter V. The verbal assault continued throughout the year, with slights against the label in freestyles and guest verses and explicit call-outs during club appearances. In 2016, Baby sat down for an interview with Angie Martinez in his Miami home, claiming that he loved Wayne like a son and still saw him every day. The label boss also warned that even if Wayne did leave, protégés Drake and Nicki Minaj would not be going anywhere. For fans watching it all unravel from the sidelines, the conflict was one of the most dispiriting in the rap's history, showing the cracks in an independent label that had shaped the sound of Southern hip-hop and, in time, the culture as a whole. --Sidney Madden
"I'm up in the studio, me and my drank." Lil Wayne's health has become as much a part of his narrative as his music. His recreational drug use, specifically of the codeine cocktail lean, became a popular topic in his lyrics — but there's been speculation that an addiction to the drink has threatened to destroy him more than once. Wayne has been hospitalized for seizures, a common symptom of codeine overdose, more than five times in the last six years, on one occasion leading TMZ to prematurely report he was near death and receiving last rites. Soon after that 2013 incident, the rapper said in an interview that dehydration and epilepsy are the reason for his health scares, not codeine dependency. That same year he reunited with Katie Couric the interview chair and said he'd suffered seizures since he was a kid — but had also cut back on drinking lean due to doctors' recommendations.
Wayne's mental health, though less thoroughly explored, has become part of the Carter V discussion as well. The story of the rapper shooting himself at 12 with a gun found in his mother's room has long existed as a hip-hop factoid, more of a footnote in his come-up story than a defining moment. But with hip-hop's current climate more open than ever about mental health and mental illness — Kid Cudi, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West and Logic are just a few boldface names purging emotion on record of late — Wayne has hinted that he's ready to get the truth off his chest about that event. In 2016, on a guest verse on Solange's "Mad," Weezy alludes to attempting suicide. And in his recent Billboard cover story, a preview of a new verse seems to confirm that the childhood accident was a suicide attempt, "undertaken after his mother told him he would no longer be allowed to rap." --Sidney Madden
"Young Money militia, and I am the commissioner." Even though it's been nearly a decade since the last Carter, Wayne's lyrical approach has had influence on rappers into the 2010s: His scratchy, smoker's-tone linguistics, his use of metaphor and phrasing, his bending of syllables. And Wayne's business sense has undoubtedly built out the dynasty of his Cash Money imprint Young Money, with the roots of his influence even allowing artists outside his immediate family to flourish. Drake and Nicki Minaj, Young Money signees coached by Weezy himself, have cultivated careers not only as rap titans but as pop stars, who have redefined how profitable hip-hop can be. And because he opened the door for them, the two have in turn opened the door for a generation of artists twice removed from Wayne himself. Even though Drake is having his prolonged Hercules moment in pop culture's hierarchy, Drizzy never forgets that Wayne is the titan he owes his (rap) God-like ascension to. It's why he has a tattoo of Wayne's face on his body, and why the current tour for his Scorpion album features a video of him seeing Wayne on his I Am Music Tour. Nicki, in her journey to becoming the game's rap queen, compared herself to Wayne at every turn — even proclaiming herself "the female Weezy" and adopting his rhyme pattern on her early guest verses.
And when Weezy F threatened to retire in 2016, rappers at every tier, from Chance The Rapper to Rick Ross to Missy Elliott, urged him not to. Even earlier this year, Lil Skies paid homage to Weezy by modeling his "Welcome To The Rodeo" video after Wayne's "A Milli" visual. --Sidney Madden
"Please say the Baby," as in Weezy F. Baby: Wayne made that request of us in song after song throughout the 2000s. Considering his ubiquity at the time, the reminder seemed redundant — but maybe he already foresaw the day when fickle fans would be debating his cultural relevance.
The last time we collectively clamored for a Lil Wayne LP was back in 2011: After two lackluster departures from the Carter series (Rebirth and I Am Not A Human Being), both released in the same year of his Rikers Island prison stint, The Carter IV was anticipated as a return to form, but it didn't pack the same punch as his Carter III classic. Easily one of the most influential artists of the 21st century, Wayne's DNA courses through the veins of nearly every mainstream rapper working in his wake today — but the legal hang-ups and label drama seem to have contributed to years of creative inconsistency.
His relevance, however, isn't determined solely by his output. Like any artist with a long-mythologized album who has waged a public fight for it to come out, Wayne's cult status is transcendent at this point: He's the antihero hip-hop has been rooting for and it's time to see if this album will live up to the hype. Maybe there's no way it can at this point. But between commercial reception (which will be crazy out the gate) and critical response (which will be nonstop), Wayne's return to relevance will be unstoppable in 2018 — even if only for one week. --Rodney Carmichael