The long, convoluted road to Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter V can be demonstrated by the contrasting trajectories of two songs, “Famous” and “Demon.”
“Famous,” a sentimental rap ballad, was produced by Lasanna “Ace” Harris and Shama Joseph. In 2014, the two had succeeded in placing a song with Nicki Minaj, which had in turn helped them establish a relationship with Young Money Entertainment, the label co-founded by Lil Wayne. They cut several songs with the rapper, who was preparing to release the fifth installment in his career-defining Tha Carter series. But suddenly, “everything came to a halt,” says Harris. “At the last minute, we found out through a public announcement that Birdman and Wayne fell out.” As a result, “Famous” spent four years on the shelf, stuck in purgatory along with the next Carter project.
“Demon,” a handsome, rumbly record, took a strikingly different path to Wayne’s new album. Cool & Dre have been a part of every entry in the Carter series except the first, and they sent Wayne the beat for “Demon” just two weeks ago. “Mack Maine [head of Young Money] reached out just to let us know: ‘Hey, it’s about that time,’” Dre says. Working with another producer, 808 Ray, Cool & Dre built a track around a stirring, crackly gospel sample — The Crowns of Glory’s “Lord Hold Me in Your Arms” — and Wayne rapped over it shortly after.
That’s the schizophrenia of Tha Carter V, which encompasses extremes: Extensively tinkered-with oldies that have seen multiple years of revisions sit next to fresh-off-the-press beats that only perked Wayne’s attention during a hectic final month of recording. Some of these songs were originally recorded as far back as 2013, not long after Tha Carter V was first announced, while others were finished as recently as this week. The album’s unique combination of fussed-over and tossed-off makes it an anomaly in modern hip-hop, where artists spew albums at a rapid rate — inspired in part, of course, by the success of mid-2000s Lil Wayne, who shot out multiple mixtapes every year — and rarely have time to revisit and reassess a song from five years ago, five months ago or even five minutes ago.
Tha Carter V was in deep-freeze due to a long-running contractual dispute between Wayne and Bryan “Birdman” Williams, a mentor and co-founder of Cash Money Records, the rapper’s longtime label. Wayne sued Birdman; Birdman countersued. Wayne tweeted “I am a prisoner and so is my creativity;” Cash Money insisted everything was fine. The two men settled their differences this summer, and Wayne became the sole owner of his imprint, Young Money. He was finally able to release Tha Carter V.
By necessity, the lengthy gestation period for this album meant that Wayne and his associates kept having to update old music so that it sounded modern — in hip-hop, fashionable sounds come and go rapidly. “A lot of times it’s just [a matter of] changing kicks and snares to make sure it’s not 2012, it’s 2018,” says Ben Billions, who co-produced three songs on Tha Carter V. One of his songs, “Open Letter,” was originally intended for the 2014 version of the album. So were “Hittas,” “Famous,” “Mona Lisa” and “Let It All Work Out.”
Some of these tracks required intense overhauls. Take “Mona Lisa,” which features rapping from Kendrick Lamar — still dazzling, even though the song began four years ago. “For the past three years I’ve been chipping away at the song,” says Infamous, who co-produced the track. “The beat was different, more of a four-bar rap loop. Once I heard Kendrick’s part, they went so in on it, I couldn’t just leave a four-bar loop for them. [The adjustments] started off with, ‘let’s change the chords here, add some strings.’ Then it turned into, ‘alright, let’s cut everything to tape and record everything like it’s the 1960s so I can treat it like a sample and re-sample it.’”
Some producers did not play a part in the updating process — Wayne is not shy about adjusting things to meet his specifications, according to those who work with him — so they were surprised to hear their work in new form on Tha Carter V. For “Let It All Work Out,” which closes the album with a frank discussion of the rapper’s childhood suicide attempt, Wayne decided to sew together a pair of instrumentals from different producers — who never worked together — both built around the same sample of Sampha’s “Indecision.” “I didn’t know that the two beats were gonna be combined,” says Myles William, who co-produced the song. “I see my credit [on the album], and everyone’s all excited, and I’m just standing there like, ‘Wait, this isn’t mine!’… [then the second part] drops, and we all went, ‘Ah!’”
On the chest-thumping “Hittas,” Lil Wayne changed the structure of the beat and inserted a sample of the rapper Boosie. “Usually when you send a beat to Wayne, he’ll ask for the track-outs, and the beat will sound completely different from what you sent him,” says Jayones, who produced “Hittas” in the same session as “Gotti,” released by Lil Wayne in 2014. When Tha Carter V came out, Jayones’ beat was re-worked. “[Wayne] switched the hook with the verse, and he added that sample, which caught me off-guard. It works.”
Producers praying their old cuts would survive on Tha Carter V took comfort in the fact that their instrumentals had hooked Wayne in the past. “Hopefully they love it and then they still love it — if they still love a song three or four years later, that’s a good song, we did something right,” Billions says.
But Wayne kept amassing new records — Billions thinks Wayne’s team was picking from roughly 200 songs when they settled on the album’s final tracklist — often through the efforts of Mack Maine, a longtime collaborator as well as president of Young Money. “This was his baby, too,” Billions says. “Mack was the unsung hero. That’s who Wayne trusts to see his vision through.”
Maine pulled songs from a variety of sources. He picked up “What About Me,” which was written in 2015, from Johnny Yukon, a writer at Artist Publishing Group, which shops potential hits to pop stars and leading rappers alike. Maine reached out to Bloque, a U.K.-based artist and producer, on Instagram at the beginning of this year; that resulted in “Dark Side of the Moon,” which Bloque co-produced with Jonah Christian. Maine asked Atlanta hip-hop stalwart Zaytoven for new beats six months ago, which led to “Problems.”
Lunchmoney Lewis, who co-wrote “Can’t Be Broken” with Billions, pitched the record to Mack at a grocery store in Miami. “He said he waited a couple months to play it for Wayne because he wanted him to be in the right mind-set,” Billions explains.
One of the most recent additions to Tha Carter V was “Don’t Cry,” which features a vocal sample from XXXTentacion, the young rapper who was shot and killed earlier this year. “Z3N, who is one of my producers, worked with X before he passed away; he had that hook,” Billions says. “They brought it to me about a month ago. We touched it up, prepared it so there could be rap verses on it for Wayne and presented it to him. Mack was the one who set it up after [Tha Carter V‘s] intro with [Wayne’s] mother crying — that makes it a moment. Mack said that the other day: ‘It’s not a feature, it’s his spirit on the song.’”
Despite the album’s long lead-time, it was still being shuffled and re-shuffled in the hours before its release on Thursday. That’s partly because Wayne is “a perfectionist,” according to Billions. “He was changing lines up to the last minute, fixing little bars that I thought sounded great already.”
But the tracklist was also in flux because of sample clearance issues. (A similar issue plagued the release of Nicki Minaj’s Queen; the star could not obtain permission to sample Tracy Chapman.) This week, Infamous received an urgent call from Josh Berkman, an A&R and longtime Wayne collaborator, because Young Money was unable to clear the samples underpinning “Took His Time” and “Used 2.” “It was like, ‘we got an hour, can we do it [recreate the original sample from scratch]?’” Infamous recalls. “I’ve been playing guitar since I was 5, I’m a jazz-trained musician, so he knew I would be able to get something. ‘Used 2’ took all night of sitting there and tweaking it.” In the end, both songs made the album.
In addition, Tha Carter V gained and lost a new feature in the final 24 hours before it was released: Post Malone recorded a part for “What About Me,” but when the album came out, the rapper Sosamann was the featured vocalist instead. No one has commented publicly on the reasoning behind the switch, though Yukon, who co-wrote and co-produced the record, says that six different vocalists tried their hand at “What About Me.” Sosamann, who has known Wayne for several years, is understandably thrilled that he ended up on Tha Carter V. “My cheeks hurt from smiling so hard,” he says.
He’s not the only one. “As a fan of hip hop, this is a day of celebration,” says Harris, who finally got to hear “Famous,” now outfitted with new vocals from Wayne’s daughter Regina. “One of the greatest artists who has been held hostage — for whatever reason, I’m not trying to throw shade on Birdman, that’s their issue, but it is great to be able to see him release his music,” the producer adds.
And now that Tha Carter V has a fifth installment, Dre is wondering if Wayne will look to start another album series — possibly involving Rebirth, the 2010 album which found the rapper embracing rock. “Next time I see Wayne, besides giving him a big hug and thanking him for including me, maybe I’ll slide him some of these rock tracks,” Dre says. “Maybe we can get a Rebirth 2.”
Additional reporting by Brendan Klinkenberg.