From a British music biz perspective, it’s hard to imagine anything else going on this week beyond the small matter of that Coldplay record. This morning, though, a sobering corrective arrived in my inbox. In America, the email announced, “Lil Wayne has broken Mariah Carey’s record for the highest opening album sales of the year. He has sold in one day what Mariah sold in her entire week.” That’s 420,000 sales, incidentally; something for Chris Martin, Guy Hands and their competitive chums to aim for, I guess.
Now obviously and thankfully, I don’t have to predicate the content of this blog on what sells records – otherwise my employees wouldn’t be quite so tolerant of all those James Blackshaw and Howlin Rain posts. But it’s interesting how most hip hop doesn’t make much of a visible commercial impact over here at the moment. Surely that’s a big reason beyond the furore over Jay-Z playing Glastonbury – how can this rapper guy possibly be bigger than, I don’t know, The Fratellis?
I have to confess, at this point, that I’m pretty out of the loop as regards hip hop at the moment, not least because I’ve been fairly disappointed by a lot of stuff I’ve heard in the past year or two. A few years ago, I’d be assiduously checking out every Timbaland production extant, but it’s hard to get so excited about his work for the dreaded Madonna or, stranger, a Russian Eurovision winner.
The cumulative buzz surrounding this Lil Wayne album over the past few months has, though, piqued my attention, not least the sense that internet chinstrokers beyond hip hop specialists – and, consequently, to a degree, rap dilettantes like myself – are getting all worked up over a man we’re meant, I believe, to address as Weezy.
And the good news is that I’m fairly sure, at this early stage, that “Tha Carter III” is the best hip hop album I’ve come across since that Wu-Tang Clan/Ghostface Killah double whammy at the end of last year. The cover, for a start, is instantly arresting: a shot of Dwayne Carter as a toddler, adorned with photoshopped prison tattoos.
Maybe you’ve heard the single “Lollipop”, which is a little misleading, being the least annoying example of a certain fetish Wayne has for half-rapping, half-singing through a trebly, tweaked autotune programme.
You’d be better off starting with the absolutely superb “Mr Carter”, in which a producer called Andrews “Drew” Correa synthesises a grand, opulent soul setting very much in the style of peak-period Kanye West, right down to the sped-up backing vocals. Perfectly, rap’s other auspicious Carter, Jay-Z, turns up for a guest verse, before a clapalong massed chorus closes proceedings.
West himself is in good form for a couple of tracks, especially the extravagantly-layered “Let The Beat Build”, a sort of ecstatic musical tease that generally loops rather than builds. Wayne is a compelling presence on these lavish tracks, but he’s also strong enough to excel on weirder, minimal tracks, like the extraordinary “Milli”, built on a ticking drum machine and chopped, hollering vocal sample that eventually generates a disorienting, almost meditative drone. It reminds me a bit, marvellously, of Clipse, and features a very funny Erykah Badu impression.
There’s plenty of “best rapper alive” posturing here, though Wayne’s filthy eloquence means he’s a more credible contender to the title than most. But he’s also very keen to present himself as “a Martian” (on the pleasantly deranged “Phone Home”); or analyse haphazardly the connections between crack, race and poverty, then go into a rant about his issues with the Reverend Al Sharpton on “Dontgetit”, while Nina Simone’s harrowed version of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” plays out beneath him.
The other big, obvious sample comes on “Dr Carter”, which finds Wayne treating rappers who suffer from “lack of concepts” in a meticulously-detailed “ER” scenario, while Swizz Beatz (whose productions historically have had a sort of martial clatter to them) stretches out David Axelrod’s “The Smile”, without much tampering. It’s a simple, brilliant trick, and my current favourite track on this very fine album. Give it a go – 420,000 Americans can’t be wrong, right?