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Lil Wayne has dominated the rap spotlight since 2005 without releasing a formal studio album. Hip-hop critics lose their minds nearly every time he drops a mixtape, which is often. (I’m not immune: Da Drought 3 was among my favorite alums of 2007.) MTV declared him the hottest rapper in the game last year, and at a Summer Jam concert in New Jersey early this month he was cheered louder than headliner Kanye West. Yet his sixth album, Tha Carter III, has been anticipated only with cautious optimism—despite a flurry of next-level mixtapes, Lil Wayne had yet to make a great studio disc. Listening to 2005’s Tha Carter II now is like listening to a different artist; Wayne’s lyrics were riddled with gangster clichés, his beats often didn’t suit his flow, and his voice hadn’t yet achieved its croaking, mischievous glory. Though he still isn’t the best rapper alive, as he’s claimed for years—one could easily make the case that Lupe Fiasco, Pusha T and Malice from Clipse, and plenty of others are technically superior—those arguments are irrelevant. The point is that Wayne is the most entertaining rapper alive, and Tha Carter III is his first great album. The beats almost universally fit his slow, freestyle-heavy verses and his penchant for unexpected lyrical turns. Almost entirely gone is any trace of those tinny Cash Money-style instrumentals he once rapped over—or anything approximating Southern style—in favor of the biggest beats money can buy. There are radio-friendly tracks galore (“Mr. Carter,” “Got Money,” “Let the Beat Build”) but also weird, off-kilter melodies that stop and start abruptly: Swizz Beatz’ “Dr. Carter,” employs a beat-coffeehouse-style jazzy bass line and drums, and the acoustic-guitar-heavy, almost folksy “Tie My Hands” is a tribute to post-Katrina New Orleans featuring Robin Thicke. Lyrically, his songs are curious diversions at worst, ridiculous fun at best. There’s plenty of stoned, stream-of-consciousness crap—“Hip-hop addict/Man I swear I’m on top like the attic,” he raps on “La La”—but even more inspired weirdness. “Lock, load, ready to aim at any target,” he raps on “Phone Home,” a song about how he’s better than other rappers because they’re not aliens like he is. “I could get your brains for a bargain/Like I bought it from Target.” Given his history with drugs and firearms, it’s hard not to include Lil Wayne in the pantheon of rock stars and rappers who’ve been able to channel their destructive tendencies into great art. Wayne himself seems to behave like he’s near his life’s expiration date. Over a squealing, classic-rock beat on the disc’s most impassioned track, “Playin’ With Fire,” he speaks of battling his mother’s abusive second husband (“I went into the kitchen got the cleaver…He could see the devil in my features”) and inviting death. “I’m doin’ the same shit Martin Luther King did,” he yelps, “Checkin’ in the same hotel in the same suite bitch same balcony/Like assassinate me bitch.” It feels like a suicide note, but regardless of how much longer Lil Wayne is around, Tha Carter III sounds like one for the ages. —Ben Westhoff