We take stock of the rapper’s career, through stints in prison, label rows and trash-rock impulses to his heyday of raw swagger and southern bangers.
13. Rebirth (2010)
When it comes to Lil Wayne’s worst-ever album, the obvious choice is the correct one. Rebirth was Weezy’s attempt to work out his unfortunate trash-rock impulses, resulting in a set of sloppy, nightmarish numbers drenched in Auto-Tune. Worse than the music was knowing Wayne had grown bored of being a magnificent rapper. His peak was over.
12. I Am Not a Human Being 2 (2013)
A sequel nobody asked for. Intended as a warm-up to Tha Carter V, Wayne’s disinterest with the project is palpable as he sluggishly spits sex-obsessed rhymes. Mind you, Love Me is a infectious slice of spooky pop-rap while the creeping funk of Rich as Fuck inspires Wayne to one of his sharpest flows of this era.
11. The Free Weezy Album (2015)
Released exclusively to Tidal as Tha Carter V lingered in legal purgatory, this set of Wayne leftovers unsurprisingly lacks cohesion. Given the barbed title, it’s a disappointment that there’s little reference to his battles with former mentor Birdman, while the uninspired writing and messy beats mean most of these cuts were better left on the studio floor.
10. I Am Not a Human Being (2010)
Dropped while Wayne languished in prison, this hastily assembled set screamed stopgap release. The prominent presence of then-proteges Drake and Nicki Minaj yield mixed results – the former helping out on the fresh soul sample of With You, a highlight. But, with Wayne too often sounding like he’s performing within himself, the album lacks both relevance and enough decent songs.
9. Tha Carter IV (2011)
Wayne’s Tha Carter series has produced some of his most seminal records so it’s disappointing to find the fourth instalment feeling so superfluous. Rather than inviting guests into his universe, Weezy frequently attempts to slide into the sonic lane of guys such as Rick Ross and T-Pain. This is well made early-2010s hip-hop, but where is Wayne’s once uncontainable personality?
8. Tha Block Is Hot (1999)
The 17-year-old little Wayne’s ferocious debut encapsulated the Cash Money Records machine with Mannie Fresh’s rumble’n’bump beats and ample appearances from Weezy’s group Hot Boyz and Big Tymers. His froggy flow would smooth out, and quotable lines would become more cutting, but there’s plenty of no-nonsense street bars and plaintive musings from a kid who was already a father. “Here I come – star rapper,” he warns. Clairvoyance.
7. Tha Carter V (2018)
Wayne puts the frustrating delays and legal wrangles with Birdman in his rearview mirror with a personal, big-hearted record that combines modern sounds and thrilling early-00s pastiches. His finest full-length in a decade, the 36-year-old’s music-making instincts and passion for rap reach levels we feared would never return.
6. Lights Out (2000)
Wayne’s second album offered a better showcase for his burgeoning talent than Tha Block Is Hot. The same team is assembled, but their presence is minimised, allowing Wayne’s tales from Chopper City more space, his braggadocio bristling with extra confidence.
5. 500 Degreez (2002)
After Cash Money’s first star, Juvenile, bailed out, Wayne asserted his allegiance to the label by calling his third album 500 Degreez – 100 hotter than Juve’s classic. Perhaps feeling liberated, Wayne breathes more fire than before. The hooks are killer: see Way of Life, which updates Junior Mafia’s classic Get Money.
4. Tha Carter (2004)
The first instalment of Tha Carter linked past and present. Mannie was still chiefly in control behind the boards and Wayne’s focus was again on New Orleans street rap staples: cash, rap supremacy and his rivals. But now 21, Wayne’s voice smoothed from the jittery style of his early records to the more monstrous flow that would become so familiar.
3. Tha Carter III (2008)
After numerous delays, Tha Carter III fell just short of the legendary mixtape run that came before it. Still, the music has a polished sheen, and blockbuster moments – such as ubiquitous singles Lollipop and A Milli – don’t blunt Wayne’s phenomenal rapping, while his alien tendencies are teased out in various high-concept experiments. The final act of Weezy’s greatest era.
2. Tha Carter II (2005)
Wayne becomes fully formed. With new producers serving up everything from tenement-sized southern bangers (Money on My Mind) to 1970s playa funk (Hustler Musik) to alarm klaxon rings (Fireman), Weezy – with a growling flow that’s as nimble as it is knotty, and enough raw swagger to melt metal – warps everything to fit into his increasingly cracked universe.
1. Mixtapes (2005-2007)
As brilliant as the studio albums are, Wayne’s 2005-2007 mixtape run is the stuff of lore, when his “best rapper alive” claims went from chest-beating pronouncements of superiority to undeniable truth. On tapes such as Dedication 2 and Da Drought 3, Wayne collects some of the hottest beats of the day and obliterates all pretenders. The unofficial mixtape version of Tha Carter III, made up of tracks tossed once they leaked, is easily stronger song-to-song than the album. Wayne’s bars ripple with life, the jokes are funny, the breadth of his pop culture references is never-ending. He makes rapping seem so easy, yet so unlimited.