It's almost impossible to translate Lil Wayne's lyrics into the written word. With nearly every syllable on every one of his nearly 1000 songs of this past decade, Weezy is surly and snarly, croaking and crawling, urgent and erstwhile. But there are no accent marks for "Someone should've warned you/R-E-L-A-X like fuckin' California/Or get cornered, or get tortured, or get slaughtered/In that order." The words out of Wayne's mouth somehow sound like an artist beyond his time, even if the words on a page are about as non-sensical as they come.
In the thrillingly intimate documentary, Tha Carter (DVD in stores today), director Adam Bhala Lough however finds a way to make Lil Wayne's lyrics translate into actual words. By subtitling entire mixtape verses -- DJ drops sometimes included -- the New Orleans lyricist is put on a pedestal that was once reserved only for Bob Dylan and John Lennon. And why not? Lil Wayne was one of the three most important rappers of the '00s, a decade where hip-hop inherited and then maintained its place atop the music world.
It's a lofty declaration, but the Quincy "QD3" Jones III-produced film has the artistic and integrity-filled chops to make the premise a compelling one. Whether Wayne's lyricism is spelled out over grainy black and white photographs from live performances or in a quiet hotel room like the video below, The Carter keeps the focus on the music and away from the scandals and constantly retold ... kind of.
The "kind of" comes about because of the honest way in which Wayne's surreal-ly serious addictions -- drugs, recording and himself -- are shown in the film, and in turn will be the easiest to sensationalize. (No doubt, the very reason why Lil Wayne pulled his support from the project at the last minute.) Lough's camera is given an unparalleled pass into Wayne's guarded world, one that the many journalists shown interviewing him can only hope to glimpse in 15 minutes slots.
But Lough, and certainly with the aid of DVD-Mixtape luminary QD3's co-sign, gets weeks with Wayne in at least a dozen locations. The camera gets a guided tour through backstage worlds, tour bus sleeping quarters, endless press junkets, and sleepy-eyed viewings of Sports Center. Even more impressive, is the tour through Wayne's omnipresent Louis Vuitton bag, whose contents include a six inch stack of cash, a container of liquid codeine cleverly camouflaged in a grape Vitamin Water bottle, and a coffee-table book praising the form of the naked female body. It's the most physical example of the trust Lil Wayne bestowed upon the process, but perhaps not the most telling. That example isn't even allowing his daughter to be interviewed -- and her rap about "stuntin like her daddy" may be one of the film's most precious moments -- but it's the access to the New Orleans rapper's recording process.
While it's not discussed at any length in The Carter, it's hard not to think about Wayne's impending prison sentence when watching the film. The only time that Lil Wayne doesn't seem to be recording in his travel studio -- which literally goes everywhere he goes -- is when he's in a proper studio. He sets it up in hotel rooms and on the tour bus and puts in hours and hours every single night. It's what the man does. And while he has an affinity for the liquid codeine charmingly known as "syrup," it's easy to imagine that he'll be okay without it when he serves his time. And a little infliction of the real world might help tame his ghastly addiction to self...but this man is going to go insane without a studio. His passion for the process borders on a physical addiction and he says in the film that he has to record so often just to release the pressure in his head from all the rhymes building up throughout the day.
While the quotables and memorable scenes in The Carter are endless -- from grouchily ending an interview after only 90 seconds to Cortez Bryant's tears recounting the story that got the embittered manager kicked off the tour bus -- it's Lil Wayne's commitment to his art that truly resonates. And that The Carter found a way to translate that beyond the headphones makes it one of the top-five greatest hip-hop documentaries of all-time.