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Sane in the Membrane

Believe it or not, Lil Wayne is cool, calm, and calculating.

Unlike full-time corporate crossovers such as 50, Pharrell Williams, and Diddy, however, it's clear Wayne is most concerned with his music. His commitment is almost quaint in an era when newbie rappers like Saigon and Lupe Fiasco threaten to retire, and many others claim their talents would be better used as street hustlers. Wayne truly wants to be the best rapper alive; though he publicly claims the title, it seems as if a voice in his head tells him he's still got a long way to go. "Gotta work every day/Gotta not be cliché," he urges himself on Tha Carter III track "Dr. Carter."

This attitude informs III, making it a departure from the tossed-off, improvised mixtapes he's been releasing since Tha Carter II came out in 2005. What makes III superior to said mixtapes is that he was forced to do some editing. Instead of relying on beats from songs that were already chart hits, the 16 tracks on the album are specifically tailored to his flow. Culled from folks such as Kanye West, Swizz Beats, and Miami locals Street Runner and Cool & Dre, the songs alternate between first-rate club-and-trance-rap ("Lollipop," "Mr. Carter," "A Milli"), mid- to low-tempo ballads that allow him to crack jokes ("Comfortable," "Tie My Hands," "Let the Beat Build"), and guitar jams that bring real drama. The album's highlight falls in the last category, with the Rolling Stones-cribbing "Playing with Fire," which recalls a battle against his mother's abusive husband and encourages his haters to assassinate him like Martin Luther King Jr. Even seeming throwaways such as "Mrs. Officer," about a raunchy affair with a cop, is given heft and humor via Bobby Valentino's sung hook, which sounds like a police siren. It's a welcome update on the used-to-death cop siren sample.

That's not to say there aren't plenty of stoned, off-the-dome moments on songs such as "Dontgetit," in which he babbles, "Due to the laws we have on crack cocaine and regular cocaine, the police are only [long pause] — I don't want to say only right, but shit, only logic by riding around in the hood all day and not in the suburbs." He briefly continues but then gives up: "You know where I'm going."

Lil Wayne: Still playing basketball on Mars.
Jonathan Mannion
Lil Wayne: Still playing basketball on Mars.

Details

At the South Florida SummerFest '08: With Akon, Keyshia Cole, DJ Khaled, Casely, and others. Saturday, June 28. BankAtlantic Center, 2555 Panther Pkwy., Sunrise. Show starts at 7 p.m. Tickets cost $47.50 to $292.50, www.ticketmaster.com

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But for better or worse, this is all part of Weezy's new (most would say improved) aesthetic since the days of his hurried, more predictable style that characterized II and his earlier studio output. Though previously he struggled to stay within longtime label Cash Money's tinny-beats-and-two-dimensional-bravado paradigm, on III, Wayne is completely comfortable saying whatever the hell he wants to, over whatever type of music he's feeling. (Even his own, poorly played guitar.)

Much of Wayne's charm is that no one — not even he — can predict what's going to come out of his mouth next. And because he has finally mastered the art of knowing when to let himself go and when to reel himself in, III is a cohesive, fulfilling work.

"Are there any tracks you're surprised turned out as well as they did?" I ask.

"Um, no. All of them are exactly what I expected," he says. "I put my all into them, and I expect to get all out of them."

Believe it or not, Wayne is a bit of a perfectionist. He has a remarkable ability to stay on-message, even after, perhaps, his third or fourth glass of syrup. Rest assured that despite making no effort to dissuade you of the notion he is completely unhinged, Lil Wayne knows exactly what he's doing.

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