For a seemingly straight forward music documentary, Adam Bhala Lough’s The Carter is tough to pin down. The film somehow manages to enlarge and diminish Lil Wayne at the same time. It makes him seem less interesting as it allows him to inhabit every crevice of your imagination. It is riddled with contradictions: neither inside nor outside, at once intimate and guarded, revealing and banal, alternately sloppy and delicately composed.
The Carter tracks Lil Wayne for six months before and after the release of Tha Carter III, the album that, for good or ill, solidified his status as hip-hop’s premier star. Wayne granted Lough what appears to be total access to his world on the road, but did not consent to formal interviews. Though we rarely see Wayne alone, Lough refrains from speaking with many other people, sticking mainly to Cortez Bryant, Wayne’s manager. There are also brief snippets of interviews with Reginae Carter, Wayne’s daughter, and Baby, co-founder of Cash Money Records, the man who signed Wayne when he was just 11 years old and became his surrogate father shortly thereafter. Beyond that, it’s all Weezy. Citing Robert Frank’s Cocksucker Blues as his model, Lough is in thrall to the now of direct cinema, preferring to hang back and observe Wayne in his element than to pigeonhole him with talking heads and voiceover. He augments these scenes with footage from numerous interviews Wayne conducts with other outlets, maintaining the vérité surface while allowing Wayne to speak for himself.
The film’s organization is not apparently chronological, nor is there any overwhelming structural principle. Lough hopscotches around, chasing various themes and facets of Wayne’s career. As a result, there is little narrative propulsion. It doesn’t matter because Lil Wayne is compelling enough that even the pointless segments hold you in rapt attention. Lough leaves room for Wayne to stretch out and air his complexities instead of constricting him within a stock music film casing.
Lough is at his strongest when he lets scenes run long, pushing the audience in multiple directions, waiting for the guarded rapper to reveal himself, the protracted interactions taking on rich nuances. The big set piece of this type takes place on the tour bus, when Wayne asks 15-year old Young Money rapper Lil Twist if he’s still a virgin. “I was raped” he intones somberly, silencing everyone on the bus, before breaking into a sly grin, continuing in sotto, “and I loved it”. The bus fills with laughter. Wayne describes how Baby and his entourage pushed a groupie on him when he was 11, repeating his words in a pitch-perfect imitation, as though he can still hear them: “suck Lil Wayne’s lil’ dick”. He’s animated, moving through the bus, hamming it up, basking in the attention of his crew. Wayne clearly believes both the set-up and the punchline: he acknowledges the near total violation and still relishes it. It is nauseating and terrible; an intimate glimpse at trauma. But what is really fucked up is that the scene is funny too. We are implicated, and must accept what Wayne has.
Over the period of time in which the film was shot, Wayne emerged as rap’s sole central figure. Since Tha Carter II, he had been an undeniable critical force. In the feverish period that followed, he released mixtape after mixtape, each one better than the last. It felt as though there wasn’t a beat in the world that he hadn’t flipped. Each week new tracks popped up on the internet, his rhymes transcribed and breathlessly analyzed as quickly as they appeared. And with each song, he seemed funnier, more flexible, possessed by a greater ambition than before. It was thrilling to watch a rapper who, at 17 was already better than most of his competition, refining his formal talents and his sensibility into a total aesthetic vision at once convincingly pop and unarguably eccentric. Wayne had been a remarkable rapper since the Hot Boys, but he had never before been so visionary.
The avalanche of praise, and his show stealing guest verses on “We Takin’ Over” and “Duffle Bag Boy” primed him to steal rap’s mantle from a weary Jay-Z, and Kanye West, who was flailing in every direction to convince audiences of his continued relevance. Before tracks from Tha Carter III even began to leak – which wasn’t long, given Wayne’s notoriously lax studio security — it was anointed as the rap record of the year. Things played out exactly as expected. Even if he tempered the rabidity of his base with the first single, “Lollipop”, a stridently mainstream, auto-tuned pop song, it resonated with the public, hitting number 1 on the U.S. Singles charts, and going platinum five times. Tha Carter III put him squarely in the center of the critical consensus/popularity Venn diagram that makes a pop star larger than life. But the album was uneven, sluggish in places, and often ugly and unpleasant. It was unquestionably well-received. There is no accounting for taste, but it really seems like its success was preordained, a collective “our bad” for not bowing to his achievement earlier, like Al Pacino’s Scent of a Woman Oscar. I could be wrong, but I’m willing to wager that you haven’t heard anyone bumping “Phone Home” or “Pussy Monster” since the door closed on the summer of 2008. It has been mostly downhill since. He has become no less prolific, but as the quality of his material dipped, what seemed before like boundless energy and inventiveness started to look like an inability to edit, the playfulness became frivolity, and his avant-gardeish tendencies began to resemble a refusal to confront his own limitations. He has had a handful of great mixtape tracks, but they are outnumbered by uninspired guest verses, and sorry Young Money posse cuts, padded with dopey pop culture similes (there is a moment in The Carter where he annotates a Boy Meets World reference). His major project in the months following Tha Carter III was Rebirth, a rock album that was precisely as bad as everyone predicted it would be.
The Carter cannot help but force you to question why Lil Wayne matters. Lough catches Wayne in an artistic trough that has done nothing to undermine his centrality. There are better rappers, and there are more popular rappers, but there is still no one else in that sweet spot. Weezy, as he appears here, is brilliant but thoughtless. He is always working, always pushing himself, but not in any clear direction. He is a smart dude, but when he isn’t talking about New Orleans, he doesn’t have a lot to say. For a while, he was good enough that it didn’t matter, but in the arid spell that The Carter covers, you start to wonder why Wayne should be the primary figure in what is still America’s most vital art form. It is unfair to expect a documentary, especially one as openly contingent and fragmentary as Lough’s, to be able to answer these questions. The Carter is a portrait, not an essay, but a portrait of this scale, especially of a contemporary figure, cannot help but confer upon its subject an importance that necessitates them in the first place.
As sharp and charismatic as Weezy can be, here he seems depressed, compulsive, and deeply self-involved. His addiction to codeine and promethazine cough syrup is the film’s primary through line and its most talked-about feature. Wayne’s double Styrofoam cup is present in almost every scene. He doesn’t hide it, but he won’t talk about it, in stark contrast to his eagerness to broadcast his marijuana use. His publicist has to steer journalists away from the subject. It is a wedge between Wayne and Bryant, who obliquely describes the argument that got him barred from the tour bus, in a short excerpt from what Lough described as a three-hour rant about Wayne’s addiction.
In this context, it is hard not to pathologize Wayne’s work ethic as well. He records even more frequently than you would imagine from the barrage of material. He carries a microphone and a digital recorder wherever he goes. The Carter ends not with a drug binge, as some of the post-Sundance buzz suggested, but a studio binge, Weezy up all night working over vocal and instrumental tracks for Rebirth. During a hotel room recording session that appears midway through the film, Wayne says he wants to transform the music world:
to be an ultimate artist, I believe you have to be like me. And I try and do everything. See, I’m just 25, so my past is a whole lot, but I got a lot to go…By 28, 29, you’ll be looking for a Lil Wayne album, full of rap – the best rap – full of songs – the best songs, not the best singing, full of music. I want you to look for that. I don’t want that to only be for me, I’m creating the face of music period. I want every artist to feel like they have to do way more than what they do. And that will be better for us as listeners…I do everything good.
He is serious; his ambition is huge and very real. This is the reason why Lough says he sees the film as inspirational. But against the dark backdrop of the rest of The Carter, the work seems pleasureless, as compulsive as the drugs, another route to escape the pain of being Lil Wayne. He is a lot more convincing when he tells an interviewer that he doesn’t care what anybody else thinks. The Carter pictures him increasingly isolated from other people: distant from his daughter, alienated from his staff, completely uninterested in sex and women. Wayne’s best work has always been with strong collaborators — Mannie Fresh and the Hot Boys, DJ Drama, Baby/Birdman — and the fact that he has receded further into himself may partially explain the unfocused nature of Tha Carter III and what has followed.
Much of the discourse around Lil Wayne in recent years has been characterized by a ghoulish, martyr-seeking tone. People love their tragic figures — it can sound like critics and fans are waiting, fingers crossed, for Wayne to OD, and with songs like “I Feel Like Dying”, and “Me and My Drank”, he has at times courted this sentiment. Lough has too much respect for Wayne to pitch The Carter in this direction. But he cannot help, at times, to slip into this register: the ominous incidental music that surfaces at various points in the film, and his fixation on the drugs and the pain. But he also allows Wayne to refute it directly when a journalist asks him how he foresees his own death.
I am ascribing these decisions to Lough, but it is particularly difficult to know here whose film it really is. Lough was hired by Quincy Jones III to direct the movie (and was, according to Lough, his second choice). Besides a few stipulations — notably that he had to omit any reference to The Bloods — Jones gave Lough the freedom to do what he liked. Wayne agreed to the project, and gave Lough what appears to be pretty intimate access for six months, but exclusively to his work life. Wayne is always performing here, not in the sociological sense, but literally performing — recording music, holding court with friends or interviewers, in concert, or just sort of mugging and lip synching along with recent tracks. Most of the film unfolds in the lavish but desultory mise-en-scène of hotel rooms, recording studios and tour busses. Wayne frequently talks about his desire to leave nothing behind but his music, and as revealing as he is at times, you get the sense that we are seeing the Wayne he wants us to see. Lough’s choices were constrained by these factors — he shot when he could, and eventually handed over six months of footage to his editor. The film’s main virtue — that scenes are allowed to play long and develop in nuanced, complicated ways — is based in editing. But the more obviously editorial decisions — holding long on Reginae after she says that the best possible present would be having her father around, before cutting to Weezy messing around on his tour bus, for example — are ham-handed.
That Wayne remains elusive is one of the film’s strengths. But there are scenes scattered throughout that are as half-baked as Lil Wayne’s recent output. It is larded with clips of Wayne moving around in slo-mo to one or another of his songs, his rhymes appearing on screen in big, graphic text, often accompanied by numbingly literal illustrations; if he’s rapping about syrup, we see him with his cup, and so on. It is tempting to justify the film’s messiness by saying it matches Wayne’s complexities. That is too glib — there are whole scenes in the movie that do not work, and cannot be explained away in these terms. Even so, The Carter is an urgent, important film, in another league entirely from anything else produced in the recent wave of low-budget music docs. I have now watched the film three times, and have picked up on new details and subtleties with each viewing. You can quibble with almost any one of Lough’s choices, but the whole is so rich and multi-faceted, that it seems petty to complain. The film cannot account for the excitement Wayne commands, but it suggests that spending time with him is maybe enough.