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In November 1999, I was a scrawny 12-year-old, riding my bike in the Seattle rain to buy a 16-year-old’s debut album: “Tha Block is Hot” by Lil’ Wayne.

Two weeks ago, as a 31-year-old, I put on “Tha Carter V,” his long-delayed new album with the type of emotional connection that can only be birthed by dual powers of nostalgia and perspective.

About halfway into my nearly 20 years of listening to Wayne, I finally gained some perspective. I came to care more for the state of his life, health, soul, and family than the quality and creativity of his music. Along with millions of others, I streamed “Tha Carter V” to the top of the charts, but kept thinking, “What does this album say about how Wayne is doing?”

The Undefeated’s Justin Tinsley argues that “Tha Carter V” is, in part, a vulnerable tale of triumph over trauma when understood in the context of Wayne’s full story of adolescence. I agree. It is a testament to Wayne’s resilient spirit that he is still here. It is also a technical return to form. Wayne is as limber lyrically as his 2005-2009 peak. Still, it’s near negligent to downplay that Wayne’s soul-bearing introspection is seated next to nosedives into nihilism, the steady drumbeat of misogyny, and constant embellished threats of violence.

As a result, Wayne’s emotional triumph is muddled by Wayne’s lyrical content. This is why I consider the album’s opening track—an unscripted, emotional reflection by Wayne’s mother, Ms. Jacida Carter—most emblematic of the album’s primary redemptive quality.

The most important voice on “Tha Carter V” is not Wayne, an iconic rapper; it is the voice of Ms. Carter, a faithful, single mother.

The album’s triumphant beauty is the resilient love of a mother and son—a love that eclipses New Orleans poverty, emotional trauma, and global celebrity precisely because that is the transcendent power of a single mother’s love.

Finding Beauty on “Tha Carter V”

In between tearful declarations of her love for her son on “I Love You Dwayne,” Ms. Carter predicts that the five-years-delayed album “is gon’ be a beautiful album.”

This statement immediately rings as ironic, for the album is far more aptly described as brutal than beautiful. “Mona Lisa” showcases brutal bars outlining a depressing and twisted tale of betrayal and robbery. Even the admirable moments of existential introspection on “Open Letter,” “Perfect Strangers,” and “Don’t Cry” are soaked in a pungent fatalism and peppered with threats of perpetrating violence. So much for a beautiful album.

Sometimes I fear who in the mirror, that n—a weird

He done died so many times but still here 

Why am I here?

– Lil’ Wayne on “Open Letter”

The irony of Ms. Carter’s proclamation of beauty increases when we realize the album’s purest beauty, outside of a few moments of Wayne’s introspection, are the moments when we hear Ms. Carter’s deep love for her son.

The Resilient Love of Single Mothers

In Ms. Carter’s tearful declaration to her to son, “you is my life, I live for you,” I flashed back to 1999—and saw every job my mother worked to provide for me, her only child. I remembered how she worked retail to sell lamps. How she worked retail to sell clothes. How she drove buses. How she cleaned rich folks’ homes and brought me along, because what housecleaner can afford a babysitter?

In Ms. Carter’s profession of love, I felt my mother’s love. And, honestly, can an album—even with all its faults—receive a higher compliment than that? In this way, the star of “Tha Carter V” took me down memory lane. My mind raced back to the rainy November day I unwrapped my first CD from her son after my long bike ride.

Instead of reminiscing on Wayne’s music, Ms. Carter’s voice put the nostalgic spotlight on my relationship with my mother at a time when Wayne’s music was the backdrop to the turbulent years of my early adolescence.

Growing Up with Wayne

As odd as it sounds, Lil’ Wayne’s albums are emotional milestones, delineating major turning points in my adolescence.

“Tha Block is Hot” was the backdrop to my life in 1999, when as a 12-year-old, who had never met his father, I asked my mother to “please help me; find me a dad.” It wasn’t until a decade later that I understood the impossible emotional weight those seven words put on my mother. My dad left my mother before I was born and she never really considered dating again—until I uttered those words.

A year later when a stepdad entered the picture, Wayne’s “Lights Out” (2000) was my soundtrack. When my stepdad turned our once calm house to a place of fights and constant tension, I escaped by vibing heavily to Wayne’s “500 Degreez” (2002)When my mother and I tried to rebuild our lives in a new state after an ugly divorce from my stepdad, Wayne’s “Tha Carter” (2004) was my Psalter.

I don’t want to write a hagiography of Lil’ Wayne’s musical catalog. Listening to Wayne so consistently while I was young caused me to imbibe unhealthy and unrighteous ways of thinking. But I think I also found some grit and resilience. If this teenager from New Orleans’ roughest hood could make it through his problems, then maybe I could too.

Now I see that the genesis of Wayne’s resilience was not simply from within himself but from his mother—the same place where I drew my strength from, then and now.

The God Who Loves Like a Father…and a Mother

One of the brightest moments on the album comes via words recited by Wayne that originated from his mother, a hood translation of Psalm 139’s declaration that we are fearfully and wonderfully made: “Mama said God took his time when he made me.”

Crooned by Wayne over lush production, the hook is inspiring. But the verses are brutally violent. That the verses of this track exult in senseless violence (“Pullin’ triggers like hairspray/shoot ’em in the head, bad hair day”) while the hook shares Ms. Carter’s God-fearing wisdom is further proof that this album’s glimpses of wisdom and goodness are vocalized most through Ms. Carter.

God works through single mothers who teach us we are fearfully and wonderfully made, who dedicate their lives to raising us to beat the odds, and who love us despite our wounds, self-selected or others-inflicted.

The God who calls himself the defender of widows and the father to the fatherless (Ps. 68:5) shows himself to be so often through his goodness and love poured out from him to us through our mothers.

The fierce love of a faithful mother is a wonderful echo of the faithful love of God in Christ who loves us and “gave his son for us” (Gal. 2:20) and who promises “as one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you” (Isaiah 66:13).

Framed by Love

In typical rapper fashion, Wayne uses his last track “Let It All Work Out” to turn his gaze heavenward. It stands out as Wayne’s best attempt at a Romans 8:28 sentiment. In it, he details his attempted suicide at age 12, which displays the power of a mother and son who have navigated deep traumas of violence and struggle.

It’s only right the album opens and closes with declarations of Ms. Carter’s love for her son. Her framing brings a sense of order and beauty to the existential angst and confused morality of the album. Her love literally frames and covers a multitude of bars about violence and despair.

This is a love that is ultimately a gift from God (James 1:17) and a love that Wayne would no doubt credit in giving him the strength to overcome so much to still be here. Whether we know it or not, the love of our mothers comes from the goodness of the Father.

“Tha Carter V” surprised me. Not because Wayne found his vintage flow or suddenly found conscious content, but because it gave us insight into the strength and love of our mothers.

 

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