“What’s understood ain’t gotta be explained. So for those who understand meet Dwayne”, and so spits Dwayne Carter III, better known as Lil’ Wayne, on his critically acclaimed third “official” album Tha Carter III. The album has graced numerous top albums of the year lists—almost always in the top 5—and nabbed three Grammys, including best rap album of the year. But even more important than the album’s critical success was its commercial success, selling more than a million copies in its first week and going platinum twice, all in an era of decreasing record sales and free downloads. So why has Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III achieved such critical and commercial success—why did the album resonate with music industry elites, middle class white teenagers, and young men and women of color?
Tha Carter III transcends divisions of race, class and gender for one simple reason: it is a 16 track manifesto on alienation.
According to Marx alienation is a concept that stems directly from capitalism: the more that commodities are valued the less value people and the “world of men” (i.e. creativity, love, happiness) have in society. Marx explains, “With the increasing value of the world of things proceeds in direct proportion the devaluation of the world of men”. This inverse relationship turns the commodity which has been produced by a worker’s labor into something which is no longer part of the worker—an alien thing. Marx identifies four different types of alienation:
1. alienation from the products we produce
2. alienation from the production process
3. alienation from the species-being
4. alienation from others
Individuals are alienated from the products they produce in that many of them will never even see the final product of their labor. This alienation occurs not only for young Mexican women assembling parts in a maquiladora, but also for people of color, whose current and historic labor allows capitalism to continue, but who most often never see the fruits of that labor. Alienation from the production process is a natural companion to capitalism—workers do not own the means of production, and so as workers labor in order to survive they become separated not only from the products they produce but from their own labor as well. The more alienation exists in one part of the workers life the more it manifests itself in the other. Humans, Marx argues, are conscious of their position as a species, in other words they see themselves universally. This is a species-being. Marx also argues that humans strive to labor creatively and are social creatures. When we are forced to work one or more jobs in which we are alienated from the things we produce and our own labor in order to survive we no longer have the time or will to engage with our species being or with others. We come home from work—whatever that may be—and we eat, fuck, and sleep. We become animals. Our desires as a species-being and a social creature are suppressed.
A simpler way to understand the complex concept of alienation is that it is the separation of our public and private selves, or as Marx puts it, “First it (capital) estranges the life of a species, likewise in its abstract and estranged form”. While most Marxist theorists identify this as political alienation I believe this understanding is universal to the different ways in which economic alienation exists. Capitalism forces humans to labor in order to survive—we become one person at our jobs, and another when we are off work. This is alienation, the forced denial of our desires, as a species-being, in order to live.
Alienation, like all things, has a two-fold nature. Being alienated leads us, on the one hand to despise that system that keeps us alienated, and on the other hand to desire all the fruits of the system that alienates us in the first place. We hate capitalism, even if we don’t call it that. We hate our jobs, we hate our bosses, we hate those in power and we, as workers hate them universally. At the same time we strive to be like our bosses, more like those in power; we want to own the fruits of our labor and the means of production, we want to have all the things that we see our bosses and those with power have. As humans, as species-beings, we are constantly struggling against our alienation. As workers we aspire to be less alienated, and in the immediate sense that means that we aspire to own the things we produce. These two opposites are constantly struggling against each other.
Tha Carter III is nothing if not a record of this struggle. Alienation; both economic and political, the fight against it and the indulgence in it, are pervasive throughout the entire album.
Lil’ Wayne starts the album out with the song “3 Peat”, the album begins with Weezy speaking, “They can’t stop me, even if they stopped me”. He sets the stage early. On his second single, “A Milli”, he spits, “I'm a millionaire I'm a Young money cash money fast money Slow money mo' money neva low money”. Here we see that Wayne aspires to be like those he sees in power, rich, he understands that wealth is one way to fight economic alienation. It is important to note that Lil’ Wayne does in fact own the means of production. He is the CEO of his record label, and beyond that he is able to labor creatively because of it—even releasing numerous mixtapes that are available for free. It is apparent however in his music that Weezy, a twenty-six year old black man from New Orleans, is aware of the fleeting nature of his wealth and perceived ability to be a species-being. He continues “A Milli” rapping, “And I'd rather be pushing flowers, than to be in the pen sharing showers”; though Lil Wayne is a capitalist, his status as a black man in America puts him at constant odds with the system that he works in. The history of slavery in the U.S. puts him in position where no matter how much money he accumulates he will still be subject to alienation. Lil Wayne, though a young, successful, CEO, still lives on the other side of the veil. This is evident in the above line; though he’s a millionaire he is keenly aware of his ability to lose it all, and for him death is fate better than prison (where one in nine black men reside). In songs like “Mrs. Officer” and “Lollipop” Wayne takes the objectification of women to the max, his ideas of ownership, and women as a disposable commodity match the patriarchy that is rampant under capitalism, then in “Pussy Monster” he spits a virtual ode to the female sex organ, seeking to pleasure it rather than take from it. It’s not exactly anti-patriarchal, but is a step toward struggle. In “Don’t Get It (Misundastood)” Wayne spends about seven minutes ranting about inequality, white supremacy, and Al Sharpton, he is obviously opposed to these systems and people that keep him alienated, and when he says, “misundastood ain’t gotta be explained” he expects that the listener will understand his hatred, he expects that we—all of us living under capitalism—understand his frustration.
The prevalence of alienation, its manifestations, and the struggle that exists between giving in to capitalism and truly hating it make Tha Carter III an album that speaks a universal language.