Lil Wayne works hard: In the two-plus years since Tha Carter II, he's released hundreds of dazzling songs on mixtapes, cultivated an imagistic and idiosyncratic flow, and repeatedly (and often rightly) insisted he's the ''best rapper alive.'' New Orleans' gangster-rap child star was becoming a man, triumphantly.
But Lil Wayne does not work smart. Tha Carter III should be an anointment, proof of his arrival in rap's elite. Wayne's genius is of the mad sort, though, and this schizoid album (packed with Wayne-as-alien metaphors, love songs, psychedelic boasts, and more) is alternately mesmerizing and inscrutable. There's some intricate art here: ''Dr. Carter'' and ''A Milli'' have bursts of spectacular rhyme, while ''Tie My Hands,'' about his hometown, is profoundly affecting. And for the first time, Wayne displays his pop ear on the oozy ''Lollipop'' and the Babyface-assisted ''Comfortable.'' Still, the meandering TC3 is like 16 songs from 16 different albums, barely more composed than one of Wayne's mixtapes. It's the sound of a great artist not trying his best, or questioning whether effort is even a worthwhile metric.
For merely running in place, TC3 can be transfixing. But it is not enough. When Wayne invites guests Fabolous and Juelz Santana on ''You
Ain't Got Nuthin,'' Jay-Z on ''Mr. Carter'' their clear intensity is a jolt. Jay-Z even sounds a bit reproachful: ''Go farther, go further, go harder/ Is that not why we came?/And if not, then why bother?'' Why, indeed. B-
DOWNLOAD THIS: Hear a preview clip of ''You Ain't Got Nuthin'' at mtv.com