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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Now, we're going to take a listen to one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful albums of the summer. It comes from New Orleans rapper Lil Wayne. His CD is called "Tha Carter III."

Our music critic, Robert Christgau, says the album is successful not only because of the music but because of the marketing.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERT CHRISTGAU: "Tha Carter III's" first week sales, which were easily pop's strongest since "Graduation" by Kanye West last September, were spurred by a daring marketing strategy that doubled as a cocky musical challenge. In the two and a half years between major label releases, Lil Wayne whetted his fans' appetites by giving away more songs than anyone can count. Most hip-hop artists nowadays prime the pump with gray-market mixtape CDs that add guest tracks, skits, freestyles and other second-drawer material to scattered previews of their next album.

But Lil Wayne was so prolific on the mixtape scene that he redefined it. He seemed to record all the time, free-associating verbally and vocally. Twice he put out double CDs of his own new songs, some over famous beats, some over original music. Many of these songs were supposedly slated for the official album; very few ended up there. A bunch of them are wilder than anything on the hit release and at least as good.

(Soundbite of song "Help")

Mr. JOHN LENNON (Vocalist, The Beatles): (Singing) You know I need someone.

THE BEATLES: (Singing) Help. Help.

LIL WAYNE: (Singing) So sick need a doc, yes. A creature, monster like the Loch Ness. I gets harder by the toc when I sizzle to death. I just tell the clock give me a sec…

CHRISTGAU: That track isn't Lil Wayne at his best, although I love it, just Lil Wayne at his most blatant. The Beatles sample with the submerged bass drum could never have been cleared for commercial release. Theoretically, this is okay because "Tha Carter III" mixtape CD, where it appears, isn't for sale, although artists and bootleggers do sell mixtapes under the counter at brick and mortar holes in the wall and online. I own about half a dozen Lil Wayne mixtapes, and there are many more out there. My favorite is called "Da Drought 3." But here's another track from my "Carter III" mixtape that's not on the new "Carter III" album. It's a dreamy, scary, song about getting high, "I Feel Like Dying."

(Soundbite of song "I Feel Like Dying")

LIL WAYNE: (Singing) And if my dealer don't have no more, then…

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) I feel like dying. Only once the drugs are done. I feel like dying.

CHRISTGAU: Lil Wayne was born Dwayne Carter. At 25, he's been rapping professionally since he was 11. "Tha Carter III" is Lil Wayne's sixth official solo album. On his mixtapes, he's evolved out of conventional bling-thug rhetoric into something much looser and more playful, treating gangsta rap's antisocial themes primarily as an arena for wordplay. That tendency is all over the official album as well.

(Soundbite of song "Mrs. Officer")

BOBBY VALENTINO: (Singing) I'll make you say.

LIL WAYNE: (Singing) Doin a buck in the latest drop. I got stopped by a lady cop. She got me thinking I can date a cop 'cause her uniform pants are so tight. She read me my rights. She put me in the car. She cut off all the lights. She said I had to the right to remain silent. Now I got her hollering sounding like a siren talkin 'bout, wee ooh wee ooh wee. Yeah.

CHRISTGAU: The chuckles, singsongs and timbre shifts of that brief excerpt from a song on the new album called "Mrs. Officer" typify Lil Wayne's shape-shifting rap technique. The range of his style is even clearer on "Dr. Carter" where he dons scrubs to try and cure a fake rapper.

(Soundbite of song "Dr. Carter")

LIL WAYNE: What we got?

Unidentified Woman #2: Your first patient…

LIL WAYNE: Yes.

Unidentified Woman #2: …is suffering from a lack of concept.

LIL WAYNE: Uh-huh.

Unidentified Woman #2: Originality. His flow is weak.

LIL WAYNE: In that order.

Unidentified Woman #2: And he has no style. What you got for him?

LIL WAYNE: (Singing) Okay. Let me put my gloves on and my scrubs on. Dr. Carter to the rescue. Excuse me if I'm late, but like a thief it takes time to be this great. So just wait. Your style is a disgrace, your rhymes are fifth place and I'm just grace. One, uno, ace and I'm tryin to make your heart beat like the bass.

(Soundbite of drumming)

LIL WAYNE: (Singing) But you're sweet like cake…

CHRISTGAU: It wasn't just mixtapes that built the man for "Tha Carter III," which also includes his first number one single, the double-entendre confection "Lollipop." There's a Kanye-produced slow jam called "Comfortable" on the album as well. These are okay, I guess. But I prefer Lil Wayne in untrammeled mixtape mode, and there's plenty of that on the new release as well. "Phone Home," based on the line about being an alien, he first came up with at a mixtape session. It's the perfect farewell.

(Soundbite of song "Phone Home")

LIL WAYNE: (Singing) We are not the same, I am a Martian and I'm hotter than summer rain like Carl Thomas. Lock, load, ready to aim at any target. I could get your brains for a bargain…

NORRIS: The new album from Lil Wayne is called "Tha Carter III." Our reviewer, Robert Christgau, is a senior critic at Blender magazine.

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