Lil Wayne

Tha Carter III (Universal Motown)

In the two and a half years since he released Tha Carter II, New Orleans rapper Lil Wayne has released a flood of mixtapes and Internet-only releases, delayed the release of his new album five or six times, collaborated with his mentor Birdman on Like Father, Like Son, and made guest appearances on dozens of pop and hip-hop singles. He's also become one of the biggest pop stars in the world, based as much on the anticipation for Tha Carter III as much as for any particular performances.

What could live up to that kind of hype? Not much of anything, but Tha Carter III comes close. The disc doesn't have the kind of absurdist wordplay that made the Drought and Dedication mixtapes so popular, but Wayne is still plenty weird—he rhymes "suit" with "Betelgeuse" on "Mr. Carter," and performs elaborate conceptual hip-hop surgery on his rivals on "Dr. Carter." He also has better production than he's ever had before, by Swizz Beats, Cool and Dre, and Kanye West.

It may be difficult to think of a 70-minute album featuring guest spots from Jay-Z, T-Pain, Robin Thicke, and rediscovered soul queen Betty Wright as focused. But compared to Wayne's digressive mixtapes, Tha Carter III is sharp and clear. It is, in fact, an impressive balance of Wayne's own bizarre, stream-of-consciousness instincts and an editor's ear. Wayne's the star, but he shares the spotlight and lets the production have nearly as strong a voice as his own.