Lil Wayne broke the internet this week with the release of Tha Carter V, his 23-track opus that has been six years in the making.
The album offered fans a tantalising look into the rapper’s personal life and creative evolution — but perhaps the crown jewel was a long-awaited Kendrick Lamar collab with a backstory that’s even stranger than the myth surrounding it.
“Mona Lisa” first came to light thanks to — wait for it — now-incarcerated pharmabro Martin Shkreli. For years, Shkreli claimed to own some extremely rare hip-hop albums, including Tha Carter V (the rumours were later substantiated by New York state officials when he was sentenced to seven years in prison for fraud).
According to Esquire, Tha Carter V came into Shkreli’s possession after an almost serendipitous series of events. A third party bought Lil Wayne’s old Bugatti Veyron, who discovered “CDs and assorted personal belongings of Wayne in the car.” The story goes that Wayne didn’t want his stuff back, so Shkreli eventually wound up buying the CDs.
In a December 2016 interview with DJ Akademiks, Shkreli said that one of the purchases turned out to be what he thought to be a “two-CD, authentic, Carter V final product mixed down.” Shkreli said that he believed the sale was legal, although it eventually sparked an ongoing legal battle with Lil Wayne.
Over the last two years, Shkreli shared snippets of various tracks from Tha Carter V. One of the tracks that Shkreli leaked, which quickly became legendary among fans, was “Mona Lisa.”
On the audio from the leak, Shkreli can be heard calling it “the best song on the damn thing.” The song itself is an elaborate, theatrical display of both Wayne and Lamar’s talent, as they weave a dense, detailed story of a conniving woman who sets them up to be robbed blind by her real boyfriend. The two rappers compliment each other throughout with interweaving verses and tight, poetic lyrics. Lamar opens with a whisper of an introduction: “I got a story to tell, you know that I cherish these / Hope it ain't too many feelings involved.” Later, in a tense, deliberate chorus, Wayne sing-songs the lyrics, “Mona Lisa, long hair, don't care / She handle the business and don't ever tell.”
The track was almost certainly recorded years ago, since Tha Carter V was announced in 2012 and was supposed to drop in 2014. In a series of now-deleted tweets just says before it’s scheduled release date, Wayne explained that the album was being withheld due to a dispute with his label: “I am a prisoner and so is my creativity,” Wayne wrote, per Rolling Stone. “I am truly sorry and I don’t blame ya if ya fed up with waiting 4 me & this album.”
Wayne eventually sued his former label Cash Money, and just settled the legal dispute this year — allowing Tha Carter V and “Mona Lisa” to finally make their way to the rest of the world.