As his productivity increased, Wayne's tattoos multiplied, his outfits got more flamboyant and his reputation for drug intake grew. Wayne has confessed addiction to promethazine-codeine syrup, or "drank" — the cough-medicine-based drink that allegedly killed Houston rapper Pimp C in 2007. For the 2009 documentary The Carter, a camera crew followed Wayne around, capturing his remarkable talent but not shying away from showing the Styrofoam cup of syrup that seemed to always be in his hand, or its effects on Wayne's personality. In one scene, Wayne intones, "I am Frankenstein," and glowers woozily at the camera. Another scene has Bryant haltingly confessing, "I was ready to walk away. I can't look at him in that state." Later, Wayne tried and failed to stop the film's release; Bryant said that Wayne didn't get the approval he was promised, and that they "didn't like that angle." But when I bring up the syrup issue, Wayne brushes it away.
"I haven't fucked with that in a long time," he says of drank, saying that he quit cold turkey on May 9th, without withdrawal symptoms. When I ask about other drugs, he says, "I smoke weed all day." When I ask him if he's an addict, he says, "I'm a very successful addict. And a very smart one. And a very charismatic one. And one that just won four Grammys, and one that sold a million records in a week. One that still appears on everybody's songs, one that still sounds better than any rapper rapping. One that has four kids and is the greatest father ever to the kids." He laughs. "What am I addicted to, being great?"
Wayne pleaded guilty in October, two years after he was arrested for weapons possession following a concert he gave at New York's Beacon Theatre. According to reports, NYPD officers smelled pot smoke coming from Wayne's tour bus, pulled it over, then boarded it and found a .40-caliber handgun. Wayne was charged with gun possession and, after fighting it for two years, reached a plea agreement in October on charges of second-degree attempted criminal possession of a weapon.
Lil Wayne will almost certainly do his 12 months apart from the general population at Rikers Island, in a dormitory-style unit like the one that once housed football player Plaxico Burress (currently in prison on a weapons sentence) and other inmates the corrections department classifies as too vulnerable for the general population. But attorney Benjamin Brafman, who represents Burress, suggests Wayne's biggest challenge may be the time itself. "For many people who are Type-A personalities, there's a cooling-down period," Brafman says. "Where you don't have liquor, you don't use drugs, you don't stay up until 4:00 in the morning."
The person most responsible for keeping Wayne's career going for the next year is Bryant, a slim, preppy-styled 30-year-old who befriended Wayne when he was 15 and Wayne was 12, pulling him away from his violent background into school groups like McMain High School's marching band and looking after him ever since.
"You can't deny that in this industry, if you sit out six months you'll kill your career," says Bryant. To prevent this, Cash Money is going into overdrive to promote Wayne's Rebirth and the new album from Wayne's crew Young Money, recording a flurry of videos — for both album tracks and loose songs with Young Jeezy, Flo Rida and others — to be released while Wayne is in jail. Wayne is also performing with Eminem at the Grammys, his last major appearance before he goes in. The plan is to release the biggest bullet in Cash Money's chamber, Tha Carter IV — the follow-up to the million-a-week-selling Carter III — shortly after he gets out, hopefully in eight to 10 months for good behavior. The label Wayne largely funds will move its operation from its Miami base to New York for the duration of the sentence. Bryant is exploring jailhouse Twitter accounts, TV shows, clothing lines, creative commercial tie-ins, endorsements and any other means possible to hang on to Wayne's audience. "So his fans feel like they can touch him and reach him and see him and feel his music, so they won't miss him at all," says Bryant.
Half an hour outside Atlanta, Lil Wayne stands before the mixing board of Tree Sound Studios at 3 a.m., dressed for battle: super-low-slung black Levi's cinched at the upper thigh by a belt, and a black-and-white-checked bandana hanging out of the right back pocket, a black pinstripe cowl-neck jacket with the collar up, a white Polo tee and a purple college baseball hat over his flowing braids. A banging, Rick Rubin-style mid-Eighties hip-hop beat by Miami producer StreetRunner — which may or may not make it on to Tha Carter IV — booms from the monitors. Wayne breaks himself off a piece of Gummy Zone Sour Fries, and, eyes closed and head bowed, listens.
Wayne's engineer Mike Cahadia sits behind the board, peering at an open MacBook Pro. The dreadlocked 26-year-old has traveled in Wayne's inner circle for six months, bringing four or five beats to sessions daily, many from local Miami producers; he says Wayne has been favoring vintage, hard Beastie Boys-ish stuff lately. "He's the hardest-working artist, hands down," says Cahadia. "There's no comparison." Wayne's been recording guest spots for Young Money artists Gudda and Jae Millz, and tracks for Tha Carter IV.
The album Cash Money staffers internally designate "C4" (because it'll be the bomb) lives on a 500GB LaCie hard drive somewhere close to Wayne or Bryant, like the nuclear-launch codes that travel with the president, with a backup somewhere else in the Western Hemisphere. It will inevitably leak before it's released; the goal is to make sure it leaks days before it hits stores, rather than weeks or months. ("Two weeks is acceptable," says Bryant.) Nobody in Wayne's camp will play us any of the music, although Bryant describes its songs as having a tougher, faster edge. It's more or less done, but Wayne will probably keep adding to it until the last minute.
At around 4:45 a.m., the speakers are blasting a loose-limbed beat centered around the scratched rock-guitar blare from LL Cool J's "Rock the Bells." Shoulders rounded, Wayne grooves to it, ball-cap brim nodding. He plays air drums on the kickoff and then starts bouncing like a prizefighter. He's trying to get pumped, but nothing is coming together. Not a word has been committed to tape.
Forty-five minutes later, I find him outside at a pool table slamming balls against the sides. I ask if he wants to talk. "Nah!" he says. "I'm done talking!" He slams a ball hard and storms past me. As he does, I get what E.I. called the "Wayne look": a cold, hollow-eyed stare that says you're nothing but a clog in his flow. "If he don't like something, he's going to let you know," says E.I. "Whatever's wrong better be right in the next couple seconds." A minute later, Wayne emerges with coat and Vuitton bag, heading for the exit. I figure he is going to sleep and fight another day. The next day, I find out he just moved to the tour-bus studio and kept going, for hours.
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