In Miami, with the Rikers clock at T-minus 20 days and counting, Team Wayne has turned the concrete set of Propmasters Studios into a national epicenter of nonstop music-video production. For the past two weeks, Wayne has been performing almost all of his verses before green screens so that Cash Money can store them like high-grade frozen sperm for later use. Today the project is "Roger That," a song by busty, trash-talking Wayne protégée Nicki Minaj; last night's shoot was the teen-friendly devotion song "Girl I Got You," by post-pubescent duo Lil Twist and Lil Chuckee. "Songs are coming in barely mixed," says director David Russo. "Just in case there's something with Wayne on it they can use. You wake up one day and look at your e-mail inbox and there's another MP3 and the message 'We want to shoot this tomorrow.'"
In the dark main bedroom of a tour bus sits the imposing, soft-spoken Cash Money chief Bryan "Baby" Williams, looking prison-yard hard with a bald, tattooed head, a boxer's maroon hoodie and sweatpants, 30-carat pinky rings, giant diamond earrings and a platinum grille that glints in the ultraviolet light. If Cortez Bryant represents Wayne's diversified new-media career, Williams represents New Orleans' dirty soul. Twelve years ago, before a shoot, Williams read the plan for a Cash Money video and saw a scene calling for a trunkful of money. Unaware that videos use prop bills, he arrived at the shoot with $750,000 cash. Even after he learned better, Baby insisted on the real thing. "It smells different, it feels different," Wayne's video producer, Jeff Panzer, explains. "When it's real, it's real."
"Wayne is my son," says Williams. Williams has done time, has family doing 25-year bids, plans to visit Wayne every week. "I've been with him forever," he says. "It will be the first time in my life I'll not be reachable to him. We work together, we're on the road together. We're always together. I try not to even think about it." His eyes watering, he says it feels like he's the one going inside. "I'm losing something in my soul, in my heart, in my life."
At 7:30, the call comes over the walkie-talkie: Wayne has left his tour bus in the parking lot and is moving toward the set — "Wayne walking." Crew members get in place, phone conversations end. "Twenty feet on Wayne. Ten feet on Wayne." Over a speaker, the bad, swaggering, lower-brass riff of "Roger That" comes in, louder than before. "Five feet on Wayne." And — "Wayne time" — Wayne enters, spewing blunt smoke, the red collar on his Neighborhood khaki jacket up, braids flowing behind his ears.
Rapping along with his verse's syncopated banzai, "I'm comin' in!" Wayne literally jumps into the verse: feet landing on "Fresh off the jet," up on toes for "sharper than Gillette," and bouncing back down on "the blood still wet," ambling through the lyrics wearing oversize gangsta-nerd glasses and a foot-wide diamond smile. After "cut," he walks to the side and takes a call. The track starts again and he comes back and does another, totally different take, lip-syncing and profiling with the seemingly effortless magnetism of someone who began doing videos at 14. He kills it five more times — three setups, three takes each, one group shot — and wraps at 8:10. Thirty minutes, total. "That's a world record," says Panzer.
Before Wayne splits, he pauses for a photo with members of the Cash Money and Young Money family, whose young members project a remarkably wholesome vibe considering the fact that Nicki Minaj declared herself "tight like a dick in a butt" in a rhyme earlier today. She, Tyga, Lil Twist and Lil Chuckee all look like third-generation Corleones compared to bald, muscled, sunglasses-shielded Birdman, who comes out and gets into a big hug. Wayne climbs in, flashes another grin and is out.
I have my last conversation with Wayne the way most people will for a while: on the phone. His voice is a deep croak; he sounds like he's been up for weeks. His final days before jail will be a blur: Amid all the videos, he'll watch the Cavs play the Lakers in Cleveland, then Nuggets-Hornets in Denver, spend as much time with his kids as possible, make a farewell appearance at a Miami concert on February 6th, and on the 7th attend an afterparty for the Super Bowl.
I ask what's the strangest thing about the past two months. "You know what's strange?" he says. "It's strange getting older, that's what's strange." Apparently, jail time doesn't compare. A day ago he watched an all-Wayne fest on the TV station Fuse, got lost in those memories. Like the one 11 years ago of a skinny, do-ragged 16-year-old scrub jumping up and down in front of a camera crew next to a stretch Hummer, waving two fistfuls of cash and lip-syncing verses to "Bling Bling'" — a song named after a word he says he coined, a word that would define an American era. He saw people from that shoot yesterday, only older. "That's what's crazy," he says. "It's like a movie to me."
Is he the movie's hero? "Um, I don't believe in heroes," he says. Wayne has FEAR tattooed on one eyelid and GOD on the other and says he believes "everyone should fear God. Fear not living Godly." I ask how he knows when he isn't — does he look for signs in his life? "I don't look for signs," he says. "But when things happen, I say, 'OK, something must be right.' Or 'OK, something must be wrong.'"
What does he say now, about this? "I look at things as everything is meant to be," he says. "I know it's an experience that I need to have if God's putting me through it. So I don't look at it as wrong, I just . . . I damn sure don't look at it as right, that's all."
Things will change, he says. He'll go back to writing lyrics for a while. But he won't be stopping: "I'll have an iPod, and I'll make sure they keep sending me beats. I'll be still rapping in there, have a gang of raps ready when I come back home.
"You can do that," he says. "You can have music in there. You can have music, period, bro."
This story is from the February 18th, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone.
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