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Lil Wayne: Rap's Alien Genius

Inside the hermetically sealed, perpetually stoned, compulsively improvised bubble around the world's most endearing gangsta

April 16, 2009
Lil Wayne
Lil Wayne on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Peter Yang

One night in March, an elevator opens onto the 23rd floor of a midtown Atlanta skyscraper, and Lil Wayne steps into the alcove of his luxury condominium. His place takes up the entire floor of the building. Still, to enter the apartment proper, Wayne must affix a digit to a biometric fingerprint scanner, which unlocks his door with a satisfying pop. Inside, massive windows offer breathtaking panoramic views of the city. Perhaps to avoid competing with such vistas, the decor in the apartment is tastefully minimalist. A series of black-and-white photographs of rural life in Venezuela line two white walls. Various African statues perch on a row of pillars, and a beaded South African bridal apron hangs in one of the bathrooms. (I know it's a South African bridal apron because little museum-style plaques hang beside all of the art.) A chef in a double-breasted chef's jacket, standing at attention behind a sprawling kitchen counter, quickly pours Wayne a tall glass of grape juice. At the end of the counter, there's a giant bowl filled with individual-size bags of potato chips and cookies.

Lil Wayne: A History in Photos

Tonight, Wayne is wearing bright-red Vans sneakers, low-slung black denim pants, a white Polo T-shirt and large plastic-framed glasses. His thick dreadlocks are pulled back and hanging down to about mid-shoulder-blade. There's something Clark Kent-ish about the glasses, like he's trying to disguise himself, or somehow signal "off duty" with this single bookish touch. He grabs a remote and flicks on a flatscreen television — the ACC college-basketball tournament is taking place at the Georgia Dome this weekend, and Wayne is a fanatical sports fan. His love extends to hockey, race-car driving, even golf. "Tiger might lose to Phil Mickelson," he informs me. "Nigga been number one since 2005!" In September, he started blogging for ESPN's website. Well, "blogging" — he's interviewed once a week by a staffer who turns his (often very funny) observations into posts. Wayne, e.g., on Shaq: "You can't underestimate [his] size. That's like a gorilla getting mad and actually deciding to go crazy. He's not an old man, he's an old gorilla. And I say that with love, but you can't treat him like a man." Wayne says his people actually approached ESPN two years ago. "They never responded," he says. "But now they did."

This evening, the city is shrouded in a cinematic fog, and from the window, the buildings fall away into the night, seeming as distant as another galaxy. "Amazing view," I say. Wayne continues to stare at the game. Then, registering my comment, he glances over and grins, half-modest, half-embarrassed at how little it takes to impress me, as if I've just complimented his stockpile of Doritos. "It's just Atlanta," he says.

Lil Wayne: 10 Essential Tracks

Lil Wayne is one of the most popular — and prolific — recording artists in the world. He got his start at 15, as the youngest member of the New Orleans hip-hop group the Hot Boys. He's 26 now, and last year he released his sixth studio album, Tha Carter III. It was the bestselling album of 2008. The same year, he was the featured attraction on several mixtapes — most notably DJ Drama's Dedication 3 and the Empire's excellent The Drought Is Over, Part 6 — and made guest appearances on a staggering 110 tracks by other artists, according to the fan website Lil Wayne HQ. He rarely skips a night in the studio, often working until dawn, and show-stealing performances at the VMAs and the Grammys brought him even more mainstream attention — including a hilarious prime-time interview with Katie Couric. When the CBS anchor asked him about his well-documented love of weed, Wayne said, "I'm a rapper. That's who I am, Miss Katie. And I am a gangsta. And I do what I want," a sound bite he's since sampled for an as-yet-unreleased new track. (I'm feeling superior about the Couric exchange until, during our time together, Wayne begins calling me "Mr. Mark," and I realize this must be his default means of mock-polite address when dealing with any square-seeming white journalists.)

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