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Lil Wayne: Rap's Alien Genius

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Despite such a gratuitous level of productivity, Wayne remains one of the wittiest, most nimble rappers working today, with a hoarse delivery that sounds as if he's spent the past six months freebasing Vicks VapoRub and a penchant for surrealism informed by his actual drugs of choice: marijuana and prescription cough syrup. (The surrealism is epitomized by the 2007 mixtape track "I Feel Like Dying," in which Wayne imagines playing basketball with the moon and diving into a sea of codeine; it's basically the "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" of syrup paeans.) By my calculations, you'd have to go all the way back to Thriller to find another top-selling album of the year made by someone as flat-out eccentric as Wayne. On record, he often refers to himself as a Martian or a monster — meaning he's so prodigiously talented he's not quite human — and over the years, he's embraced body modification so enthusiastically, he seems intent on making himself look as post-human as he sounds. His teeth gleam diamonds, and a metal stud pierces his lip, and he's nearly covered, head to toe, all five-feet-six of him, in tattoos. And, of course, there's his recent excessive use of the Auto-Tune program on his warbled vocals, which began with last year's hit "Lollipop" and has the effect of making him sound like a cyborg — albeit a very stoned one.

Wayne's records have been going gold and platinum since his 1999 solo debut, Tha Block Is Hot, released when he was only 17. Still, as he moved into his 20s, Wayne was hardly a household name, and he began to feel as if his record label wasn't doing all it could to promote his music. So he came up with a plan of his own — in a blatant violation of the economic law of scarcity, he began working nonstop, recording and releasing countless mixtape tracks, generally available for free on the Internet. "The label was in my ear," recalls Wayne's manager and best friend, Cortez Bryant. "'Please, Tez, stop him! He can't be on all those songs.' He sat us down and told us all, ‘I know what I'm doing.'"

"I gave them one little message," Wayne says. "I said, ‘You never assign motherfuckers to my project. You're not going to treat me like your biggest artist, I must sell myself. If every artist has a thing, my thing is going to be my fucking talent. That's the rarity. My niche, that you're going to sell for me, is that he's the talentedest nigga ever. It's not my face, not what I wear. You're going to sell that this nigga is great every time. Every song that comes through for clearance, you clear that motherfucker. Every mixtape you hear about, you shut up. When it's time to drop, watch what happens.'" Tha Carter III sold a million copies in its first week.

"I used to tell Cortez," Wayne says, "my work ethic is going to sell me. Nobody ain't doing what I've done. People will have to recognize that."

It's Wayne's moment, for sure. He's touring arenas, Tha Carter III is still lodged in Billboard's Top 40, he remains a ubiquitous presence on radio and online. After spending years declaring himself "the greatest rapper alive," Wayne has indisputably fulfilled his own prophecy — and so, in typical Wayne fashion, his next move is one of the craziest in recent pop-music history: He has decided to record a rock album. Rebirth, which will feature Wayne singing, via Auto-Tune, over thrashy, emo-inflected riffs — some played by Wayne himself — is due out in June. It's not clear yet whether this latest artistic transformation will go down as a disastrous act of hubris or another brilliant career move that broadens the definition of what's allowed in hip-hop. The first single, "Prom Queen," with a video featuring members of Korn, unfortunately points to the former path. That said, Wayne looks awfully cool onscreen, flailing his hair like he's fronting a Soundgarden cover band, and there's certainly a young-rock-star void to be filled at a moment when the prospect of a Blink-182 reunion passes for exciting.

When I tell Wayne the rock album makes me think of Michael Jordan deciding he wanted to play baseball, he ignores the negative connotation of the comment — the fact that Jordan was thoroughly mediocre at baseball and transformed himself, overnight, from dignified retired sports icon to national punch line — and instead chooses to focus on the fact that he's just been compared to Michael Jordan. "You have to know I'm glad you say that," Wayne says, looking me in the eyes and seeming touched. "I always believe that to be the best, you have to smell like the best, dress like the best, act like the best. When you throw your trash in the garbage can, it has to be better than anybody else who ever threw trash in the garbage can. Michael Jordan is that type of person. Tiger Woods. Roger Federer. Muhammad Ali. Malcolm X. Martin Luther King. Obama. Frank Sinatra. John Kennedy. Basquiat. I study those people. What the hell did they do to be so great?"

And the answer? "They were just them. I shouldn't have said Muhammad Ali. I didn't mean to say somebody like that. All those other people, when you tell them they're the greatest, they act two ways — they either say, ‘No, I'm not,' or they say" — here, he assumes a humble voice — "'I know. Thanks.' That's because they are. Plainly, they are."

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Song Stories

“Bird on a Wire”

Leonard Cohen | 1969

While living on the Greek island of Hydra, Cohen was battling a lingering depression when his girlfriend handed him a guitar and suggested he play something. After spotting a bird on a telephone wire, Cohen wrote this prayer-like song of guilt. First recorded by Judy Collins, it would be performed numerous times by artists incuding Johnny Cash, Joe Cocker and Rita Coolidge. "I'm always knocked out when I hear my songs covered or used in some situation," Cohen told Rolling Stone. "I've never gotten over the fact that people out there like my music."

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