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Lil Wayne: Rap's Alien Genius

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Ali's disqualification on grounds of braggadocio apparently does not apply to Wayne, who recorded a song called "Best Rapper Alive" for Tha Carter II and has expanded on the theme on tracks like "Best Thing Yet," "The Best in the Business," "They Still Like Me" and too many others to list. Still, like Ali in his heyday, Wayne actually is the best — at least since Dedication 2, the 2006 mixtape he recorded with DJ Drama, which arguably remains his strongest effort — and, as everyone knows, with great bestness comes great responsibility. Tonight, that includes a visit to a downtown Atlanta nightclub, where a local hip-hop label is holding a private showcase for Wayne in hopes that he might sign one of their artists to his Young Money imprint.

The club is called the Ice Ultra Lounge. It adjoins a Cajun restaurant and is literally ice-themed: Prom-grade fake icicles dangle from the ceiling. Wayne is led to a red couch at the foot of the stage, where he leans back to watch the show, never removing his sunglasses. There are three performers: a bouncy R&B singer in the vein of Usher who, uncomfortably, does not receive a single clap as he jogs offstage (Wayne's head remains perfectly still throughout the performance); a talented rapper sporting a mohawk, a bow tie and a red carnation, backed by a live band (think André 3000 fronting Body Count); and a sexy female trio operating in the Britney Spears/Pussycat Dolls "lip-syncing stripper" genre (their performance includes simulated lesbian cunnilingus and a metaphorical song called "Elevator.") Afterward, Wayne good-naturedly chitchats with the performers, but when I ask him what he thought, he only comments on the rapper, who he quite liked.

Soon, he's ready to leave the club. Outside, his driver, who wears leather gloves and a chauffeur's cap, waits in his Rolls Royce Phantom. I follow in my rental car with E.I., Wayne's road manager, and Bless, his personal assistant. E.I., who is from New York and has been working for Wayne for about five years, has been advising me to put as much of my money as possible in gold, specifically telling me about a place on 56th Street in midtown Manhattan where you can get Krugerrands. Now he turns to Bless and says of Wayne, with a mixture of admiration and amusement, "He got people doing everything for him. Driving his cars. Getting him drinks. Getting him bitches.

He's a step away from people breathing for him. I cut that nigga's steak!"

Bless cracks up and says, "I thought you were joking, but when you looked at me like that, I said, ‘Oh, shit — he's serious.'"

"You've really cut his steak?" I ask.

E.I. nods and says, "When he's in the studio, that's all he thinks of, is the music. He can't do anything else."

To helpfully illustrate the point, shortly after we arrive at the condo, Wayne struggles for about 30 seconds to remove an enormous diamond bracelet from his wrist. It's so big it looks like a prop handcuff specially designed for shackling a Houdini-like escape artist. After a few moments, another of his assistants rushes over and helps him unclasp the bracelet. He places it on a mantle along with other removed jewelry (a diamond-studded watch, several gold chains), and we retire to the TV room, where a home-theater screen takes up an entire wall. Hanging on another wall is a large abstract painting that's either been deeply inspired by Mark Rothko or is an actual Rothko. We settle onto a white leather sectional couch, and the chef places a melon plate on the glass table in front of us, next to a coffee-table book about Turkey. Wayne grabs a slice of cantaloupe and pulls a blunt from a packet of Swisher Sweets. (Assistants preroll Wayne's blunts for him and then return them to the packet.) Wayne smokes weed the way other people smoke cigarettes; he's got a blunt going pretty much every moment we're together, though he never offers to share.

The basketball game is playing on the giant television with the sound off. Wayne shifts his attention between the screen and the interview. He's sitting on the edge of the couch because of a pair of fresh tattoos on the backs of both thighs: Marilyn Monroe and a girl on a stripper pole. Inkwise, his body is approaching a circus-sideshow-tattooed-man level of saturation: I AM MUSIC over his right eye, trigger along a finger, a dove on one of his biceps, bang bang across his chest, a flaming Cash Money logo taking up most of his gut, fear and god over either eyelid (though Wayne tells me he's never been religious), misunderstood curving along the left side of his face. When he speaks, he has the habit of tilting his head back and his chin forward, in the manner of short guys of time immemorial looking to project swagger. His speaking voice has the same lizardy croak as his rapping voice. It sounds ancient, especially coming out of someone so young.

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