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.
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 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.)
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."
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.
The rasp of his voice is the source of his other nickname, Weezy — or, more fully, Weezy F. Baby. His full proper name is Dwayne Michael Carter Jr. He grew up in New Orleans' 17th Ward, in a neighborhood called Hollygrove, one of the poor, low-lying areas badly flooded during Hurricane Katrina. He never knew his biological father, Dwayne Sr.; his mother, Jacinda, was only 19 and not up for the responsibility of raising a child, so Wayne lived with his grandmother until he was 10. He always loved performing. "I was the only child," Wayne says, "so whenever anybody came to the house, it was showtime. I couldn't wait." He started rapping at eight. He liked the reactions he'd get from people when they'd hear unexpected things coming out of a little kid's mouth. "I used to know what I shouldn't be understanding," Wayne says, "so when I'd rap, adults would say, ‘How did you know about that?'" Eventually, he met a rapper from the neighborhood named Lil Slim, who was putting out Southern gangsta-rap records with titles like Thug'n & Pluggin on a local label called Cash Money.Lil Slim eventually introduced Wayne to Cash Money's founders, the brothers Bryan "Baby" Williams and Ronald "Slim" (a different Slim) Williams, at a record signing. Wayne was 11, and he rapped for Baby on command. Baby was impressed that Wayne looked him directly in the eye, and he gave the kid a Cash Money business card. "I never stopped calling him," Wayne says.
"You can't listen to most New Orleans music and listen to mine and compare — they're so different," says Wayne. "But how New Orleans is in my music is, we have this drive about us. We have this motivation. You see people on the corner, singing, and that takes a different type of pride to do that. It takes a different type of pride to go on the corner and ask for money for Girl Scout Cookies. When we used to play on the little baseball team, you had to wash cars at the red light. It takes that kind of pride. I think that's why me, being 11, looking at this man who's intimidating the world, he tells me to rap, and I rap. He didn't ask me to tell him about who I am. I probably would have froze up. But music, rap music — I think that's where New Orleans comes in. We're relentless when it comes to music."
It turned out that Wayne's mother had gone to high school with the Williams brothers, which seems like it should have been an advantage, except she knew their gangster reputations. "When I came in and said, 'I'm thinking of being with Cash Money,' she said, 'Who?' I said, 'Baby and. . . .' She said, 'Bryan Williams. Oh, no.' She was totally against it." Still, she allowed him to do odd jobs around the label office, until his grades began to suffer. "Her punishment," Wayne says, "was, 'You're not gonna be with them no more.'" It probably didn't help that, around this same time, Wayne accidentally shot himself in the chest while playing with a handgun. He's told different versions of the event, but all involve childish clowning around: In one, he was stoned and reaching for a bag of cookies, in another, imitating Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver in a bedroom mirror.
To win back his mother's trust, Wayne threw himself into school. "I wasn't the type of kid to be like, 'I'm going to be distraught because I can't rap,'" Wayne says. "My mom said, 'You're going to do school and love school,' and that's what I did. I'm smart as fuck. I started bringing home shit she never did." Last year, his former drama teacher told New Orleans' Times-Picayune: "[Wayne] didn't always behave, but as far as an actor, you couldn't ask for anything better. . . . He was very talented. He was very committed to his character."
"He was about 12, and I was about 15 when we met," recalls manager Bryant, a thin, preppy guy who wears cardigan sweaters and glasses with red plastic frames. "It was right after he'd shot himself, and his mother had pulled him away from rap. I was involved with a lot of things in high school, so that's how I got to know him." Wayne says Bryant was "like a college high school student. You know that type? The 11th or 12th grader that's already acting like he's in his second year of college, coming to school in slippers, like he lives in a dorm room. The girls loved that shit — girls always want to mess with someone who acts older. So he was kind of the shit at school."
Wayne also became a bit of a nerdy overachiever, playing a munchkin in a high school theater production of The Wiz (YouTube it) and cymbals in the band and fullback on the football team (he was small but aggressive). He was always small for his age, but other students never picked on him. "I always ran with some badass kids," Wayne says. (Cortez, presumably, aside.) "We were all small, but we'd bust your ass. We were called MM — the Midget Mafia."
Meanwhile, the New Orleans underground hip-hop scene was beginning to blow up. Master P and his self-financed No Limit label had just signed a huge deal with Priority Records after a series of regional hits, and other labels were beginning to look for local talent. Wayne's stepfather, Reginald "Rabbit" McDonald — whom Wayne describes as a drug dealer on one of his mixtapes — paid $700 to have Mannie Fresh, Cash Money's in-house producer, record a demo for Wayne; at the time, Cash Money was a year away from breaking out of local notoriety and signing its own lucrative deal with Universal. "That was big money back then," Wayne says. "That nigga was putting down, because he wasn't my real dad. He was like, 'Shit, nigga, if this shit don't work, I need my $700 back.'"
So far, Wayne has recorded about 50 possible songs for Rebirth. He's not finished yet, but he's given this generous first batch to Bryant, who will choose the final track listing and who has been listening to the songs obsessively, just as he did with the glut of material for Tha Carter III. Wayne's other major project at the moment is promoting his nine-member Young Money crew, which will release its own debut around the same time as Rebirth. Vibe magazine recently ran a blog post on Young Money with the headline "Lil Wayne's Crew Not That Gangsta." And it's true: The group includes two teenagers who look like little kids (13-year-old Lil Chuckee and 16-year-old Lil Twist), two scantily dressed women (Shanell and Nicki Minaj) and Drake Graham, who is from Canada (where "not that gangsta" might actually be written on the flag in Latin) and who is best known for playing a physically disabled student on the hit tween soap opera Degrassi: The Next Generation.
Another member of Young Money, Gudda Gudda, sits on a black leather couch. OK, he looks gangsta. The letters S-H-I-T are tattooed on the fingers of his left hand and a spiderweb tattoo covers his elbow. Gudda is from New Orleans' Ninth Ward; he and Wayne met when they were teenagers. "He was best friends with one of my homies, and so we started gambling together, shooting dice a lot," Gudda says. Wayne was 16 by that point and had already started making hit records with Cash Money. "We all knew who he was," Gudda says. "I remember he'd come through the neighborhood in his little cars. At that time, I was strictly hustling. One day, Wayne said, 'You been through a lot. You should write that on paper.' It was like a Daniel-san/Mr.Miyagi type thing. He showed me how to pattern verses, cut out certain words, just get straight to the point."
One afternoon, I meet Wayne at a warehouse space in an industrial neighborhood in Atlanta where he's overseeing a photo shoot for the Young Money album. He's wearing a black Adidas tracksuit with white stripes and quietly ashing a blunt into an empty bottle of Vitamin Water. Last year, on the mixtape track "Louisianimal," he taunted the rapper 50 Cent with the lines "All about a dollar, fuck two quarters/Bitch, I'll pour syrup in that Vitamin Water." (50 has his own flavor of Vitamin Water.) Later, he comments on 50's most recent beef — mocking Miami rapper Rick Ross for working as a prison guard before he became a rapper. "People be mad at Rick Ross because he had a job," Wayne snorts, shaking his head. "Like, 'Ha ha, you had a job before you had a job, nigga!' Stupid shit."
Other than an unpaid stint at a summer camp, Wayne has never held a day job in his life, a fact that pleases him. In high school, Bryant would always tell Wayne to forget about rap and think about college. "I saw it as risky," says Bryant, who has a mass communications degree from Jackson State University. "His main thing," Wayne adds, "was that I was 14, and the Cash Money guys were grown men. 'Wayne, they're not serious about you. You're a child. They're not changing your life or your mom's life. You're not making money.'"
By the latter half of the Nineties, though, Cash Money blew up, with the rest of the country suddenly digging its distinctly regional flavor — the Louisiana drawl of rappers like Juvenile and the infectious Southern bounce of Mannie Fresh's primitive Space Invaders beats. Wayne dropped out of high school to be a member of the Hot Boys, the label's supergroup. On Juvenile's hit "Back That Azz Up," it's Wayne who cackles, "Drop it like it's hot!" He can also take some credit for popularizing the term "bling," having delivered the unforgettable hook on B.G.'s "Bling Bling," Cash Money's signature hit. In the hilarious, low-budget video, Wayne and the thuggish-looking Cash Money crew toss handfuls of cash in the air, while Mannie Fresh boasts about his "plane" after emerging from a helicopter. (Another great thing about Cash Money: their weird helicopter obsession.) A spazzy Wayne, coming off like Chris Tucker playing a gangbanger, displays a talent for stealing the show even back then. In his verse, he raps, "I pull up in the Expedition/They be like, 'No no no no nuh-o he di-int,'" then chuckles in a way that lets you know the entire song is a big joke.
"Them niggas is gangstas," Wayne says today of his Cash Money colleagues. "They taught me how to handle life. These were a whole bunch of guys, everyone had been in penitentiary, and I ain't talking about for fights — I mean for years. But it was the best upbringing a kid could get, because it's reality on your plate, eat it or not." Wayne remains close to the Cash Money crew: He's still signed to the label, where he briefly served as president. In 2006, he released an album called Like Father, Like Son with Baby Williams, who now records as Birdman. There's also been talk of a possible Hot Boys reunion.
Wayne's own gangsta bona fides are difficult to suss out. Last year, in an interview with Blender, he pointed to the four teardrop tattoos on his face — in prison culture, signifiers that you've murdered someone — and said, "Lord, forgive me." But when I ask if his mother was ever concerned about him moving in a dangerous direction, he says, "No, I've always been a good kid. You can ask her. She ain't never had to worry about that shit. I always hung with a bad crowd, but she knew I was smarter than all of them." Once he joined Cash Money, Wayne says Slim Williams always kept a watchful eye on him. "When I went on the road, I rode on his bus. When we stayed in Miami, my room was next to his room. He would always tell me, first and foremost, 'You're different from everybody else. You're not a gangster. You're not stupid. We're not going to have to worry about you getting in trouble with drugs or people trying to kill you.' Basically, he was saying, 'You're a good kid. Remain a good kid.'"
"He was an observer, more like I am," recalls Slim Williams. "Very, very intelligent kid. I tried to teach him that while you're sleeping, there's always someone else trying to take your position, so you have to work hard. All of us at Cash Money brought him up like that. It's hard in New Orleans — not too many of us make it out. I'm so proud of him, to see him doing these things now and to know where he came from."
All that said, his home life certainly wasn't easy. His stepfather, Rabbit McDonald, was shot to death when Wayne was 14. (His very first tattoo, on his right arm, reads IN MEMORY OF RABBIT: IT'S UP TO ME.) At 15, he got his high school girlfriend pregnant; in a 2007 interview, he claimed he did so at the urging of his mother, who was lonely after Rabbit's death and wanted another child to raise. Wayne's daughter, Reginae, is now 10; he also has a five-month-old son, Dwayne Jr., with another woman. "The mothers of my kids are great," says Wayne, by which he apparently means "extraordinarily patient." "If I'm calling at three in the morning because I'm in Europe," he continues, "they're willing to jump on that call: 'Wake up! It's your daddy!' If I haven't seen my daughter in two months and want to see her, her mom's packing her stuff up, asking where to send it." Reginae has joined him on tour. "On the road, everybody around me knows her, so she loves that," Wayne says. "She watches the show every night and tells me, 'Daddy, you shouldn't have said that. . . .'"
As Wayne moved into his 20s, his songs started becoming distinctly weirder. He used to write down all of his rhymes, just so he wouldn't forget them, but about eight years ago, he says he realized, "Oh, shit — you go to the studio every day. Just record it. Whatever you think about, record it." Wayne still had a notebook full of rhymes when he made this decision, and so he and his friend, the New Orleans DJ Raj Smoove, recorded them all in one sitting for the mixtape 10,000 Bars. (You can actually hear the pages of the notebook turning on the recording.)
People who watch Wayne work in the studio today marvel at his approach. Young Money's Drake Graham, who is no stranger to hanging around musicians — his father, Dennis Graham, played drums in Jerry Lee Lewis' band, and his uncle, Teenie Hodges, was Al Green's lead guitarist in the Seventies — says it's like nothing he's ever seen before. "He'll be bopping around the room, eating candy, or he'll look like he's falling asleep," Graham says. "Then all of a sudden he'll pop up, like someone shocked him with those things you rub together in the hospital to revive someone. And he'll spit the most brilliant and witty verses you've ever heard. It's like, 'What movie just went through your head, to be able to do this without putting pen to paper?' It's scary and unfair, that man is so talented. He's not one of us."
Wayne's constant, unscripted approach to recording certainly contributes to the appealingly loose, stream-of-consciousness feel of much of his recent material. The fact that he's perpetually high likely also helps. He says he's been cutting back on the syrup, though he denies he was ever addicted. "With addiction, you don't have control," he says. "I never felt addicted, because it was what I wanted to do."
Wayne describes himself as a "compulsionist." He likes to have the same fruit plate every day, the same cookies, his Swishers waiting for him neatly rolled. And, of course, a night is rarely complete without a trip to the studio. His associates tell me they try to get him to take time off, maybe go on vacation, but he almost always refuses. "I think that's his lifeline," says Young Money's Shanell, a beautiful former dancer for Ne-Yo who wrote "Prom Queen." "Days he can't go into the studio, if we're traveling or something, he gets edgy." (At one point, I notice Wayne draping his arm very intimately around Shanell, though when I ask if he's seeing anyone, he says, "Female? Uh . . . let's just say I'm always seeing someone. Leave it at that.")
"The studio is his comfort zone," says Gudda Gudda. "This dude just sold all these records, and all he wants to do is make more music. When we found out Tha Carter III sold a million records, we were in L.A. We set up a party for him, and he stayed on the bus to record! We went to the party for him. When we got back, he'd recorded three songs."
When I ask Wayne what drives him to go into the studio every night, he says, "Honestly, I asked myself that today. 'You're 26. Do you like anything else? You have to start getting into something else, because you're going to stop liking this soon.' And I'll have to start liking something a lot for it to become actually pursuable. The only other thing I have right now is sports, man. I watch ESPN all day long. You could go into my bedroom and see — it's on every television. I could quit music and spend all my money on game tickets."
Wayne describes his nightly trips to the studio in the terms of an out-of-body experience: "It's when you close the door to the world and jump outside of yourself. And you look at yourself and say, 'You ain't the best. Show me you're the best. Show me you can play the fucking guitar without lessons. Show me you can make a hit song and make everybody tell you, "I love what you're doing." Show me you can do that.' And then I come out that door and jump back in my body. I do that every night."
It's just after one in the morning when I meet Wayne at a recording studio in Atlanta, on another deserted block near the freeway. Inside, Wayne is not exactly alone — his engineer sits in front of a huge mixing board, and a studio employee sits silently in the back of the room, doing something on a laptop. Still, the appeal of the studio — its inherent safety — is evident. The door shuts with a hermetic sucking sound, and the silence is like what you'd imagine in a space capsule or a submarine. The outer world has been completely shut out. The only sound, in fact, will be Wayne's own voice and music, the thoughts swirling around in his head.
By this point in the evening, Wayne is noticeably more stoned. His speech slurs a bit, and he's in a joking mood. A Voss mineral-water bottle filled with a pinkish liquid sits on the counter, and ESPN is playing on a TV screen above the board. After taking a puff from his asthma inhaler, Wayne tells the engineer to cue up a song he recorded the night before. It's another rap-rock hybrid. "Economy-schmeckonomy," Wayne spits over a thundering guitar track, "I'm ballin' through the recession."
Wayne tells me he's not especially worried about the economy — he has guys managing his investments and keeping track of what he spends — though he has noticed a troubling indicator: "Motherfuckers asking me for money? I know they really need it now. That's the difference. Motherfuckers used to ask just because they knew I had it." Wayne didn't watch Obama's inauguration; he doesn't follow the news or read much, and his wait-and-see attitude about the new president is "show me the change." "I had it on the television," he says, chuckling sheepishly. "But something else was on, sportswise. I remember I was like, 'He talk yet?' And Beyoncè or whoever was still performing. I stopped watching when some country dude was up there singing."
Eventually, Shanell and a friend arrive. Earlier today, she's pierced her nose and had a chain connected from the piercing to her ear. Wayne winces and says, "It looks scary." Shanell frowns and says, "Scary?" Wayne says, "I mean like it hurt." He smiles sweetly and adds, "It looks nice."
He plays me some more tracks. The best one recalls vintage Beastie Boys, but most of the others sound like generic emo, aside from Wayne's weird Auto-Tuned vocals, which employ little of the wit and verbal dexterity of his hip-hop verses. In this respect, the Michael Jordan-playing-baseball analogy is not entirely accurate — it's more like Jordan deciding he always wanted to be a baseball mascot. Of course, the smash single from Tha Carter III was the mindless "Lollipop," a tossed-off double-entendre that showcased almost none of the talent Wayne spent years selling himself on. People didn't seem to care, in the same way people forgive Philip Seymour Hoffman or John Malkovich when they play bad guys in really dumb action movies.
The rock tracks seem like an even more blatant grab for the mainstream. Unfortunately, the genre of rock Wayne happens to be emulating is a pretty awful one. Still, it's not like Wayne's talent is going anywhere. When he says he's going to play me a song called "I Die," one of the girls mishears and says, "Iodine?" Wayne cracks up and says, "Iodine?" Then, without pausing, raps, "I ate too much shrimp/I got i-o-dine poisoning!"
"The rock shit just comes from what my life is now," Wayne insists. "I've grown into this person." Wayne says he can recall the moment things changed. "I woke up one morning and had three or four women in my bed where I not only didn't know their last names, I didn't know the beginning letter of their first names. All I know is they're the most beautiful women in the world, and I was in my own place, in whatever city I was in. And I could have thrown a dart at the map, and I'd probably have a place there, too. I knew my driver was waiting downstairs for me. When my nose finally cleared from all the weed I had smoked, I smelled food in the kitchen and knew it was my chef. Then I look on my phone and see a message and know it's from a popular woman everyone knows. And when I went in the studio that night, I couldn't just rap, 'Yeah, nigga. . . .' Now, this is who I am.
"I've never said, 'Lil Wayne is going to rock, everybody,'" Wayne continues. "I just got — I'm not going to say 'so good' at what I was doing, but it became such a regularity for me that I got tired of it. And then I said, 'You know what? I'm not going to rap on this one.' I always knew I couldn't sing, but I also knew I had a voice that isn't heard by many, and that I could learn how to stretch it and make songs sound good. Therefore, I practiced that. Honestly? I don't want to be the best rapper in the world. Not now. If I have a rap album I'm dropping, then I want it to be the best rap album. But I want to be the best. Period. Now. My favorite rapper hasn't done what I'm doing."
This story is from the April 16th, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone.