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.'"
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