"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."
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