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.
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