Lil Wayne: Return of the Hip-Hop King

From courtside with Lebron to backstage at 'SNL': riding with Lil Wayne as he reclaims his crown

Lil Wayne
Photograph by Mark Seliger for RollingStone.com
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The processing room at the New York City Correctional Institution for Men is about as depressing as you'd expect. Broken pay phone, roachy floors, harsh fluorescent lights. There's a rusty old vending machine against one wall, and along the other, a bank of blue plastic chairs where wives and mothers wait for their men to be released, watching Oprah reruns in shared silence. Presiding over the scene is a blue-uniformed guard, a warning hanging from his Plexiglas partition: no firearms, ammunition, knives, drugs, alcoholic beverages or recording devices permitted on Rikers Island.

Lil Wayne: A History in Pictures

It's 2 a.m. on November 4th. The sky is black; there's a light rain falling. Outside, two inmates are sweeping up trash near the barbed-wire fence, shivering in their orange jumpsuits. "Hey, man -- you got a cigarette?" whispers one. A guard yells at him to keep moving. In the distance is the Manhattan skyline, the Empire State Building all glowing and white. Across the bay, the red runway lights of LaGuardia Airport are blinking like a taunt.

(Later, he'll love telling the story about the time they were all out in the yard and a jet took off overhead, on course, no doubt, to some barbed-wire-less tropical paradise. "Man, I bet you can't wait to get on that plane, right?" another inmate said to him. He shook his head. "Nah. I got my own plane.")

At the far end of the bridge, outside the gate, they're staked out, waiting. TMZ, MTV News, paparazzi, fans. He was supposed to get out at midnight, so at this point, they've been here a few hours -- checking their Twitter feeds, trading rumors. One guy says he heard he lost a day of "good time" and won't get out until tomorrow. Another says that's bullshit, the cops are just saying that so everyone will leave. The burly corrections officer patrolling the parking lot is having none of it. "What do you wanna wait for that jerk-off for, anyway? Go home!"

As three turns to four turns to five to six, even the die-hards decide to call it a night, so there's pretty much no one left when the convoy finally rolls up around 8 a.m. Ten blacked-out SUVs ("Like we were picking up the president," says his manager) moving with paramilitary precision. His mom is in one car; the man he calls his daddy is in another. A Maybach peels off from the pack and drives inside to collect its cargo. By now, he's already changed out of his state-issued green work suit and back into civvies: a long-sleeved white T-shirt, a white hat, Vans. He's nine or 10 pounds heavier, filled out by eight months of jailhouse push-ups; he looks tired, even a little shellshocked.

The Maybach eases back out of the gate, trailed by an unmarked Department of Corrections van flashing red and blue. From here, it will whisk him into Manhattan and back to his luxury midtown hotel suite, where he'll hug his kids, smoke a celebratory cigar, and take a long, hot shower. He'll spend the afternoon getting his braids done and playing with his family, then board the private plane that will take him back home. But for now, as the doors roll shut and lock behind him, all he can think is that he made it. For the first time in 242 days, Lil Wayne is a free man.

Six weeks later, Wayne is on another island, guarded by another gate. This island is called La Gorce -- "a hidden oasis in the middle of Miami Beach," in the words of the realtors. Wayne lives here, down the road from Billy Joel, in a $14 million modernist mansion he's pretty sure he bought sometime in 2009. (He's bad with dates.) In the garage are a Rolls-Royce, a Bugatti Veyron and a different Maybach -- the one his label bought him when his 2008 album -- Tha Carter III -- went platinum in a week. His black-gloved chauffeur, Mr. G, stands at attention next to the Prius he drives when he's not on duty. Docked out back, under the palm trees, there's also a speedboat. "I don't know how to drive it yet," says Wayne. "But I do have it."

Best Albums of the 2000s: Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III

You know the line on his No Ceilings mixtape where Wayne says he has an elevator in his crib? That's because he has an elevator in his crib. Other things he has in his crib: a sprawling roof deck with South Beach ocean views; an Escher-like staircase leading up to his two-story master suite; a marble-topped island in the foyer to display his dozens of awards, including the Grammy for Best Rap Album he sometimes uses as an ashtray; a five-foot-tall painting of himself; a grand piano; and a telescope. "Got 10 bathrooms, I could shit all day," he once boasted on a different song, and that too is not an exaggeration.

At the moment, Wayne is in the guest wing, on the other side of the bamboo-forested, koi-ponded courtyard. This is where two of his boys stay: his videographer, DJ Scoob Doo, and Marley, who carries his luggage and makes sure he never runs out of Coke. Wayne is sitting between them, watching the Ravens play the Texans on Monday Night Football. He's in his new uniform -- white Polo tee, shredded acid-washed jeans. Before him, on an egg-shaped coffee table, are a half-dozen cellphones, six tins of Don Lino Africa cigars, four lighters, a liter of Sprite and a four-pound bag of Jolly Ranchers.

"To be honest, I still haven't exhaled," he says, sparking a Don Lino. The day after he got out, he flew to Arizona to settle a different case (drug possession; three years probation). Then it was to New Orleans for a Hornets game, back west to play a show in Vegas with his protegen Drake, and finally home to Miami for a red-carpet bash with his whole Young Money/Cash Money family -- Drake, Nicki Minaj, his partner Mack Maine, label chief Bryan "Baby" Williams, a.k.a. Wayne's surrogate father. He liked seeing everybody, Wayne says. But it was also a lot to handle on his third day out. "I can't front -- I was out of place, mentally. I didn't talk too much. I had my hood on the whole night, my shades. I played the corner -- you wouldn't have even known it was my party. We went to the strip club afterward, but I didn't really get to enjoy myself. It was too much of a shock."

Wayne's troubles started back in 2007, when, after a concert in Manhattan, NYPD officers -- claiming they smelled marijuana -- boarded his bus and found a loaded .40-caliber pistol. His manager, Cortez Bryant, says the gun was his, but the cops charged Wayne.

"It was all bullshit," Wayne says. "They found [the gun] inside a bag, and in that bag I had a prescription. So they were like, "This is your bag.' But it is what it is. I dropped my nuts and took it." He pleaded guilty to attempted criminal possession of a weapon and was sentenced to a year in Rikers. With good behavior, he'd be out in eight months.

Wayne was housed in Rikers' Eric M. Taylor Unit, section 3-Upper. He was in PC -- protective custody (Wayne calls it "Punk City") -- where they put anyone who might have trouble in the general population: celebrities, informants, child-molesters, ex-cops. He had his own 10-foot-by-six-foot cell -- number 23 -- with a bed, a sink, a toilet, a desk and a window. (What was outside the window? "The jail.") He also had a so-called "day room" he shared with eight or nine other inmates, where he could watch TV or play games for about eight hours a day.

Wayne skipped the mess hall, preferring to buy food from the commissary -- lasagna, chicken, tortillas, cheesy rice, Pop-Tarts. 3-Upper had a communal kitchen, so most days the PC-ers cooked together, like the prison scene in Goodfellas. Other days, Wayne says, "I chef'd up myself."

He read a lot. Mostly biographies: Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, Joan Jett, Vince Lombardi. He really liked Anthony Kiedis' Scar Tissue -- "That one was really good." And deeper stuff, too: "I read a book about 2012 and the Mayan apocalypse. I read Confucius' Odes, the Tao Te Ching or Chung or however you say it, the whole Bible. That was my first time reading the Bible ever."

What'd you think?

"It was deep! I liked the parts where some character was once this, but he ended up being that. Like he'd be dissing Jesus, and then he ends up being a saint. That was cool."

For music, he had a little transistor radio, also from the commissary. He listened to mostly oldies -- Anita Baker, Prince -- except for Fridays and Saturdays, when the DJs on the hip-hop stations could spin whatever they wanted. "What we'd do, since we gotta lock in at 10:45, everybody would turn their radios to the same station, and we'd just be jamming," he says. "It was basically like being in the club."

He didn't lift weights or play ball -- the prison-issue shoes were too thin -- but he did play a lot of cards: Crazy Eights, Spades and his favorite, Uno. "I'd bust a nigga's ass at Uno," he says. "We were gambling for commissary and phone time -- I was taking all a nigga's shit. 'Lemme get them cookies, lemme get them chips, lemme get that soup.' I would have a bed full of shit -- the CO would come through like, 'What are you, about to cook?' 'Nope, just kicked ass at Uno, that's all!'

"I swear to God, niggas used to be like, 'Sorry, baby, I can't talk tonight Wayne got my phone call again,'" he says. "They would say, 'Come on, man, let me just call her tonight.' 'Fuck no! What's her number? I'll have my people text her.'"

(Not surprisingly, the other inmates eventually stopped asking Wayne to play. "I would come to the day room and niggas were playing. I'd be like, 'Why y'all ain't call me?' 'Oh, we thought you were asleep.' Right -- like you can't look in my cell and see I'm right there. We ain't got no doors, nigga!")

One of his favorite pastimes was reading letters from fans. He got a lot of letters -- so many that he couldn't keep them in his cell, because it was a fire hazard. He says of the 400-odd pieces of mail he got each day, he'd read 20 or 30, and answer about half. His team also set up a website so he could post shorter messages online. (He wrote them out by hand, and an assistant uploaded them once a month.)

The site -- WeezyThanxYou.com -- is maybe the sweetest public act a rapper has ever committed. He flirts with the girls, calls them "adorable," "cutie," "darling," "baby doll." (The guys he calls "bro.") He sends birthday wishes, fantasy-football tips, relationship advice. He compliments fans' artwork, their poetry, their photography, their raps. Most of all, he offers encouragement:

"I know you'll be a wonderful teacher someday."

"Earning your Masters in Library and Information Science is beautiful."

"Nice Halloween outfit Allison!"

"I hope you kill 'em in the Softball field. Go Tia!"

"I prayed for your grandpa and love your decision to become a radiologist. Jed you are amazing!"

Wayne also had a lot of visitors. His family, of course: his mom, Jacita, his four babies' mothers, his 12-year-old daughter, Reginae, and his boys -- two-year-old Dwayne III, 17-month-old Kam and 14-month-old Neal, whom he calls his "littler meatball." (Neal doesn't speak yet, but Kam can say "da-da.") A lot of friends, too: Diddy. Fat Joe. Drake and Nicki and everyone from Cash Money, of course. Kanye West came and rapped his whole album for Wayne, two months before it came out. T.I. wanted to come, but his probation officer wouldn't let him. Wayne's pal Brett Favre couldn't make it either, but he did get on the phone to say, "Keep your head up."

He also had a job. "I was an SPA," Wayne says -- a suicide-prevention aide. (It's the highest-paying gig in Rikers -- 50 cents an hour.) He walked the halls from 10 to six at night, keeping an eye out for people trying to kill themselves. At first he liked it, because it got him out of his cell and let him sleep in. But eventually, the hours got to him. "10 to six, niggas all be asleep," he says. "That shit was for the birds."

Wayne says he got along with most of his fellow inmates, as well as his COs. ("I'm a cool dude.") He didn't much care for the warden, though: "He had that white paint job," he says, pointing to his face, "and you know how they feel about that black paint job. Especially when that black paint job got money."

But all in all, he says, it wasn't that bad. "Not to use the word 'easy' -- but it wasn't as difficult as people might think. There's difficulty -- mentally, just waking up every damn day in that motherfucker. But once you get over that, it's all good."

It took him a while. "He ain't used to living like that," says Baby. "Getting orders. Taking orders. It was hard." Cortez Bryant says that for the first two weeks, Wayne was pretty down. "Sometimes he'd call, and I'd be like, 'What are you doing?' And he'd say, 'What do you think I'm doing? I'm in jail.'"

At the beginning, Wayne kept a journal, thinking he might publish it someday. But he quit after a couple of weeks. "It got boring," he says. "Every day was the same." In a radio interview last summer, he talked about how he'd call Drake three or four times a week, but Drake would only answer once. Wayne didn't blame him. "Every time I dial somebody's number," he said, "I feel like I'm bothering them."

His last month was the hardest. In May, he got caught with an iPod charger in his cell (it was found in his garbage can inside a bag of chips) and was punished with 30 days in solitary. (He also had a watch with an MP3 player on it, and another inmate tried to take the rap. "He was a solid nigga," Wayne says. "Shout-out to my nigga Charles.") Wayne was in the box from the beginning of October until the day he was released. "That was the worst," he says. "No TV. No radio. No commissary. Basically you're in there 23 hours a day." The only upside was that he had a window onto the street, where he could watch cars go by, people come and go. "I used to sit at that motherfucker all day," he says.

Under the terms of his probation, Wayne is required to perform 360 hours of community service. (He also can't drink for three years, can't associate with known criminals and can't vote, although the last one doesn't bother him much: "I vote for niggas in the Pro Bowl.")

On a wintry December afternoon, Wayne is on his way to hour one. He's due at Miami's Charles Drew Middle School to give a speech to a class of unsuspecting eighth-graders. In the auditorium, the assistant principal, Mr. Dawkins, is excited. "They're gonna flip out," he says. "Hell -- I'm gonna flip out."

"What's poppin', y'all?" says Wayne when he finally walks onstage an hour and 15 minutes late. "I'm here to talk to y'all about what's important in life -- and that is that you live it to the fullest." He tells them how he started rapping when he was eight, how he signed a deal at age 11. How as a kid he was lucky, education-wise, because his mom put him in a magnet school and stayed on him about his homework.

Afterward, he takes a few questions: his favorite subject (history); what sports he played growing up (baseball and football); his best song ("I haven't recorded it yet" -- the kids like that one); whether he gets nervous before a show ("I'm literally shaking"); why he looks so much taller on TV ("I really don't have an answer for that!"). An English teacher praises his vocabulary, and he beams. When it's over, he signs autographs. Nobody asks about jail.

In the parking lot, Bryant says goodbye to two ladies in brown pantsuits -- Wayne's probation officers. He says he thought it went well: "Wayne was nervous. He hasn't talked to a school in a long time." Now, Wayne's headed home to take a nap. He was at the club until late and he's still recovering.

Before he went to jail, Wayne chain-smoked blunts like they were Marlboro Lights. (He purportedly used to take his bus instead of flying, because he didn't like going that long without getting high.) That was on top of his promethazine-laced cough-syrup habit that left him in a thick perma-haze. He could be cold, short-tempered, dismissive, sour. Sometimes his friends didn't even want to be around him.

Bryant says he's more patient now. "That was one of the things he wanted to work on in there: Learning to think things through, and not just go off. Lately there've been a lot of situations where he might have blown up before, but instead he's handled it very cool and calm."

Like what?

"For example, when a hotel reservation is messed up and they don't have the kind of room he's accustomed to. The old Wayne would have been, like, 'We're gonna find the nearest city with a suite!' Now he's like, 'It's cool, I'll stay in a king.'"

Later that night, Wayne is gliding through a model-filled subterranean VIP chamber at a Miami Heat game, Mack Maine with him, his bodyguard Anton right behind. He makes his way through the locker-room tunnel, and settles into his court-side seat. Across the way, Dwyane Wade is chatting with Timbaland; LeBron James so close you can see his delts twitch.

Wayne likes going to Heat games, but he's not a Heat fan. Especially not tonight, when they're playing his New Orleans Hornets. At halftime, the Hornets' Chris Paul comes over to say hi -- he's another friend who visited Wayne in jail. Wayne gives him a hug, and says he'll be at his charity bowling tournament later in the week. Paul sees Wayne's purple Hornets cap and grins.

Unfortunately, it's not their night. The Hornets are down by 15 with three minutes left to play when Wayne decides to make for the exit. Camera phones and the eyes of the Heat Dancers trail him the whole way. He's the biggest star in the building not wearing a uniform.

But back home after the game, he's feeling a little hurt. "Them niggas never speak to a nigga," he says.

He's talking about James and Wade. "They don't chuck me the deuce or nothing! Nigga spent all that money on them fucking tickets ... come holla at me!"

"Maybe they're intimidated," offers Scoob.

"Intimidated? Of what? They think I'm gonna kill 'em or something? Them niggas is LeBron and D-Wade! They don't be intimidated of anything."

If it were anyone else, he probably wouldn't care. But since it's those two, it rankles. Wayne is the greatest -- he wants to be recognized by the greats.

"I asked my ho why they don't speak to me, and she said, "Cause you always rooting against them.' But everybody they've played, I'm cool with a nigga on the other team!" He takes a sip of pineapple juice. "We sit right there by them little bitch-ass niggas. At least come ask me why I'm not rooting for you."

A few minutes later, one of Wayne's phones rings. It's Stephanie, a new girl he's been seeing. He goes to let her in. She's white, brunette, cute and petite, in tourniquet-tight jeans and zebra-print heels. Wayne pulls her chair out for her at the kitchen table, and his chef, Noel, brings over two plates. As they dine on tilapia and rice, his foot finds hers under the table.

Wayne says of all the hard parts of being locked up, one of the hardest was not having conjugal visits. (You have to be married.) "Don't remind me, brother!" The closest thing he had to female companionship was the picture of a woman from a magazine taped to his wall -- his Rita Hayworth-in-Shawshank. After a while, "Anybody starts looking good in that bitch. Like, 'Damn, look at her with that uniform on. Mrs. Officer!'"

They finish eating, and Noel brings over dessert. It's not that he couldn't handle chastity, Wayne says. He's gone eight months before -- or at least five or six. He does it every time he's on the road. "If you meet a girl on tour, you know she just wants to get fucked," he says. "But I don't fuck. I make love. If you get it on with me, you gotta know I'm gonna look you in the eyes. You're gonna be touched. You're gonna feel it."

Stephanie swallows her cheesecake.

Noel comes to clear their plates, sticks the Tupperware'd leftovers in the fridge next to the Fiji waters and Swedish energy drinks. "Now if you'll excuse me," says Wayne, "I'm gonna take a few minutes to go talk to my girl." He turns the TV on to SportsCenter and hands over the remote. Then he and Stephanie disappear upstairs.

About an hour later, Wayne re-emerges and sees Stephanie off. It's almost 2 a.m. -- time for the studio.

With no traffic and Mr. G driving exactly the speed limit (just in case), it's a 22-minute trip from Wayne's house to Miami's Hit Factory. Studio C, which Wayne has rented for the year, is cozy and quiet, with the lights permanently dimmed. Like a Vegas casino, there are no clocks. Josh Berkman, a Cash Money A&R exec, says to hang with Wayne is to not sleep. Wayne greets Liz, one of the junior engineers. "Hey, lil' mama. Can I get a coffee?"

This past year, something unusual happened: There was a shortage of Lil Wayne. He didn't completely vanish -- in September, he released I Am Not a Human Being, a stopgap collection of B sides and posse cuts that was the first jail-house Number One since Tupac -- but it still didn't come close to matching sales of his Tha Carter III. Meanwhile, the less said about last year's rap-rock album Rebirth -- a.k.a. his Birmingham Barons phase -- the better.

Wayne still resents the reception Rebirth got (he says critics "aborted it"), but he knows he can't afford another misfire. He's had to watch from the sidelines as guys like Eminem and Kanye have reclaimed hip-hop's spotlight; even his proteges could plausibly claim to have more heat. In one WeezyThanxYou letter, he told Minaj that he was jealous of her and Drake; he followed with a "ha ha," but it didn't sound like a joke.

Now he wants his spot back. He's prepping Tha Carter IV for an April release, maybe March if the promotional machine can gear up fast enough. He's been in the studio with T-Pain, with Kanye. He has three or four tracks from before his jail stint that are too good to ignore; otherwise, he says, it's all new.

In the control room, Wayne says hey to his recording engineer, a dreadlocked white dude named Mike Banger. Wayne used to go through engineers the way NASCAR drivers do tires, but for the past year, Mike has been his guy. When Wayne was in Rikers, Mike was on call, waiting by the phone in case Wayne wanted to hear music. He'd play him tracks from I Am Not a Human Being to approve, or new beats for him to write to. One time Wayne heard Jay-Z on a not-yet-released remix of Drake's "Light Up" and decided he wanted to jump on it too. He called Mike, and dropped his verse the next night. (Sample line: "Behind bars, but the bars don't stop/ Recording over the phone, hope the call don't drop.")

"What we got tonight?" Wayne asks. Mike says there's a Kelly Rowland song he needs to record a verse for, a Jeezy song, a song for Bruno Mars. But first Wayne wants to hear the guest verse he did for Chris Brown, a song called "Look at Me Now" -- "just to get motivated."

As the track plays, Wayne bounces around the studio lip-syncing his lyrics. It's a great song -- so great, actually, that now he's thinking maybe he wants it for his own album. He's pretty sure he can convince Chris to let him have it. There's just one thing: "I cannot have Chris Brown rapping on Tha Carter IV.

"He ain't sound bad," Wayne says. "He's spitting. But come on, man! Do you know how many rappers would be like, 'I can't get on Tha Carter IV, but this nigga put Chris Brown on that bitch? Rapping?'"

"What about if you just took him off?" asks Scoob.

"You can't take a nigga's song and take him off of it," Wayne says. "That's saying a whole lot. That's like telling him, 'I think this shit is hotter without you.' I would feel played if a nigga did me that way."

"What about if you swapped ..."

"You're not listening," Wayne says. "Pay attention. Even if we swap 'em out, I'm gonna take the song and take him off of that bitch. That's the ultimate fuck you. You can ask a nigga, 'Can I have this song, and you stay on it?' But you can't take him off."

Wayne sticks his head into the hallway for a second. "Yo, Marley! Call that number I called earlier? No, the one on your phone. Them chicks? Let 'em know, you know, just wanted to see what y'all doing tonight. New pussy is always good." (Sorry, Stephanie.)

Wayne turns back to Scoob. "I hear what you're saying. But you can't take a nigga off his own song. And I'm not gonna have Chris Brown rapping on Tha Carter IV"

But it's cool, he says. "I'll just go off on another song. It ain't like I can't do it again."

As if to prove it, he asks Mike to cue up a new track they're calling "Wayne's World." It already has one verse and a hook; he's about to write verse number two.

As Mike punches buttons, Wayne talks with Scoob about his evening. "I was trying to knock shorty down over there, boy," he says, referring to Stephanie.

'What happened?" asks Scoob. "It-Ain't-Go-Down syndrome?"

Wayne shrugs. "Kissing and all that."

"Oof," says Scoob.

"But I like all that too, though," Wayne adds quickly. "I'm a romantical nigga."

The track ready, the control room clears out. Wayne leans back in his chair and closes his eyes. An array of cigars and Vitamin Waters is strewn across the mixing board in front of him. By now, it's 3:01. In the lobby, Liz brews up a pot of coffee. "This will go on for a while," she says.

A long while. For the next two hours, it's the same eight-bar loop, playing at full volume on nonstop repeat. It's like the hip-hop cell at Guantanamo.

For a long time, he just sits there, listening.

At 3:55, he comes out of the control room and goes over to one of his assistants, a cute Tulane grad named Devin. "Hey," he asks her, "Girl Scouts sell cookies, right?"

"Yep."

"And Boy Scouts don't?"

"Nope."

"Ain't that a bitch." He goes back into the booth.

At 4:09, he emerges again, pouring himself more coffee. (No cream, lots of sugar.) He's rapping now -- no words yet, just syllables, a cadence. "Da-da da-da da-da da-da da-da da-da DA da."

By 4:32, the ashtray is filling up, Styrofoam cups multiplying in front of him. He calls Scoob in, spits a couple of bars, and asks him what he thinks. He's getting closer.

At 5:10, Devin, Marley and Scoob are all asleep, but Wayne is coming alive. He's laughing to himself, nodding like he might finally have something. Suddenly, at 5:16, it's go time. He yells to Mike, who races back to the booth, battle stations on a submarine.

"A-light," Wayne says in the booth. "Lezgo."

It's thrilling to watch the thing take shape. A couple of times he flubs a line, tackles it again. The whole thing is finished in about four minutes. Wayne signals for the playback and sits, eyes closed, listening to himself ping-pong from free-associating brags ("I'm a cash cow, now watch me milk this shit like cornflakes") to parole-officer-baiting threats ("Keep that click-click pow-pow on the side like a mistress") to straight-up silliness ("I don't give a shit about shit, if it ain't my shit, that shit ain't shit, shit").

"Goddamn!" he cackles when it's over. He asks Mike to play it again, this time let the chorus ride. When the hook comes around, Wayne nods his head and sings along:

We 'bout everything and everything goes
Bitch, nigga, shit, bitch, take a picture
Tonight I'll probably fuck another nigga's girl
Party time, excellent, Wayne's World

Two days later, Wayne is back in Manhattan for the first time since his release. He's at the NBC studios at 30 Rock, doing rehearsals for Saturday Night Live, where he's the musical guest along with Eminem. Wayne is dressed backstage-casual in gray sweats and a fuzzy red beanie that says FUCK EM. (The lack of apostrophe is problematic, given his company, but if Em notices, he graciously doesn't mention it.)

As they run through their songs, several cast members come out to watch. Kristen Wiig is dancing, Jason Sudeikis is nodding his head. Kenan Thompson says he's been a Wayne fan since the late Nineties: "I love Eminem, but that's my nigga." (Andy Samberg says he would have been there too, but he wasn't sure how Eminem felt about his digital shorts: "White guys doing funny rap? I dunno, I think it's a little too close.")

After the run-through, they move over to shoot some promo spots. This week's host, Jeff Bridges, enters the studio and comes straight over to Wayne. "Hey, man!" he honks in his Bridge-ian way. They exchange an introductory hug. It's too bad Wayne doesn't smoke anymore, because if ever there were a man to share a doob with, the Dude is it.

Everyone takes their places for the promos, Bridges in the middle between the rappers and Thompson. It's quiet on the set, then five, four, three, two ...

"Hi, I'm Jeff Bridges, and I'm hosting SNL this week -- we've got Eminem and Little Wayne!"

SNL producer Marci Klein interrupts. "Um, sorry, Jeff? I ... can you, uh ... did you say the 'T'?" Her head swivels toward Wayne. "Isn't it 'Lil'?"

"I'm so sorry!" Bridges says. "Did I say Little Wayne?"

"Oh, it doesn't matter, man!" Wayne says, smiling. "It does not matter at all."

Two nights from now they'll shoot the show, with Wayne introducing his new single "6 Foot 7 Foot" to a national audience. He's doing a couple of other TV tapings while he's in town, one for BET and one for an NBC New Year's special! (No concerts, though -- Wayne has vowed never to set foot on a New York stage again. "They'd have to give me U2 money.") Then, next week, he'll go on his first post-prison vacation. He hasn't decided where yet -- he's thinking the black-sand beaches of Hawaii, or maybe the Napa Valley. Drake recommended Napa -- "Your phone doesn't work," Wayne says. "I heard it's a very relaxing place."

But he's also been wanting to get over to Greece -- to one island in particular. He says he was dreaming of it the whole time he was in prison. "For some reason, it just helped me escape. I'd literally have to blink my eyes and be like, 'Damn, I'm still in this bitch?' It felt like I was on that beach." What's the name of it again? Something with an S. He thinks for a second, then recalls it with a Mediterranean flourish: "The isle of Santorini."

It sounds beautiful. Are the beaches nice?

"I've never been," says Wayne. "A CO told me about it."

This story is from the February 3rd, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1123: February 3, 2011
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