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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

February 3, 2011
Lil Wayne
Photograph by Mark Seliger for RollingStone.com

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."

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