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Lil Wayne: Return of the Hip-Hop King

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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.

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