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Lil Wayne: Return of the Hip-Hop King

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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."

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