LIL WAYNE HAS TWO PRIMARY passions: making music and smoking weed. Tonight, those have come into conflict. Wayne is sitting on his tour bus in New Orleans, having come back to his hometown for two concerts. He’d like to head into a studio to do some mixing for Tha Carter III, 2008’s most anticipated rap album. But there’s a problem. Wayne isn’t allowed to smoke in the studio. So he stays on the bus, lighting blunt after blunt and watching Animal Planet on the TV. He’ll sleep there tonight for the same reason: Wayne can’t smoke in his hotel room either.
When Wayne speaks, it’s with that same voice from his records: a needling, grizzled croak that’s one of the most distinctive sounds in pop music. On the bus, Wayne comes off as a funny motherfucker. He leaves everyone in stitches with a story about how he had to clean graffiti off a house owned by Cash Money Records founder Bryan “Baby” Williams. “We were out there scrubbing for a day!” he shrieks. “That shit is still on the house, n—a! Even after Katrina!”
Wayne’s not always like this. Sometimes he’s pensive, and he can turn surly without notice. Oftentimes, he’s just plain weird: Over dinner in Miami last summer, he spluttered through a half-coherent, very stoned monologue in which he compared people in New Orleans to crabs in boiling water, then segued into the kind of crabs that show up in your pants: “I had that shit! The worst!”
Wayne’s rhymes are as varied as his moods, ranging from quick-tongued braggadocio about girls, cash and guns to gut-wrenching expressions of personal pain. He’s a compulsively listenable dude who will sometimes sing (badly) and rhyme in French; a five-foot-six-inch bundle of energy spitting left-field references — Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Bill Laimbeer, tooth fairies — and consistently great punch lines: “My spot remain, like a bleach stain, or cranberry/It’s murder she wrote, like Angela Lansbury.” He’s been getting stranger lately, too, turning out stream-of-consciousness flows and trippy flights of fancy like the amazing mixtape cut “I Feel Like Dying,” on which he sounds seriously zonked: “I can mingle with the stars and throw a party on Mars/I am a prisoner locked up behind Xanax bars.” He may be all over the place, but this is certain: Lil Wayne — a.k.a. Dwayne Michael Carter Jr., a.k.a. the Pussy Monster, a.k.a. Weezy F. Baby — is one of the most distinctive rappers of all time. And right now, he’s the best around. Just ask him. Wayne began calling himself “the greatest rapper alive” in 2005. Since then, he’s been repeating and backing up that claim on cameos and countless mixtapes. Two of those mixes — Da Drought 3 and The Drought Is Over 2: The Carter III Sessions — were among the best albums of 2007.
Wayne grew up a wild kid in New Orleans who dealt crack and once accidentally shot himself in the chest. “It was my mom’s gun,” Wayne says. “It was like a chopper hit me. But the bullet went straight through, and I bounced back in two weeks.” Thankfully, Wayne soon discovered hip-hop and began battle-rapping. When he was eleven, he had the good fortune of befriending Baby Williams and started helping out at Cash Money Records. By the time he was fourteen, Wayne had a record deal.
From there, Wayne became moderately famous as a pint-size member of the rap supergroup Hot Boys, and he proved an above-average gangsta MC on his early albums. Recently, though, he’s attained a level of greatness hardly anyone could have expected, spitting rhymes that are wittier, odder and broader in subject matter than anyone else’s. In the past year, stars like Kanye West and Jay-Z have featured Wayne on their songs. And he’s become a constant presence on hip-hop message boards and blogs, which feature feverish chatter about Wayne’s latest stanzas, his drug use and occasional legal troubles. (He’s currently facing gun- and drug-possession charges in New York and Arizona. Wayne pleaded not guilty in both cases.)
Wayne is also the rare pop star who has been able to dramatically raise his profile in the last two years without re-leasing an official LP. There’s a wealth of Wayne material — all those mixtapes and leaked songs — that has surfaced online. The hip-hop merch site mixunit.com sells twenty-three mixes featuring Wayne, most of which are easy to find online for free. This isn’t some kind of viral marketing plan. It’s just this: Wayne makes new songs like you make lunch, and songs have a way of getting out — especially when they’re as irresistible as Wayne’s.
How many tracks has Wayne cut in recent years? “Somewhere in the thousands,” he says. (He’s been smoking.) The real number is probably closer to 500, but what’s clear is that Wayne is an irrepressible studio rat. “Recording is an addiction,” he says. “I can’t stop. Wayne works quickly — he writes nothing down, records rhymes as soon as they pop into his head, and completes up to five songs a day. He can also knock out a verse for someone else within a half-hour of hearing the beat. That has served him well financially: Wayne charges $100,000 for the average cameo — or $75,000 if he likes the beat or the song. “But nothing less!” Wayne says. “I wouldn’t do a song for my sister for less than $75,000.”
After more than six months of delays, Wayne’s sixth official solo album is finally slated for June. This is partly because Wayne wants to keep tweaking songs; and partly because of difficulty in getting clearance from featured artists’ record labels (he’s recorded with Lil Mama and Busta Rhymes, among others). Another possible reason: All the prospective Carter III material that’s leaked online has prompted Wayne to record new album tracks, which only extends the delay; Wayne has said that no leaked material will end up on Carter III. Though Carter III will probably be one of 2008’s best-selling hip-hop albums, it’s hard to imagine it being better than Wayne’s best mixtapes. Wayne doesn’t seem concerned — in fact, he won’t even help select the track list. “I just come up with good songs,” he says. “It’s up to [Universal Records] to figure out what goes on. I don’t want that headache.”
After a late night on the bus, Wayne steps into a class at Eleanor McMain Secondary School in New Orleans, which he attended back in the Nineties. He’s here for a Q-and-A session. Wayne cheerfully answers kids’ questions about his nine-year-old daughter, his favorite cameo (Destiny’s Child’s “Soldier”) and Lil Wayne haters out there (“If they ain’t talking about you, you ain’t doing noth-in’,” he says).
After forty-five minutes with the kids, Wayne climbs back into the tour bus. He visits a Katrina-damaged athletic field, which he’s helping to restore through his new One Family Foundation, then heads off to play a gig in Atlanta. Wayne’s tour will end within weeks, but he’s not taking any time off. Soon he’ll put the finishing touches on Carter III and head off on his first-ever European tour.
Maybe Wayne will find time to improve his guitar skills; he’s a self-taught axman who played on Enrique Iglesias’ “Push.” Or maybe he’ll get his psychology degree, too; he’s been taking online classes from the University of Phoenix. Maybe he’ll also shrink from fame — sort of (but hopefully not exactly) like his favorite rock star, Kurt Cobain. “He was a rebel – he didn’t give a fuck,” Wayne says. “That’s me.”