Lil Wayne Revisited
Aspiring kings take note: to rule or govern, as KRS-One once philosophized, is to invite strife. "No one [will] get alongâ€ in singing their songs when everyone's gunning for the crown, Kris predicted. Worse, he said "most [rulers] are never understood.â€
Yet when 24-year-old Dewayne Michael Carter, alias Lil' Wayne, rolls out of his South Beach bed for his morning prayers, he doesn't seem troubled at all. In fact, judging by his swagger, which swings harder than Slick Rick's chains in '88, he's having the time of his life. Leaving us to wonder what, besides the black 2005 Maserati taking him over sparkling Biscayne Bay, drives him to hit Northeast Miami's Hit Factory every day to compete for the title of World's Best Rapper?
"I'm cold,â€ Wayne says with a shrug. If you could step into the booth every time and "drop 30 to 60 points on a nigga,â€ asks the self-appointed Kobe Bryant of the rap game, wouldn't you hit the court nightly? With the acclaim for Wayne's Tha Carter and Tha Carter II raising the demand for his skills, he's taking on all comers. "Cash Money is more open 'cause it goes through me now,â€ says the label's new president. "I don't tell nobody no. I love this whole game.â€
Sports metaphors aside, it takes more than stats and points scored to be That Dude in the commercial rap world. It requires a matrix of qualitiesâ€”talent, ambition and vision, street cred, personal magnetism, showmanship, even business savvyâ€”that few MCs other than Jay-Z, Tupac, the Notorious B.I.G. or LL Cool J have integrated. Greatness, as the clichÃ© states, is born to some and thrust upon others. More than 13 years after being discovered as a child rapping prodigy, four albums after his '99 solo debut The Block Is Hot, Young Money is just now coming into "Grown Manâ€-hood, as his song title puts it. Now, Wayne stands on the edge of the throne.
But first there's the business at handâ€”in this caseâ€”an interview. Wayne's room at the Factory is sparse and low-key. No groupies, no hangers-on, no distractions. There's a writer, of course, Wayne's engineer, manager, three of his artists, PatrÃ³n, ice, plastic cups, blunts and marijuanaâ€”that's it.
Wayne, on the other hand, is in perpetual star mode, dressed fashionably in distressed 575 jeans, frosty chains and ring, Yves Saint Laurent shades, sparkling white Uptowns and a white wife-beater showing off the tats that spiral and swirl on his muscular neck, chest and arms like the balconies that overlook New Orleans' Bourbon Street. Leaning back in an easy chair, Wayne fingers the reason why he's become larger than life in the minds of his fans; ironically, he thinks it's his lack of pretense. "People love reality,â€ he says. "Jay told us he was on yachts and he really was. [Baby] really do got 35 red cars.â€
The music industry has been saturated with keep-it-real credos for years, though. Like 'Pac at his peak, what most sets Wayne apart from the pack is his work ethic. Sure, Jigga's Yankee influence on his style is noticeable, but Wayne says he's ready to "make 'em hear 'Pac, Big, OutKast and Scarfaceâ€ in his flow, and win those comparisons as well; he badly wants to make an airtight case for his inclusion among the legends. "Take everything away from me,â€ he winks, "and still no nigga finna be spitting like I'm spitting.â€
With more than 15 years of development under his belt, Weezy F. Baby measures up as the most complete rapper of his generationâ€”the only young man hot enough to set afire the national charts, the stage, the streets and the ladies while continuing to murder the mixtapes on rewind value alone.
What of his contemporaries? Juelz Santana and the Game are still maturing lyrically, while Cassidy and Lupe Fiasco are still laying their commercial foundation. Saigon and Papoose have yet to break out on a national level, leaving Southern MCs Chamillionaire and T.I. as Wayne's only serious competition. Cham doesn't have Weezy's magnetism, though; and while T.I. has swagger, street cred and charisma galore, he doesn't match Wayne's stylistic variety, deft delivery and what-did-he-just-say punch lines.
While Wayne won't deny that somewhere there exists a rapper with better technique, he argues that there's no point in awarding the crown to a player who wins the scoring title on a losing team. In a recent MP3.com interview, he compared himself to Peyton Manning, concluding he's "the greatest player on a good team.â€ If so, it's partly because, if one compares MCs to QBs, he can make all the flowsâ€”strong opening lines ("All I have in this world is a pistol and a promise / A fistful of dollars / A list full of problemsâ€¦â€ â€“"Carter IIâ€), gut-checking punch lines ("Them niggas trippin' until the shots whistling / Hear them bullets sizzle / Like a cobra at attentionâ€ â€”"Fly Outâ€) and vivid details, as on "I'm a Dboy,â€ his ode to Rakim's "Paid in Full.â€
His lyricism has not escaped the attention of some of the game's greatest talents. Jay-Z recently dubbed Wayne Rookie of the Year. In the June 2006 issue of Blender, Kanye West said, "My favorite rapper these days is Lil' Wayne.â€ And Wayne was the only rapper cited by AndrÃ© 3000 in the July 2006 issue of Vibe as being on his "radar.â€ AndrÃ© then recruited Wayne to appear on the Idlewild soundtrack, and offered to produce one of his future albums.
Yet one could argue Wayne is the Roy Jones Jr. of his time, a gifted competitor cheated of a Golden Era within which to define his greatness. "You've got your analogy fucked up,â€ he shoots back. "Boxing's been the same sport for decades: two gloves and you hit each other. Make it basketball, created by James Naismith with the medicine-lookin' balls and peach baskets. The greatest player now exceeds the limits back then.â€
Then, almost as an afterthought, he adds, "AndrÃ©, Jay, Kanye, those are your legends [praising me] right there. You wanna look at me as a boxer, put me as Floyd Mayweather. I got niggas scared to take the fight.â€
The dealers-turned-impresarios legend of Cash Money Records helps, but Wayne's 'hood love ultimately rests on his loyalty to the Big Easy, especially his Hollygrove blocks. Waving off questions about Katrina in the press, he let his music speak for itself: "Georgia . . . Bushâ€ on DJ Drama's Dedication 2 mixtape, is a powerful commentary on government neglect.
However, recent clashes with former fellow Hot Boys Juvenile and B.G. have divided his hometown. (To Wayne's credit, on B.G.'s "Triggamanâ€ dis, B.G. concedes, "You can spit / You a beast / I ain't lyin' / You can go.â€) Wayne's approach has generally been to play it cool and dismiss the attacks as unworthy of reply. "You got peons dissin' me,â€ Wayne sneers, "â€˜we gon' go at this nigga and see if he looks down the ladder.'â€
The harshest blow to his bid for the number-one spot may be the allegation from former Cash Money act Gillie the Kid (once of Philly rap crew Major Figgas) claiming he ghostwrote for Tha Carter. If the rumor has Wayne worried, he is doing a fantastic acting job. Wayne lowers his shadesâ€”"I'ma go and take my glasses off,â€ he says, "so when you tell your friends this story, you can say â€˜I know he wasn't lying to me.'â€ Wayne goes on to refute the accusation, point by point. First, he describes his recording process: Like Jiggaman, Wayne says he's recorded notebook-free as of Tha Carter, which means Wayne records in four-bar spurts, punching in and out over the course of the session with breaks for calls, drinks and drugs until the song is done. No paper, no ghostwriting.
Weezy next attacks the vagaries of the claim. "The nigga said, â€˜I was there, Carter I, Carter II, all the Stunna albums.' So was you, so was weed, cocaine, uh . . . PatrÃ³n, um . . . bitches . . . uh . . . . You know how much stuff was there?!â€
Next, Wayne notes that Gillie's accomplishments, or lack thereof, don't support his claim. "Mu'fuckas considering me the best . . . you got six mixtapes out,â€ Wayne says. "No one's considering you for shit.â€ He re-fuels the fire: "Why you ain't spit Wayne shit on yours then? What kind of nigga can write for another nigga and sound better than theyself? [Who the] fuck is you, Ne-Yo?â€
Wayne stands up suddenly and dramatically. "I'ma keep it real real. You can go ask my old Sqad Up clique! We wadn't even much fuckin' with Cash Money when I recorded Carter I!â€ The whole room by now is in tears, and Wayne continues, "Baby and me weren't seein' eye-to-eye with that Sqad Up [side project.] We recorded that all on our own.â€
Bottom line, did Gillie contribute any ideas or lines at all to your projects? Stone-faced, he scowls and says, "Naw sir! My daddy been buried since I was 14, and I put that on his soul.â€
As 'Pac said, where the ladies lead, the fellas will follow. Females, says Wayne, have always been his secret weapon: "I used to write raps as if I was talking to a girl. You gotta make a woman understand.â€
Mimi ValdÃ©s, the former editor-in-chief of Blaze who in 1999 gave Wayne his first major solo coverâ€”with his infant daughter, no lessâ€”and earlier this year gave him the cover of Vibe, says Wayne's success with the ladies is in his accessibility. "He doesn't have traditional good looks,â€ she says. "He has that bad-boy image with the tattoos and thug mentality that female fansâ€”especially younger onesâ€”[like]. People are also interested in him as a person.â€
Of course, Wayne's growth as a performer is another major factor in his appeal. Born in parties and jams, performance is still at the heart of what it means to be a great rapperâ€”after all, MC means move the crowd, as Rakim once deadpanned. And while Cash Money has always rocked crowds with its bubby brand of bounce, Wayne's performances in 2006 have made the mainstream media stand up and take notice: The New York Times' Kelefa Sanneh called Wayne's duet with Robin Thicke on The Jay Leno Show last January "one of the best and most unexpected musical performances in years.â€
Perhaps due to his newly found live-show clout, Wayne was chosen by MTV2 as the only rapper to rip its guitar-heavy, viewer-nominated All That Rocks award show last July. Wayne answered with another strong performance, first tossing his fitted cap into the crowd with a jazzy flick of the wrist, and then gracefully sliding across the stage. Within seconds, Weezy was dropping the mic to his waist after every other bar, as the House of Blues crowd in Orlando finished the lines from "Fireman.â€
Much is riding on Weezy F. Baby's handling of not only his own career as the label's president and flagship artist, but also of the careers of the artists signed to his Young Money imprint: his debut artist, Curren$y, his hometown homie Mack Maine and Raw Dizzy. Not only is Wayne the only link to Cash Money's original rosters, he's also the one entrusted with pushing the label to the next level. "This job wasn't given to me because I'm Wayne,â€ he boasts. "I was already doing everything creatively. Now I've started to handle everything business-wise.â€
Wayne's first challenge is to redefine the label's sound following Mannie Fresh's departure last year. Acknowledging that "Mannie was the staple at Cash Money, we love what he do,â€ he nevertheless points out that Tha Carter II (done without Mannie) broke the label's record for the highest-selling debut week ever. He also eyes the level of respect accorded to super-producers like Kanye West, and finds his own label's clout wanting. "Let's just face it,â€ says Wayne, "all these years people accepted Cash Money as a category, where Cash Money don't stand next to what's important. That's about to change, and â€˜Shooter' is the beginning.â€ Eclectic material aside, Wayne's mind is still consumed with one thought: being the best, plain and simple.
Of course, many fans have whispered, how can he claim that spot without challenging T.I.'s claim to be King of the South? Wayne is tactful but firm: "T.I. ain't say he's the best rapper in the South, he said he's the King of the South. Niggas make it like when I say I'm the best, I'm downin' anybody. Ain't this a game? Ain't somebody s'posed to win this mu'fucka?â€
T.I. isn't willing to concede the title of "the bestâ€ to Wayne, but out of respect, he's equally diplomatic: "It takes a whole lot to impress me,â€ Tip says, "but every album, Wayne seems to do that. If he keeps that momentum, he's going to go a long way.â€
Ironic as it may be, the kid who helped coin "bling blingâ€ isn't driven by the spoilsâ€”he's driven by the struggle for excellence. "If I said, â€˜I do this for the money and bitches and weed,' why would you buy my album?â€ he asks. "I do this creatively from my heart, and I'm the best. I don't do this to support my family. I do it 'cause I love it! My momma or my 7-year-old can't make me stop doin' this. I can't make me stop doin' this.â€ Pointing upwards to Heaven, Wayne solemnly swears, "He gon' have to make me stop doin' this.â€
The New Yorker examines Lil Wayne's career.