Thursday, April 17, 2008

Best of Rock 2008's Best MC: Lil Wayne

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, nigga! 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 unusual 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 sexual preferences (sparked by a photo of him kissing mentor Williams), 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.)

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