Later that afternoon, in a hotel suite, he was engaged and feisty as he discussed his struggle to remain optimistic and his inability to feign an interest in politics. After obtaining a soap dish in which to ash his collection of chubby blunts, his eyes widened with focus. “Shoot,” he said. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
With this book, were you worried about revisiting a difficult time?
I haven’t read it, and I don’t plan on reading it. I’m not one of those people who revisit things. I don’t remember [expletive]. I could meet the president and forget it. Of course I thought it was because I smoke too much. But somebody told me: “The reason why you don’t remember things is that it’s not the same for you as it is everybody else. Because you are it.”
You write in the introduction that the book is for fans to “have something from me while they continue to be ever so amazing and patient.”
Plain and simple, because they’re not getting anything from me, unfortunately. They’re not getting a damn thing from Wayne other than a tweet here or there.
You’ve done plenty of guest verses.
I do that all the time. I’ve been doing features since they named them features.
Two that stick out are the Chance song “No Problem” and Solange’s “Mad.” Those are personal in a way that you haven’t been in some time. Are you in a different mind-set given the career turmoil?
It’s just the song. If you send me a song about football, then I’m gonna go hard about football. It’s also about the artist.
Is there something about working with younger musicians who are pushing boundaries?
I would say so. It’s different. These people are turning the clock right now. They are the trendsetters of tomorrow, and I actually pay attention to what they send me. If [my manager] Tez sends me a song and says, ‘I need you to do this verse for whoever,’ I knock it out in that one night and send it right back. When I get the Solange or Chance song, I’m actually riding in my car, banging that. When I put my verse on it, I’m telling my engineer, “Let me get a copy.” The other ones, I’m just sending back to Tez.
Are there rappers in the new school that are motivating you? Are you keeping up with Yachty, Uzi Vert, 21 Savage, Kodak?
I swear to God I didn’t know you were saying people’s names just now, so that should probably answer that question. I just do my own thing.
After being in prison, someone like T.I. made fighting for criminal justice reform part of his life. You’ve said Black Lives Matter was a wave that passed you by. Why haven’t you been attracted to activism?
I believe there’s a bunch of different types of artists and musicians. To even notice what’s going out there — I’m trying to make these words stop popping up in my head, I’m trying to make them rhyme. I’ve got all kind of color lives mattering up in here — green, all kinds of stuff mattering. I’m trying to make sense of what’s on in this world up in here [points to head].
In prison, you got a letter from a pastor who asked you to rap about God. You consider your influence and say, “I would have straight killers in the church every Sunday.” But ultimately you decide that’s not you.
Not at all. I was on a sports show recently, and I was asked a question like that about black lives or whatever. When we got off the air, [the host] Shannon Sharpe said: “I really want to commend you for answering like that, because you didn’t make something up just to make yourself one of us. And to make yourself a victim.” I’m not that. And honestly, I don’t care. I care what’s going on with me and my kids and my world and my mom and who’s going to pay this next bill. That’s what matters to me.
In prison, you watched a lot of reality TV — “American Idol,” “Celebrity Apprentice.” Do you have any words for Donald Trump?
[Laughs] Who’s that?
Is “Tha Carter V” an album that’s finished, or is it constantly evolving as the months and years go by?
It’s done, sitting and wrapped as is. I just listened to it for the first time in months the other day. I had forgotten every single word on it, because I work every day. I popped it in, and I was like, it’s still so much better than everything I’ve ever heard. Not what’s going on right now — everything I’ve ever heard.
You’ve always been a creature of the studio. When the music isn’t coming out, are you still in there as much?
Probably more. I’m a positive thinker, so I’m still looking forward to the day that it does come out. Plus, I am musician to the heart. I love to get better every day.
Has your recording process changed in this stage of your career?
Not at all. Put the beat on, I’mma smoke one and bob my head and be ready in a few minutes.
When other artists came out in support after your retirement tweets, did that make up for how low you were feeling?
I’d be a liar to say it didn’t. People always say, “How could not expect it?” But when I saw people giving a damn about what I’m going through, that made me think and obviously uplifted me. Sometimes what you’re going through takes you far away from what the reality is. It takes someone to remind you: Look this way and remember what’s over here. I never have bad days; I have bad moments.
Do you see any light at the end of the tunnel with the label situation?
I do. I don’t have to even look. I’m gonna make sure that there’s light. If there’s a wall at the end of the tunnel, I’m gonna shoot that [expletive] down. And there’s gonna be light behind that wall.Continue reading the main story
I can’t say I wrote the book on Lil Wayne but I did write a book. This was in late 2010, Dwayne Michael Carter Jr was midway through an eight-month sentence at New York’s Rikers Island for gun possession, and I was cobbling together a sort of biography. This book was a cuts job, which meant I assembled information from what other people had written and fudged things into a cohesive narrative while glossing over his relationship with drugs and guns because of the teenage target readership. In the four or five years since this book was released, however, the decline of Wayne’s career has been unavoidable – lacking in creative output and overwhelmingly centred around his legal dispute with his friend and mentor, Cash Money Records’ founder Birdman.
This rift will no doubt fill the pages of his forthcoming memoir. Entitled Gone ’Til November, it is based on the journals that Wayne wrote in prison, documents I too studied as part of my research process. It is said to feature “his thoughts and feelings about spending time in Rikers Island, the people he met, his whole family, his past, his future, and more”. Drake’s in it too, as is a story about a wedding at which he officiated for two fellow inmates and a reception for which he decorated a room with toilet paper and toasted with Gatorade. Rappers apparently love Gatorade. I tried drinking it during the process, to go method. It’s pretty horrible.
For the uninitiated, Lil Wayne was born in New Orleans and is covered in tattoos. No one really knows how many there are but suffice to say he looks like a map. He has grills and a vacillating relationship with various drugs (most interestingly sizzurp, a codeine-based “drink” which is either the cause or death of his creativity). He is famously a southern rapper, short, difficult (and of a difficult upbringing) and now a father of four. He is not the best rapper by any stretch. His voice is awkward, at times tired, with a grating cadence (Sasha Frere-Jones generously compared his voice to Dylan’s in the New Yorker in 2007). But lyrically, there’s something uncapped in how he views the world, thick with pessimism and humour. Be it astute metaphors (“I put up a wall, and they just wallpaper”), absurd references to beetroot (he’s vegetarian), puns (“When it Wayne’s it pours”) or multiple references to the poet Langston Hughes, he is possessed of a skittish talent that is both unfocused and fascinating especially to someone like me who cannot relate to anything he raps about on any level. Except, perhaps, that we are similar in age and both have plans to retire in two years.
For one of the most unusual and prolific artists of the past 15 years, Lil Wayne has recently been anything but. He remains relevant (collaborating with Yung Lean and guests on Solange’s new album A Seat at the Table), but musically has been camped out in Gethsemane twiddling his thumbs over a stalemate surrounding the release of an album.
He was due to release Tha Carter V in 2014 but decided against it, at least under the umbrella of Cash Money Records, the label founded by Birdman. He then sued Cash Money, demanding $51m and a release from his contract, pointing towards all manner of alleged monetary misdeeds. It also transpired that he wanted ownership of the Cash Money imprint he ran, called Young Money Entertainment, as well as the artists he signed: Drake and Nicki Minaj. The row has been playing out for years, intermittently, veering from the silly (throwing drinks at one another) to the serious (Wayne’s tour buses were shot at by, it’s alleged, a “friend” of Birdman). Their love/hate, father/son relationship has played out, Cronus-like, ever since and raises the question as to whether it’s money, attention or creativity which is fuelling the rift and, moreover, whether anyone cares anymore. Whatever. The fight has become white noise, groaning under the weight of its legal contracts, and feels like fodder for TMZ rather than anything concrete.
Gone ’Til November is therefore likely to level out as some sort of battle cry, a literary scream in lieu of a musical one which is a shame, because once upon a time Lil Wayne’s output was tremendous: 12 albums, and double that in mixtapes (all of which came wrapped in makeshift zine-y covers) on which he used to release his most reactive and non-commercial content.
Following Katrina, New Orleans’s comprehensive battering and George W Bush’s utter mismanagement of the situation, Lil Wayne became his home town’s voice. Songs like Georgia Bush, a brutal impeachment of George Bush’s handling of Katrina, and Tha Carter III’s Tie My Hands, which manages to be both accusatory and commercial – “My whole city under water, some people still floating” – were ballads for the disenfranchised south. He put money into New Orleans to rebuild parks and schools, becoming a philanthropist for the city. To me, he feels forever linked to that tragedy.
Lil Wayne's Tha Carter series, from best to worst
When Lil Wayne peaked, arguably around 2008, he was lauded as a hip-hop outsider bolstering a genre that had become stuck on the sort of aspirational sheen which made names of rappers such as P Diddy and Jay Z. He had sold more than 3m copies of Tha Carter III album and won a Grammy . But his experimental work with rock (Rebirth, pretty terrible) and a shift away from music (including a confusing period of serious, serious skateboarding) pushed him off trajectory and lyrically, his relevance began to peter out. He cares about New Orleans, and his roots, representing both beyond physical boundaries, but he also cares about drugs, women and oral sex. Popular rap has morphed into something else, hung with emotion and responsibility, less macho and more in touch with the current mood, a mood which doesn’t quite chime with what Lil Wayne represents.
Drake, who, along with rappers such as Young Thug and Future, arguably wouldn’t exist were it not for Lil Wayne, is a case in point and, says journalist Hattie Collins: “You can possibly trace Wayne’s demise in popularity to Drake’s huge rise – which was the time Wayne was sent to prison. It seemed to kill his spirit, his creativity and certainly his output. Perhaps he felt like he just didn’t have anything to say any more – he said it all over that 2004-06 period.”
His greatest error, to my mind, has been how he has adapted to fame. Barack Obama is a fan and has used Lil Wayne as an example of the dangers of fame and aspiration – “our kids can’t all aspire to be Lil Wayne”. Wayne himself has always been sticky with the idea of role models, distancing himself from the responsibility which comes, proxy-like, with fame. Thomas Chatterton Williams, a US author who writes about race relations, notes: “The best role models tend to be those who assume that responsibility. Forcing someone into that [role] seems less ideal than locating people who are less famous but more worthy of the emulation.” This is especially pertinent when you compare Lil Wayne to someone like Jay Z, his one-time peer, who has“consciously attempted to move into that terrain over the past decade or so,” says Williams, citing a recent op-ed in the New York Times on mass incarceration. Unlike Lil Wayne, “Jay Z is aware of his profile and influence and trying to do something with it”.
How the Auto-Tune conquered the charts
His maladaptation to fame was further compounded by a recent interview in which Lil Wayne claimed to have never experienced racism, adding that the Black Lives Matter movement was a “wave [that] just went right by me”. He could be forgiven for panicking, choosing to avoid controversy on national TV, but the takeaway felt that this was a man who, upon witnessing his mostly white audience, wrongly translates that as white America embracing black culture. Collins says: “It’s a shame, because at his best, Wayne was one of the weirdest, most interesting MCs in hip-hop who, I thought, had the potential to delve into subject matter with real political depth.”
The past few years have been a catalogue of errors for Lil Wayne. If he’s done something wrong, you can bet he’s been caught doing it. After all, it’s quite unusual for someone of his stature and wealth – estimated in 2015 to be $150m – to actually serve time unless the justice system is at its wits’ end. A comeback is not impossible – but it feels less and less likely. Which is sad, because regardless of his enumeration of criminal records, squabbles and poor life choices, of diss tracks and Styrofoam cups of sizzurp, he is a talent, off-centre, a democrat, a freak, and unswervingly honest to boot. He is, also, content in this very fallibility, which I find both comforting and triggering. So maybe, on that level, we can relate.