Totally Sane in the Membrane
Lil Wayne is not batshit insane.
Let's be clear about that. Despite the fact that he regularly refers to himself as an extraterrestrial, seems to have an utter disregard for authority or his own health, and kisses his surrogate father on the mouth (a practice that has the rampantly homophobic rap community making fun of him), Wayne has most of his shit together.
One wouldn't call his public image self-consciously constructed per se, but unlike just about everyone else in hip-hop, Wayne has taken the urban adage of "do you" to its highly illogical conclusion. His new album, Tha Carter III, is the biggest rap CD of the year, commercially and critically — perhaps the biggest, period. That's what can happen when you go through a couple of years of foreplay, releasing practically a career's worth of material via mixtapes and guest appearances, as Wayne did.
See, not crazy and also smart.
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But as good as III is, it's just the sideshow. On the grand stage of hip-hop, the real attraction is Wayne himself. Start with his increasingly tattooed, rumored-to-be-juiced figure, which perhaps approximates that of a surly Martian. "I think the tattoos intimidate [people] and show them they'd better not walk up to me," he explains during a recent interview. "Because I'll knock your fucking head off." Move next to his unconventional voice, which there's really no other way to describe than as "amphibian-like." Continue with his unorthodox approach to marketing, and finish with his hypersexualized persona. Who else could be accused of homosexuality while simultaneously being linked to video vixen/tell-all author Karrine "Superhead" Steffans?
His persona sucks in magazine covers, blogger hype, and hood hysteria like a black hole. Needless to say, I'm stoked to talk to him. It takes three weeks of nagging his publicist, but we finally connect on a Friday evening as he rides on a bus through the Southeast somewhere. His voice is low and sullen; his mind wanders when I ask him a question he doesn't feel much like answering.
"Which track on the album are you feeling the most right now?" I ask.
"All of 'em, baby."
I only get a few, surely stoned minutes with him before his phone loses its signal. It's possible he hangs up on me, although at least he doesn't freak out like he did with a reporter who asked him about mixtape DJs. "I'm like Arthur Nobel, or whatever his first name was — you know, the Nobel Peace prize guy?" Wayne digressed during a recent interview with Foundation. "He created gunpowder and created all them mass-destruction things that killed millions of people." Wayne proceeded to compare himself to the Swedish scientist — who was actually named Alfred and invented dynamite. Somewhere in there, Wayne was trying to dis mixtape DJs but got sidetracked.
In any case, he grows more animated when I ask him about his adopted hometown of Miami. "It's perfect here," he says. "I just like how beautiful the weather is every day, to tell you the truth. I've got a high-rise, so I like the views."
Though he lives in the midst of party central, he almost never hits the town.
"I don't go out much," he says. "For what? If I do go out, it's not even a party no more; it's just a big 'look at Lil Wayne' fest, so I stay in the studio, and I get paid to party. I'm not going to go out if I'm not getting paid. And I'm 25 years of age; I've got my whole lifetime to party."
His critics (and fans) would argue he may not have much of a lifetime if he continues to sip his noxious cocktail of Hawaiian Punch and promethazine cough syrup all day while smoking weed. He's on record as saying he doesn't do any other drugs but that. But, of course, that's like saying you play Russian roulette "only" with revolvers, never anything automatic.
Somewhere in the depths of his drug-addled mind, though, there's a real concern for his legacy. He's still not a household name among most mainstream Americans over age 40. Your parents almost certainly haven't heard of him the way they know 50 Cent and Kanye West. So he's branching into acting, having recently finished shooting Hurricane Season, with Forest Whitaker, Isaiah Washington, and Bow Wow. It's a basketball feel-good story that takes place in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
"It's cool; I like it," Wayne says of his first major thespian experience, but he adds that he had trouble finding the patience that acting requires. "The actual physical doing of it, I kind of had that in the bag, thank God. I was blessed with that. But it was the actual patience of being there that was difficult for me."
Unlike other rappers like 50 and Common, who appear to be greedily enticed by the big screen, Wayne's biggest concern is still his music. He truly wants to be the best rapper alive. He claims that title publicly, though one senses a voice in his head telling him he's still got a ways to go. "Gotta work every day/Gotta not be cliché" he urges himself on "Dr. Carter."
The attitude informs III, making it a departure from the tossed-off, improvised mixtapes he's been releasing since Tha Carter II came out in 2005. What makes III superior is the fact that he was forced to do some editing. Instead of relying on beats from songs that were already chart hits, the 16 tracks on the album are tailored to his flow. The songs alternate between first-rate club-and-trance rap ("Lollipop," "Mr. Carter," "A Milli"), mid- to low-tempo ballads that allow him to crack jokes ("Comfortable," "Tie My Hands," "Let the Beat Build"), and guitar jams that bring real drama. The album's highlight falls into the latter category, the Rolling Stones-cribbing "Playing With Fire," which recalls a battle with his mother's abusive husband and encourages those who hate Wayne to assassinate him like Martin Luther King Jr. Even seeming throwaways like "Mrs. Officer," about a raunchy affair with a cop, is given heft and humor via Bobby Valentino's sung hook, which sounds like a police siren.
Much of Wayne's charm is that no one knows what's going to come out of his mouth next — not even he. Because he has finally mastered the art of knowing when to let himself go and when to reel himself in, III is a cohesive, fulfilling work.
"Are there any tracks you're surprised turned out as well as they did?" I ask.
"Um, no, all of them are exactly what I expected," he says. "I put my all into them, and I expect to get all out of them."
Believe it or not, Wayne is actually a perfectionist. He's got a remarkable ability to stay on message even after his third or fourth glass of syrup. Rest assured, despite making no effort to dissuade you of the notion that he's completely unhinged, Wayne knows exactly what he's doing.
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