A game-changing artist and an impervious celebrity, Lil Wayne began as his career as a near-novelty — a preteen delivering hardcore Hip Hop — but through years of maturation and reinventing the mixtape game, he developed into a million-selling rapper with a massive body of work, one so inventive and cunning that it makes his famous claim of being the “best rapper alive” worth considering. Born Dwayne Michael Carter, Jr. and raised in the infamous New Orleans neighborhood of Hollygrove, he was a straight-A student but never felt his true intelligence was expressed through any kind of report card. He found music was the best way to express himself, and after taking the name Gangsta D he began writing rhymes. Combining a strong work ethic with aggressive self-promotion, the 11-year-old convinced the Cash Money label to take him on, even if it was just for odd jobs around the office. A year later, in-house producer Mannie Fresh partnered him with the 14-year-old B.G. and dubbed the duo the B.G.’z. Although only B.G.’s name appeared on the cover, the 1995 album True Story has since been accepted as the B.G.’z debut album both by fans and the Cash Money label. The 1997 album Chopper City was supposed to be the follow-up, but when Wayne accidentally shot himself in the chest with a .44, it became a solo B.G. release.
That same year, he officially took the moniker Lil Wayne, dropping the “D” from his first name in order to separate himself from an absent father. He joined B.G., Juvenile, and Young Turk for another Fresh project, the teen hardcore rap group the Hot Boys, who released their debut album, Get It How U Live!, in 1997. Two years later, Cash Money would sign a distribution deal with the major label Universal. Mainstream distribution would help that year’s Hot Boys album Guerrilla Warfare to reach the number one spot on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip Hop Albums chart. In 1998, Lil Wayne would appear on Juvenile‘s hit single ‘Back That Thing Up’, or ‘Back That Azz Up’ as it appeared on Juvie‘s album 400 Degreez. Wayne would launch his solo career a year later with the album Tha Block Is Hot, featuring the hit single title track. It went double platinum but the rapper was still unknown to Middle America, since his hardcore rhymes and the rough Cash Money sound had not yet crossed over. His second album, Lights Out (2000), failed to match the success of its predecessor but it did go gold, and with an appearance on the Big Tymers‘ hit single ‘#1 Stunna’, his audience was certainly growing. While Fresh was primarily responsible for launching his career, Wayne was now much closer to Fresh’s fellow Big Tymer and Cash Money CEO Birdman. When Juvenile left the label, Wayne — or “Birdman Jr.” as he was calling himself — showed his allegiance to his CEO by releasing an album with a title much hotter than Juvie‘s breakthrough effort. 500 Degreez landed in 2002 and while it went gold, rumors began flying about Cash Money’s financial troubles and possible demise. The rest of the Hot Boys had defected and Wayne‘s planned 2003 album was scrapped, coming out instead as an underground mixtape called Da Drought.
Wayne became enamored with the mixtape world after Da Drought drew so much attention from the Hip Hop press. He used these underground releases to drum up anticipation for his next official album, the breakthrough effort Tha Carter. Released in 2004, the album seemed familiar on one hand with Mannie Fresh’s production, but the Wayne on the cover was a dreadlocked surprise, and the rhymes he laid on the tracks showed significant growth. His marketing skills had become sharper, too, and it was no mistake that the album’s hit single, ‘Go DJ’, mentioned Hip Hop’s greatest tastemakers right in the title. It reached number five on the singles chart, and with a guest shot on Destiny’s Child‘s number three single, ‘Soldier’, Wayne had officially crossed over. On the flip side, his street cred was supported by a slew of mixtapes released in 2005, including the popular titles Dedication with DJ Drama and Tha Suffix with DJ Khaled. Cash Money’s future was no longer in doubt and traditional music business rules no longer seemed to apply, as tracks would be leaked onto the Internet and various DJs’ mixtapes. ‘Get Something’ was another bold move, as a Universal-funded video was made without the track ever seeing official release.
With his alternative marketing scheme working in overdrive, the 2005 landing of Tha Carter II was a major event, selling over a quarter-million copies the week of its release. ‘Fireman’ and ‘Shooter’ with Robin Thicke were released as singles, while the album — which for the first time featured no Mannie Fresh productions — went platinum. It also introduced his Young Money posse, with appearances from Currensy and Nicki Minaj, and initially came with a bonus disc featuring Wayne‘s greatest hits screwed and chopped by Swishahouse DJ Michael “5000” Watts. A year later he collaborated with Birdman for the Like Father, Like Son album, featuring the hit single ‘Stuntin’ Like My Daddy’. His mixtapes were still flooding the underground, including the stunning Dedication 2, which came with an iconic image of the rapper on the cover plus the much talked-about track ‘Georgia…Bush’, a venomous response to President George W. Bush’s handling of the Katrina disaster. With no official follow-up to Tha Carter II in sight, numerous collaborative tracks kept the rapper in the mainstream with ‘Gimme That’ by Chris Brown, ‘Make It Rain’ by Fat Joe, and ‘Duffle Bag Boy’ by Playaz Circle becoming three of the biggest hits.
Tha Carter III was promised for 2007 but didn’t arrive until a year later, setting off Wayne‘s infamous reputation of delayed releases. Part of the problem became unauthorized leaks of the album’s tracks, something combatted by the official, downloadable EP The Leak released that same year. Preceded by the number one hit ‘Lollipop’, Tha Carter III arrived in May of 2008, selling more than a million copies in its first week of release. An appearance on Saturday Night Live and four Grammy Awards — including Best Rap Album — spoke to Wayne‘s mainstream acceptance. He also performed at that year’s Country Music Awards with Kid Rock, but rather than rap, he played guitar. The guitar playing was part of Wayne‘s new involvement with rock music, including his help in signing Kevin Rudolf to Cash Money plus an appearance on Rudolf‘s massive hit ‘Let It Rock’. His planned rock album was previewed with the 2009 single ‘Prom Queen’, but when the album failed to meet its promised April release, the music press began to portray the rapper as the king of missed street dates.
Unconcerned, Wayne forged ahead with his Young Money crew, releasing the underground mixtape Young Money Is the Army, Better Yet the Navy, the aboveground single ‘Every Girl’, plus the official album We Are Young Money that same year. His rock album, Rebirth, would finally appear in early 2010, which coincided with Wayne being sentenced to a nine-month prison term for criminal possession of a weapon. The rapper may have been behind bars on Riker’s Island, but that didn’t stop his ten-song EP, I Am Not a Human Being, from seeing the light of day in September 2010. Tha Carter IV was finally released in 2011 along with its lead-off single ‘6 Foot 7 Foot’. The album reached the top spot in Billboard’s Top 200. A second volume, I Am Not a Human Being II, arrived in 2013 featuring the singles ‘No Worries’ and ‘Love Me’.
Words: David Jeffries