Lil Wayne - Biography
Southern rapper Lil Wayne has a long career that stretches back further than his recent mainstream popularity or young age might suggest. Whether the trajectory of his career follows artistic evolution or the path of homogenization depends on if you’re a fan of dirty South grime or Top 40 polish. During the label Cash Money’s heyday, Lil Wayne established himself as a humorous, deliberately offensive rapper in both his solo work and his collaborations with several groups. More recently, he’s adopted an ultra-commercial sound that may have cost him most of his old fans but has no doubt made him very successful financially.
Dwayne Michael Carter was born in New Orleans on September 27, 1982 to 19-year-old Jacida “Cita” Carter and her boyfriend Dwayne Michael Turner. After the abusive Turner promptly split, Cita raised Carter in Hollygrove — a lower middle class neighborhood on New Orleans’s Western edge. Carter’s early years were fairly average, but he grew up quickly. He showed an interest in sports (football and later bowling) and was enrolled in the gifted program at school. By the age of eight, however, he chose a course that he’s been on ever since. At Lafayette Elementary, young Carter began rapping to impress his classmates. His first rap was “You Gotta Be Lil,” a riff on pioneering local rapper Pimp Daddy’s “You Got to Be Real.” He also formed a crew called K.W.A. (Kids With Attitude). Although his mother usually indulged her only child (like buying him a bunk bed even though he had no siblings), she discouraged his new hobby. Nonetheless, when Carter moved on to Eleanor McMain Secondary School in the nearby neighborhood of Audubon, he continued rapping. At one Hollygrove block party, Carter rapped for his neighbor Lil Slim, a Cash Money rapper who was the first to represent Hollygrove’s Apple and Eagle on record. Suitably impressed, Lil Slim promised to get him an audience with Cash Money’s co-owners, Baby and Slim. At an autograph signing in a record store, Carter showed up and Lil Slim introduced the 11-year-old to his bosses. Performing a rap that spelled out Hollygrove with each line, Baby was impressed but passed. Carter persisted, however, recording rhymes on the label’s answering machine and hanging out at the studio. Baby and Slim eventually put him to work moving boxes. Around the same time, Carter’s mother began dating a small time hustler named Reginald “Rabbit” McDonald, whom Carter quickly grew to view and love as a father.
After a time, Carter was paired with a new, young Cash Money signee, 14-year-old Christopher Dorsey. Following the murder of his father, Dorsey had practically been adopted by Cash Money’s owners who recognized his talents as an MC. Together the duo was named The B.G.’z (short for The Baby Gangstaz). Dorsey rapped as Lil Doogie (as well as Gangsta D) and Carter as Baby D. Having suffered considerable personal tragedy and already addicted to heroin, Dorsey’s prematurely world-weary, precociously assured rapping took center stage on their 1995 debut Tru Story (1995 Cash Money). Baby D/Carter, for his part, only shows up on three tracks and raps with a quiet, squeaky voice scarcely recognizable as belonging to Lil Wayne (save for his “wha wha wha wha?” interjections and his respect for his mother’s wishes that he not cuss). His violent threats to his cross-town rivals at Big Boy are unintentionally adorable rather than menacing.
The Carter family moved across town to New Orleans East. Unhappy with his new school and wanting to follow in his stepfather’s footsteps, Carter began carrying a .32 Dillinger and selling drugs to make extra money. Wishing to further distance himself from his biological father, he also dropped the “d” from his name, now going by Wayne. When his grades started slipping, Cita pulled him off the label. He reacted by becoming more rebellious, skipping school and running away for short stretches. When he was still only 12 years old, a stoned Carter was fooling around with an unregistered .44 whilst eating a hamburger and watching a Notorious B.I.G. video. In his addled haze, he shot himself in the chest, narrowly missing his heart. When the police asked who the gun belonged to, he identified Rabbit who was subsequently imprisoned for six months. Carter spent two weeks on a respirator recovering. As he convalesced, he contemplated his recent actions and decided to get his mind right. After his grades improved, Cita let him return to Cash Money and he met another recent signee named Juvenile.
When The B.G.’z recorded their next record, 1996’s Chopper City (1996 Cash Money), Wayne wasn’t present. Thus Doogie became associated with the B.G. name and adopted the alias as his own. (Both of The B.G.’z albums were re-released and re-credited to B.G. in 1999.) Carter made his return to recording under the name Lil Wayne (reflecting his 5’ 6” height) on Juvenile’s “Hide Out or Ride Out,” a track on the seminal album Solja Rags (1997 Cash Money). When Solja Rags was released in 1997, it was massively popular in the South and brought the label and its rappers considerable attention.
By 1996, the Cash Money roster had changed considerably. All the original artists were gone or dead except B.G. The departing artists alleged unfair business practices and the label heads countered that the artists were all too caught up in drugs and lacked motivation. With the addition of Young Turk, Cash Money formed The Hot Boys to capitalize on B.G. and Juvie’s established regional fame, and to develop and showcase the up-and-coming Wayne and Turk. The new group, with Mannie Fresh providing the production, began working on their debut. The following year, the Carters were rocked by tragedy when Rabbit (shortly after his release from jail) was abducted and murdered. Carter then got his first tattoo, reading “In memory of Rabbit - It’s up to me.” To compound things, Carter found out that his 14-year-old girlfriend, Antonia “Toya” Johnson, was pregnant. With considerable weight on his shoulders, Lil Wayne must have been relieved when The Hot Boys’ Get It How U Live (1997 Cash Money) sold about 200,000 copies and made the group a local sensation. When Toya went into labor, The Hot Boys were performing at the Municipal Auditorium. After the show, Carter went to the hospital and the couple named their baby Reginae Carter, in homage to Rabbit.
In 1999, after rapping on YoungBloodZ’s Against da Grain (1999 LaFace) and The Hot Boys’ Guerilla Warfare (1999 Cash Money), Lil Wayne finally released his long-awaited solo debut, Tha Block Is Hot (1999 Cash Money). Aside from the genuinely touching and unexpectedly honest “Fuck the World,” Lil Wayne kept his word to keep it clean, letting his guest artists pepper the tracks with salty language. Opening with the storming “Tha Block is Hot” and followed by the strutting “Loud Pipes,” the bar is immediately set high but the album seems to be arranged in qualitative order. Reaching the end requires some dedication (although “You Want War,” with its Jacko-sampled “whoos” and synth trumpet, ends the album on a high note). The same year, Lil Wayne turned in a naturalistic performance as Iceberg Shorty in the film Baller Blockin’. In 2000, Lil Wayne released his follow-up, Lights Out (2000 Cash Money), which is more nuanced than the debut, yet lacks the highs. Similarly arranged, it only slightly tapers off toward the very end. Lights Out also reflects Mannie Fresh’s crazy millennial baroque phase with an insanely broad and busy sonic palette that works better here than on Juvenile’s Tha G-Code (1999 Cash Money).
In 2001, Cash Money was hit with another major roster shake-up when Turk, Juvenile, and B.G. moved on, leaving just Lil Wayne and The Big Tymers. With Lil Wayne now the label’s main prospect, the pressure was again on. His next album’s title, 500 Degreez (2002 Cash Money), suggested Wayne was going to turn up the heat and blaze even hotter than Juvenile had on the standard-setting 400 Degreez (1998 Cash Money). But whereas 1998’s 400 Degreez is a filler-less rap classics, Lil Wayne’s 500 Degreez is mostly just adequate — more like a balmy 85 degrees. Without the talents of his former Hot Boys to set the pace or provide cameos, Wayne seemed content just to show up.
Shifting gears, Lil Wayne started Young Money Entertainment, an imprint of Cash Money Records, primarily as a vehicle for the New Orleans East rap crew Sqad Up. After doing little with them, it ended up primarily being used for Lil Wayne’s many mix tapes. The first, Da Drought, was made up of songs from a fourth album that was scrapped following the lackluster performance of 500 Degreez. At only 21, Lil Wayne (and Cash Money) were written off by most as done and dusted. Almost no one could have predicted the complete creative rebirth to come.
In 2004, just a few months after Carter married Antonia Johnson (on Valentine’s Day), he dropped his next record, Tha Carter (2004 Cash Money). Perhaps meant to symbolize a fresh start, the cover art features a sedate, sepia-toned photo of Lil Wayne sporting short dreads and standing in front of an urban landscape. Although slightly bloated, Wayne displayed a seemingly effortless stream of surreal rhymes over some of Fresh’s (and others’) best beats. “Go DJ,” faintly echoing U.N.L.V.’s classic “Don’t U Be Greedy,” became a nationwide hit and brought Lil Wayne to a new audience. At the end of the year, Mannie Fresh’s solo album, Mind of Mannie Fresh (2004 Cash Money), came out. The two prominent cameos from Lil Wayne were among the best things he’s done to date, but Fresh was unhappy that his own solo record was so beholden to Baby’s restrictive direction to keep it gangsta. A few months later, he left Cash Money too, leaving just Baby and Wayne. Perhaps worried that the last talent on the label would follow, Baby made a Faustian agreement with Wayne and named him the label’s new president.
In January of 2005, Wayne (after earning his GED) enrolled at the University of Houston where he studied political science and sports management. He also bought a residence in Miami, began dating Florida rapper Trina (although, they would eventually split), and signed divorce papers with his wife the following year. A few months after his move to Florida, Lil Wayne’s work with Mannie Fresh for Tha Carter II leaked and provided a glimpse of what could’ve been another classic. Instead, a new set of songs were recorded with various producers, attempting to fill Fresh’s considerable shoes. While Wayne’s raps were still mostly sharp, the beats paled in comparison to Fresh’s. The under-cooked “Fireman” provided the album with a big hit and seemed to suggest a change in Cash Money and Wayne’s strategy. Whereas before Cash Money had defiantly stuck to a Southern sound, now they seemed to be plotting a course for the lucrative crossover market with music geared more toward ringtones than car trunks. Supporting this impression, it was announced that Lil Wayne was filling Young Jeezy’s role in Diddy’s Southern exploitation supergroup, the unremarkable Boyz N Da Hood. In the end, Lil Wayne only guested on the forgettable track “Mask On.” Lil Wayne next released a host of mix tapes seemingly designed to display his ability and willingness to ape bland mainstream rappers like Jay Z and Kanye West. Further turning his back on his past, he partnered up with rappers like Juelz Santana and guested on songs by Beyoncé, Rihanna, Enrique Iglesias, and even a track by Robin Thicke.
2006’s Birdman & Lil Wayne collaboration, Like Father, Like Son (2006 Cash Money), was surprisingly listenable, albeit not one of Wayne’s best. “Stuntin’ Like My Daddy” was another big hit and Lil Wayne’s profile grew, as did the ranks of his detractors. Most criticisms seemed to have nothing to do with his commercialization or even his music at all. Instead it seemed to come from authenticity-obsessed morons peeved at the increasingly apparent differences between the slightly mouthy Lil Wayne persona and the usually soft-spoken Wayne Carter who played him. Although an August arrest for marijuana possession may have quelled the chorus of e-thugs and haters, a picture that surfaced of Baby giving him a familial peck seemed to rock their fragile worlds.
On July 22, 2007, Lil Wayne was arrested in New York after an NYPD officer found him and another man smoking marijuana near a tour bus, and then subsequently discovered a gun in his possession. On October 5th, he was arrested in Idaho on felony fugitive charges that were later described as a mix-up and dropped. More arrests followed when, on January 23, 2008, Lil Wayne was arrested near Yuma, Arizona after border agents found 3.7 ounces of weed, 1.02 ounces of coke, and 1.45 ounces of Ecstasy on his tour bus. In May, Lil Wayne returned to Arizona to plead not guilty. The following month, The Carter III (2007 Cash Money) was released. The most impressive thing about the album is the cover art, which features a baby picture of Lil Wayne that has been doctored with tattoos and a flashy suit. If anything, its cutesiness was an apparent sign of its target audience of underage mallrats rather than traditional rap fans. It proved a lucrative move and Wayne was predictably rewarded with mainstream popularity and acceptance. He was even referenced by Barack Obama, who praised the rhymes of “Little [sic] Wayne.” Lil Wayne was later interviewed by CBS’s Katie Couric as well as celebrated by the rap authorities at The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Time, GQ, and Entertainment Weekly.
On October 22, 2008, Lil Wayne’s son, Dwayne Carter III, was born at Christ Hospital in Cincinnati. In September, Lil Wayne published his first blog for ESPN, revealing his lifelong inner jock. In his blog entry, Wayne proclaimed his love for tennis, the Packers, the Bruins, the Lakers, and the Red Sox. Eventually his sports blog led to a gig reporting at the ESPN Super Bowl party and participating on ESPN’s Around the Horn.
Ironically, 13 years into his recording career and still a young man, most people’s exposure to Lil Wayne came after his most creative years seem to be behind him. Still, it’s doubtful that Wayne is too troubled, as he seems to be more interested in a profitable, sustained career than taking risks with his music at this point. But while his latest work may lack humor and heart, in interviews his intelligence and wit occasionally come through, suggesting that if he ever decides to stop courting the middle, he might someday return to the top.