Sane in the Membrane

Believe it or not, Lil Wayne is cool, calm, and calculating.

Lil Wayne is not batshit insane. Let's be clear about that. Okay, he regularly refers to himself as an extraterrestrial and seems to have an utter disregard for the rule of law and for his health. He has even publicly kissed his surrogate father, Cash Money Records head Birdman, on the mouth, despite the objections of the rampantly homophobic mainstream hip-hop world. Still, Wayne has 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 old adage "Be yourself" to its logical — or highly illogical — conclusion. His new album, Tha Carter III, is commercially and critically the biggest rap CD of the year — perhaps one of the biggest, period. That's what can happen when you partake in 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.

Lil Wayne: Still playing basketball on Mars.
Jonathan Mannion
Lil Wayne: Still playing basketball on Mars.

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But as good as III is (more about that later), 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. "Because I'll knock your fucking head off."

Move next to his unconventional voice, of which there's really no other way to describe than amphibianlike. 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?

He sucks XXL magazine covers, blogger hype, and hood hysteria toward him like a black hole. And he's possibly the only artist to earn a Best New Music nod from indie-rock-centritc Pitchfork Media and receive the loudest cheers at New York radio station Hot 97's annual Summer Jam concert earlier this month.

Needless to say, I'm stoked to talk with him. It takes three weeks of nagging his publicist, but we finally connect by phone on a Friday evening as he rides on a bus through the Southeast somewhere. His voice is low and sullen, and his mind wanders when I pose 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 get only a few, probably stoned, minutes with him before his phone cuts off. It's possible he has hung up.

At least he doesn't freak out like he did recently with a reporter for Foundation, a mixtape-centered magazine, who asked him about, well, mixtape DJs. "I'm like Arthur Nobel, or whatever his first name was; you know, the Nobel Peace Prize guy?" he said in a clip of the interview widely circulated on the Internet. "He created gunpowder and created all them mass destruction things that killed millions of people," Wayne digressed, proceeding to compare himself to the Swedish scientist — who was actually named Alfred and invented dynamite — and dissing the mixtape game.

In any case, we get back on the phone, and 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."

Although he lives in the midst of party central, he almost never hits the town — say, in a disheveled tux bearing trunks of suckers for ladies to writhe atop, like he does in the video for his chart-topping hit "Lollipop."

"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, so why go out if I get paid to party in the studio? And I'm 25 years of age — I've got my whole lifetime to party."

He might not have much of a lifetime, though, if he continues to sip his publicly professed beloved cocktail of Hawaiian Punch and promethazine cough syrup while he smokes weed all day. (However, he insisted to Blender he doesn't do any other drugs, and recent rumors that he checked into rehab proved unfounded.)

But somewhere in the depths of his drug-addled mind there's a Clinton-like concern for his legacy. He's still not a household name among most mainstream Americans, after all. (Your parents almost certainly haven't heard of him, the way they might have of 50 Cent and Kanye West.) And so he's branching into acting, having recently finished shooting Hurricane Season, which also stars Forest Whitaker, Isaiah Washington, and Bow Wow. Directed by Tim Story (Fantastic Four), it's a basketball feel-good that takes place in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and was shot on location in New Orleans.

"It's cool. I like it," Wayne says of his first major thespian experience, but adds he had trouble finding the patience that acting requires. "[T]he 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 full-time corporate crossovers such as 50, Pharrell Williams, and Diddy, however, it's clear Wayne is most concerned with his music. His commitment is almost quaint in an era when newbie rappers like Saigon and Lupe Fiasco threaten to retire, and many others claim their talents would be better used as street hustlers. Wayne truly wants to be the best rapper alive; though he publicly claims the title, it seems as if a voice in his head tells him he's still got a long way to go. "Gotta work every day/Gotta not be cliché," he urges himself on Tha Carter III track "Dr. Carter."

This 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 to said mixtapes is 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 specifically tailored to his flow. Culled from folks such as Kanye West, Swizz Beats, and Miami locals Street Runner and Cool & Dre, 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 in the last category, with the Rolling Stones-cribbing "Playing with Fire," which recalls a battle against his mother's abusive husband and encourages his haters to assassinate him like Martin Luther King Jr. Even seeming throwaways such as "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. It's a welcome update on the used-to-death cop siren sample.

That's not to say there aren't plenty of stoned, off-the-dome moments on songs such as "Dontgetit," in which he babbles, "Due to the laws we have on crack cocaine and regular cocaine, the police are only [long pause] — I don't want to say only right, but shit, only logic by riding around in the hood all day and not in the suburbs." He briefly continues but then gives up: "You know where I'm going."

But for better or worse, this is all part of Weezy's new (most would say improved) aesthetic since the days of his hurried, more predictable style that characterized II and his earlier studio output. Though previously he struggled to stay within longtime label Cash Money's tinny-beats-and-two-dimensional-bravado paradigm, on III, Wayne is completely comfortable saying whatever the hell he wants to, over whatever type of music he's feeling. (Even his own, poorly played guitar.)

Much of Wayne's charm is that no one — not even he — can predict what's going to come out of his mouth next. And 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 a bit of a perfectionist. He has a remarkable ability to stay on-message, even after, perhaps, his third or fourth glass of syrup. Rest assured that despite making no effort to dissuade you of the notion he is completely unhinged, Lil Wayne knows exactly what he's doing.

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