For nearly five years Lil Boosie was locked up and fighting for his life and his freedom. He’s won both those battles.
Words: Jeff Weiss
Images: Andrew Link
[This article originally appeared in XXL Magazine, Issue 154, June/July 2014]
There are no scented candles in solitary confinement. But there’s one flickering in a fourth floor suite at the W Hotel in New Orleans. It’s a custom-made Lil Boosie votive candle with the Baton Rouge rapper’s name inscribed in gold gothic script like a Holy Ratchet Emperor.
It’s the late morning of March 10, less than a week since Boosie left the Louisiana State Penitentiary, where he served nearly five years for multiple drug convictions and a first-degree murder rap that he beat. His “Boosie Speaks” press conference doesn’t begin for two hours, but the luxury hotel lobby is already littered with family, journalists, label reps, hangers-on, Webbie (Boosie’s rap partner), Jeezy and Bun B.
The ruler’s back. That’s the message that his record labels, Trill Entertainment and Atlantic Records, attempt to convey down to the cartoonishly regal throne supplied for the live-streaming press conference. But Boosie didn’t receive thousands of adoring fan letters in jail because of his imperial temperament; he got them because he’s the hood’s ambassador, an anguished rebel from the gutter and purple-smoking avatar for the struggle.
“I got around 100 letters each day until the day that I left prison,” Boosie, 31, laments in this shadowy room on the hotel’s fourth floor. “I couldn’t get enough stamps to write everyone back. The letters came from Chinese people, White people, Black people, rich kids, ghetto kids. All over the world.”
His presence is almost ghostly, considering how frequently his freedom was delayed and how grave the accusations were. He jokes, “I had more release dates than Jordans.”
But now that he’s back, missing him is impossible. Weightlifting and a starchy prison diet have given the once-slim rapper the physique of a middleweight boxer. A gold watch—the size of a CD—glitters on his wrist. It’s the same one he nearly fractured punching prison walls in frustration. Two diamond-encrusted chains dazzle from his neck. He’s wearing dark pants, darker sunglasses and a black leather vest that reads “Fly.” The look is All Eyez On Me for the Instagram age.
The half-decade in hell caused Boosie’s Eazy E-as-an-Animaniac voice to descend an octave. He’s acquired a razorblade blues rasp, amplified when he says things like: “If you can understand reality, you can understand my music.”
The numbers of those who understood multiplied in his absence. He became a folk hero hovering somewhere between 2Pac and Lead Belly (a one-time inmate of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, a.k.a. Angola because of its location in Angola, La.). Being acquitted of murder conspiracy charges in the notoriously racist Louisiana criminal justice system may have burnished his myth, but the music built it.
During the last decade, Boosie unleashed over a half-dozen official albums, twice as many mixtapes and innumerable scene-stealing cameos (“Wipe Me Down” remix, “Independent”). What he lacked in top 40 hits, he compensated for with often poignant and always profane anthems to baby mamas and corrupt police offi cers, distant lovers and Levi’s. Like 2Pac, Boosie’s music possesses a raw emotional power that makes you instinctively equate your struggles with his own. And the publicity from his trial coupled with the sudden shortage of new songs allowed a generation to catch up with what had formerly been a street underground and Southern phenomenon.
“I’d heard my buzz had grown, but there’s a difference between hearing it and seeing these Instagrams and Free Boosie tattoos,” Boosie says. “I feel like 2Pac because when he came home, it was his time. I feel like it’s my time now.”
In the other L.A., YG, DJ Mustard and Ty Dolla $ign blew up off “ratchet music” and have openly paid homage to Boosie in records like YG’s “Who Do You Love?” which is based off of a Boosie song of the same name. In March 2014 LeBron James tweeted about being “locked in listening to Lil Boosie.” In September 2013 Rick Ross said in an interview on NYC’s Power 105 that he’d have a bag of money waiting for Boosie upon his arrival home. At the press conference, Bun B compared Boosie to Nelson Mandela. It was obviously hyperbolic, but afterward, the Houston underground king elaborated.
“Boosie means freedom to people. He’s fearless and speaks for those struggling that can’t speak for themselves,” Bun B says before the press conference. “People don’t appreciate you until you’re not there, and many people didn’t understand how impactful Boosie was in the hood and streets until now. A lot of rappers tried to fill that slot, but no one can be Boosie.”