Over the course of his 17-year career, Lil Wayne has dropped 12 studio albums and is currently gearing up for the release of his next one, Tha Carter V. Can it live up to the hype, and with all Weezy’s done in hip-hop, does that even matter?
Words Jeff Weiss
Images Atiba Jefferson

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the June/July 2014 issue of XXL Magazine.

If you ever want to see the face of joy, watch Lil Wayne skateboard. It’s the type of beaming ecstasy you usually only see from drug binges, conjugal visits or winning a televised game show. On this steamy July afternoon with dreadlocks whipping, Weezy F. Baby jubilantly zooms up half pipes at the private indoor skate park of his friend, four-time X Games gold medalist Paul “P-Rod” Rodriguez in L.A.’s Canoga Park.

Effortlessly ascending the gray ramps in this cavernous warehouse, Wayne is draped in items from Trukfit, his own clothing line. He rocks a blue-and-white striped shirt, board shorts covered in weed leaves and lit joints, and a white hat—brim tilted toward the ceiling.

The longtime star of Cash Money Records is mostly concerned with stunting on skate ramps, but he also needs ESPN in his trailer. Several hours earlier, LeBron James announced his return to Cleveland, but Wayne doesn’t care much. “Did something happen today?” Wayne deadpans when someone mentions the breaking news. “I don’t know. I’m a Lakers fan,” he continues, Pledge Of Allegiance-like. As soon as he smiles, a round of laughter breaks out among his management and retinue.

Of course, Wayne isn’t a regular hoops junkie. Kobe Bryant was the first one to tweet out the album art for Wayne’s forthcoming Tha Carter V. The commonalities between Wayne and Kobe are obvious. They’re both obscenely confident and ferocious competitors who have starred in their respective fields since they were teens. They survived legal battles, hospital stints and ongoing skepticism to achieve iconic status while still in their primes. Unlike most of their peers, they’ve never switched teams. Bryant has five championships. Wayne’s fifth Carter installment finds him rapping the best he has since he was incarcerated for criminal possession of a weapon in 2010.

From Chance The Rapper and Kendrick Lamar to Young Thug and Future, most major young rappers to emerge over the last few years owe a stylistic debt to the voodoo priestvoiced New Orleans trickster. That’s not even including Drake and Nicki Minaj, the flagship artists of Wayne’s Young Money Entertainment imprint. You can measure Weezy’s influence in bespectacled White hipster girls with “Weezy” tattoos or the published testimonials from schoolteachers who used Wayne’s music to bond with students. Or you can just point out that over his 17-year career, he’s racked up over 110 Billboard Hot 100 singles, more than any solo artist in history.

In the past, Wayne has stated that he’ll retire after Tha Carter V. But as he nears its completion, his fire shows no sign of abating. And even if he did, his legacy would be indelible after 12 studio albums (including CV), 19 official mixtapes and over 15 million records sold. After a photo shoot and skate session, a shirtless, obsessively inked and silver-grilled Wayne spoke to XXL about his mentors, Cash Money bosses Bryan “Baby” and Ronald “Slim” Williams, the creative process for his new album and the many phases that comprise one of the greatest rap careers of all time.

lil wayne cover story
Photo Credit: Atiba Jefferson

XXL: So, what were you like as a child?
Lil Wayne: Smart. Entertaining. Destined to do what I do—not necessarily rap but something in a “look at me” position. I was always doing or saying something that nobody expected. Yet at the same time I was quiet as hell. I’ve always been quiet until I feel comfortable.

Because I was so short, I was always mistaken as younger than my age—like I was a baby. At 12 years old, people would think I was 8 or 9. Being treated like that wears off on you, so I kind of got used to being treated like that. As a man, it rolls over, and I want to be treated like a king by your woman or whomever.

Did it make you more competitive?
Yeah, exactly. You’re small. You want to be the man. I don’t have a short man’s complex. I’m just a little nigga with a big heart.

Who did you get your work ethic from?
I got that from [Cash Money bosses] Baby and Slim and from my mom. She worked every single damn day, even her off days. It was always just her and I. And I would sit there and think, “Why is she working so much when it’s just her and I?” All my friends had four brothers, and they’d talk about how their mom had to work constantly because of it.

But I saw how it was: She didn’t splurge. She just wanted to make sure that I didn’t want for anything. I never needed anything, but anything I ever wanted was at my doorstep as long as I deserved it.

How did you first meet Baby and Slim from Cash Money?
I was 12, and there was an autograph signing for [early Cash Money group] UNLV. May 13, 1993, at Odyssey Records. That was a record store in my hood, Hollygrove, in the Carrollton Shopping Center.

There was an artist on Cash Money named Lil Slim who was from a block in my hood—Eagle Street. He knew that I could rap, and he alwa ys told me, “I’m going to tell Baby and them about you.” But as a kid, when somebody tells you that, you’re not like, “Aw, whatever.” It’s like if your mom had told you that you were about to get something for Christmas.

So when I saw him at the autograph signing, he was like, “Oh, hold on.” Then he introduced me like, “Oh, this is that little nigga that I was telling y’all about.” And Baby made me rap, I rapped. He gave me a card, and it had his pager number on there, so I paged the fuck out of it. And he finally started saying, “Come to the office.” So I started going to the office every day after school and on weekends. I’d answer the phones.

They’d go to the office every day and sit there for hours, and I’d always be there. As time went by, it turned into whenever there was anything to do, they’d be like, “Come on, Wayne.” And it built from there.

lil wayne cover story
Photo Credit: Atiba Jefferson

Your first solo album was 1999’s Tha Block Is Hot. Was that the moment when everyone began to take you seriously as a solo artist?
Slim, Ronald Williams, the president who runs everything, always told me that I was the one. So I never had to actually prove anything like that. It was just who I am. Slim always said I was his favorite. No offense to anyone else. I was the youngest. I was the son that he never had. I was always his project.

Baby was so into [Cash Money artists] B.G. and Juvenile because they were talking about things at the time that he could really relate to. Slim liked what I was doing because he was like, “Wayne can really rap,” the way I could put words together. So when it was my time, it was my time.

One of the artists who you loved and studied coming up was Jay Z—to where you have a tattoo of his song “Lucky Me.’” What was it about it that you so strongly identified with, besides you both having Carter as a last name?
There’s a lot in there that I could relate to, particularly the way he spoke to his mom. The reason why I love that song so much is that it’s something that I can’t put in words. It just produced a certain feeling that I related to almost too much—it almost felt like I was saying it myself.

You recently tweeted a Maya Angelou quote: “People won’t remember what you did or what you said, but how you made them feel.” Is that something you’ve always strived to do?
It’s just who I am, and thank God I don’t have an answer for why I am this way—if I did, I’d probably be over it already. I don’t search for answers. I just keep doing what I do. I don’t even know why I do it.

Do you ever step back and look in the mirror and think about how you’ve become an icon to millions of people in the same way that your heroes were to you?
Nah. I’m always feeling like I ain’t done shit. I’m still nervous about Tha Carter V. If I am one of those figures, I guess I shouldn’t be nervous, but I am. I’m confident about what I do, but I’m still nervous about what people think.

If you weren’t like that, you’d probably lack the desire to want to improve.
Oh, you have to want to improve. But I also don’t look back at what I’ve done because I’ll try to match it, and I don’t want to do that. I just try to do better. Whereas if I go back to it, my mind will instinctively try to repeat it, and I never want to repeat myself.

lil wayne cover story
Photo Credit: Atiba Jefferson

You’re a very improvisational artist. Is your creative process primarily based on a feeling you get that day when you’re in the studio?
I just hear the music and go from there. Or sometimes, I’ll just be at the crib and ideas will pop into my head and I’ll just roll with them.

You’ve compared yourself in the past to Russell Crow’s character John Nash from A Beautiful Mind, which was based on a true story. Has it always been that way?
Yeah, that’s why I’ve been doing this since my first raps at 8. I wanted my homies to rap with me, but they didn’t want to rap. They just wanted to play football, but I wanted to rap. That’s how I knew that it came to me as easy as leaves falling, even if I didn’t exactly know where they were falling from.

What was your first rap?
Some shit called K.W.A—Kids With Attitudes. I was definitely the Eazy E of the clique. Eazy E is a legend in music. He’s a gangsta. I feel the same way as Eazy: Once I’m gone, you can’t replace that voice.

Is it true that listening to Prince led you to experiment with different pitches and tones of your voice?
It was the way he pronounced words and the way he used his voice. It was like if he was playing with a baby. You know if he was playing with a kid. [Imitates a baby cooing] It was the way that he was exploring it.

He wasn’t doing it because it was funny. He was doing it because he could make it sound good and exceptional. I realized that I could do that too. He wasn’t afraid of how he sounded because he knew what he was saying and how he was saying it would always sound good.

What part of your career were you at when you realized this?
Well, I’ve been listening to Prince since I was real young. But I guess I really started to take it to heart around Tha Carter II.

What made you want to start playing guitar in the first place?
I’d never played it before, but one day I just picked that bitch up because of the “Leather So Soft” video [from 2006’s Like Father, Like Son collabo LP with Baby]. We shot that video and because the song had a real prominent riff, they wanted to shoot me with a guitar.

So you know me, the guy I am, after the video shoot, we went on tour and I didn’t want to be the guy that does the fake squealing guitar. I’m not that dude. I’m not the one just to be faking it. So I went out and got someone to teach me the actual riff and kept going from there. We had a tour, and that was a big song, and I was like, “Damn, I need to learn to play this in front of a bunch of muthafuckas.”

Do you still play or practice?
I don’t practice. I just play when it’s time.

You just spoke about how it was important for you to be able to play the guitar so you weren’t faking it. Do you feel like authenticity matters as much in music in 2014?
I know I’m authentic because I’m 35 million years in the game. I don’t know where the authenticity is in the game anymore. Today everyone sounds alike, they looking alike, they acting alike, they dressing alike.

I came out when everybody was super different. You had an ODB. You had a Busta Rhymes and then you had a 2Pac. You had a Biggie. And everybody was different. Biggie was talking about mob and Mafia shit. 2Pac was wylin’, talking about West Coast this and that. You had niggas like Meth and Red talking about how high they got and making people laugh.

And then now, you got them, them. You got the categories and then everyone falls under it.

lil wayne cover story
Photo Credit: Atiba Jefferson

In a sense, many of the artists in your wake are expanding on what you’ve built—in the same way that you did to the early Cash Money artists, UGK and 2Pac.
Yeah, but I couldn’t be like ’Pac because I was so New Orleans. Back then, when a nigga asked you to rap, you could be talking to them normal like this and when you asked them to rap, they’d put on a different voice. Niggas from New Orleans didn’t know how to do that shit. We just had to rap like we talk and hope you understand that shit. I couldn’t be like Pac. I had to be me. Muthafuckas compare me to him, but I have to be me. Everything was different.

Even as a young kid, were you always listening to hip-hop from other regions?
Uh huh. None of them niggas around me was. Niggas wasn’t listening to nothing but us. So I had to listen to something else on my own time.

You’ve said that after you dropped your third solo album, 500 Degreez, you were able to start rapping the way that you’d always wanted to rap.
Yeah, on Tha Carter I. When I started doing that, that’s when everyone else recognized me. That’s when I clicked beyond my region.

Do you remember much from your mixtape run when you were dropping roughly 200 songs or verses a year?
Do I remember the verses? Hell no! I do new verses every day. I don’t remember shit I said last night, but I got it banging in the whip though to remind me.

We’re at Tha Carter V now. Let’s go back through the series. What stands out to you about the period when you made Tha Carter I?
I was a little boss at that point. That’s when I’d got my shit together. I’d bought my mom a house. I had a chauffeur and didn’t have to drive no more. I was probably 19. I’d bought my first Bentley. I was stuntin’. I was on.

Then the Bentley kicked out on me at the daiquiri shop, and I went out and bought another one the next day! Fuck. I wish I wouldn’t have done that shit, but I did it. Shout out my nigga Moosa. He went out and picked up that shit for me. The daiquiri shop was packed, and my shit just died. I was like, “I just got this. It’s a Bentley!” So I slid out that bitch in a Corvette.

My nigga Moosa picked up the Bentley and put it on the back of a truck. He waited until every single soul left that daiquiri shop, just sitting on top of the Bentley, sipping a daiquiri.

Tha Carter II. What headspace were you in?
I was feeling the success of Tha Carter I. I felt like people wanted to hear me. I was amped to do that, but then Tha Carter III? I don’t know what happened. It was amazing. And then Tha Carter IV was just unexplainable, and now this one here, there’s no words. I just hope everyone likes it.

When did you start working on Tha Carter V?
I have a drive where I work so hard every day, and I hear old shit and be like, “Let’s pull this shit up, let’s reword this, let’s cut that.”

How do you feel like you’ve evolved as an artist over the years?
I don’t know. I feel like I’m the same nigga. I came up talking about “the block is hot.’ I’m still talking about the block. I’m still talking about how much pussy I get. A nigga still gonna knock your head off.

Are there any goals or accomplishments that you feel like you have left to do?
I gotta go to a Boston Red Sox game and sit at the top of the muthafuckin’ Green Monster. I’m running on the court of a big basketball game—I’m letting you know now. I’m stealing the ball from someone and taking a shot. I’ve always wanted to do that; it’s my dream. I’ll have on whatever shirt of the album we’re working on—probably [Carter] 13. And I’ll hit that shot.

lil wayne cover story
Photo Credit: Atiba Jefferson

What do you feel is your strongest virtue?
That I gave my kids a great idea of what a dad is supposed to be.

A few years ago, you attended college at the University Of Houston then switched to take online classes at the University Of Phoenix. That was to show your kids the importance of an education, right?
I went to school to show them, “My ass went to school. Your ass gotta go to school.” Flat out. I’m from the hood. You gotta do shit to show your kids that they gotta do it too, because they’ll be quick to say, “Well, you ain’t do it.” I know I was like that. [My mother] Cita graduated, so I knew that I had to graduate too.

Over the last few years, you’ve built Young Money into one of the biggest labels in music. Beyond raw talent, what initially struck you about Drake?
Call me old-fashioned and country, but with Drake, that was the first time I’d seen someone that knew how to sing and rap. That’s all it was. I didn’t know nobody who knew how to do that. You had those old school singing niggas, where people would do a little eight-bar verse on their songs. But [Drake] was spitting and singing and killing that too.

It took a while though. It wasn’t until I heard him spitting on one of my beats when I was like, “This fool’s retarded.” When I hear something that I know I can’t do better? That’s when I’m like, “They need to be on the team.”

You were singing a little bit before that too, no?
No. I don’t know how to sing. I get high and stretch my voice. I keep a little melody and harmony going—a nigga’s from New Orleans. I got a weird ass voice [imitates himself] like Prince. You gotta know how to use that shit.

What was it that initially struck you about Nicki Minaj?
I wanted a female. Every team needs a female to rep your gang. She was annihilating niggas. I mean males. I was like, “I have to beef my shit up on that muthafucka.” She just knocked it out the park from day one. She’s just Nicki. I don’t know whose idea it was, but it was a good idea.

Where do see yourself in one year from now, five years from now and 10 years from now?
In some pussy.

Related: XXL’s New Issue Features Lil Wayne On The Cover
Stream The Best Songs Of Lil Wayne’s ‘Tha Carter’ Series on Beats Music
Lil Wayne’s ‘Tha Carter’ Cover Art Through The Years
Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter: By The Numbers
Everything We Know About Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter V

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