In the wee hours of a warm November morning, a piercing sound fills the cramped control room of Studio C at Miami's Hit Factory. Wreathed in smoke, with a long spliff hanging from his lips, Lil Wayne rocks back and forth, staring intently at the fingers of his left hand as they dance across the neck of a blue Gibson electric guitar. He plucks the strings with his right thumb as he tries to wheedle out licks to go with the thick, thumping beat he laid down earlier. After several minutes of noodling, Wayne removes the blunt from his mouth and exhales plumes of smoke through his nose.
"Mwah, mwah, mwah, mwaaaah," he sings, mimicking the sound of the instrument. "That's how I learned to play," he says. "I match the guitar to my mouth."
Wayne first picked up the guitar about two years ago and boasts that he's never had a lesson. Critics have variously described his playing as "embarrassing," "incredibly bad," "awful," and, somewhat more charitably, "unstudied." Tonight, his vaguely bluesy refrains are drenched in spacey feedback and mostly feel like the work of a very stoned jam-bander playing an untuned guitar with the wrong hand. Weezy doesn't care. "Now at my shows, I get to play like John Mayer," he says, running his thumb over the strings. "The crowd goes crazy when they hear that. When I even just walk by the guitar onstage, they scream. When I grab it, they scream. When I sit down and play, they hush. And when I finish, they scream."
You can't argue with results, and if there's one thing the 26-year-old Dwayne Michael Carter Jr. has produced a lot of in 2008, it's results. His year got off to a rocky start when he was hit with felony charges in January, after border police in Arizona found weed, coke, Ecstasy, and a .40 caliber pistol on his bus. (He pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.) It wasn't his first brush with the law, and it hardly seemed to throw him off stride. In April, "Lollipop," an addictive, throbbing nugget of Auto-Tuned erotica and the leadoff single from his sixth album, became Wayne's first No. 1 hit and transformed him from hip-hop's most respected MC -- the justifiably self-proclaimed "best rapper alive" -- into someone your mom might recognize on the street. Two months later, he released Tha Carter III, technically his first album in nearly three years (more on that later), selling more than 400,000 copies on its first day and more than a million in its first week. In late October, he added another Carter III to his stat sheet, when he was on hand in a Cincinnati delivery room to witness the birth of his son, Dwayne Michael Carter III ("It was very nasty, but beautiful at the end," Wayne says), whose imminent arrival he'd announced to the world just a few days earlier while collecting the MVP of the Year trophy at the BET Hip-Hop Awards.
"Lil Wayne is the new rock star," says Fall Out Boy bassist Pete Wentz. "When he came on FNMTV, it was the equivalent of Elvis doing the hip shake. The crowd went crazier for him than the Jonas Brothers."
As of early November, Tha Carter III had sold more than three million copies worldwide and was on pace to be one of the biggest sellers of 2008. This fact is all the more impressive when you consider that in the two years preceding the album's release, Wayne's hazy croak was so ubiquitous that, by all rights, the world should've been well sick of it. He'd released hundreds of tracks for free both online and on such acclaimed mix tapes as Dedication 2 and Da Drought 3. When tunes slated for Tha Carter III leaked late in 2007, he released an EP of the songs straight to iTunes, which sold more than 200,000 copies. Add that to the dozens, if not hundreds, of verses he's spit on other artists' songs, and you can understand why Universal Motown, the label he's signed to through his longtime home, Cash Money Records, was worried there was just too much Lil Wayne out there. "There was concern," says Universal Motown president Sylvia Rhone. "Most artists can't really take the overload of product in the marketplace. But Wayne has the genius to flip his style every time he puts his voice on a record, so he's not like a lot of other artists."
According to Cash Money cofounder Bryan "Baby" Williams, the barrage of gray-market music in the years between Tha Carter II and III was not simply a useful outlet for Wayne's workaholic ways but also an acknowledgement of how the music industry has fundamentally changed. "That was how it was planned: Take it to the streets and let it grow from there," says Baby, who is so tight with Wayne they consider themselves father and son. "In today's economy, you have to do a lot to be relevant. You've got older people running these companies; they're stuck in the old ways. You can't just hold Wayne down and think, 'You can do an album every two years.' If you're riding like that, you're in trouble."
Far from it undercutting the sales of Tha Carter III, Wayne is convinced all the free music was actually responsible for the album's huge numbers. "That was my claim to fame," Wayne says, kicking back with a blunt and an ever-present Styrofoam cup of iced promethazine cough syrup, several hours before the session at the Hit Factory. "I had no star power, no financial backing, nothing in place. The world knew nothing of me. They just knew the rumors." Many of the rumors were of the romantic variety, including one that suggested he and Baby were more than friends (supported by a photo of the two kissing that set the blogs abuzz). "That's when I had to take a step back. I was like, 'Whoa, hold up-people are worried about how I kiss my father more than they're worried about this verse I just spit?' "
So Wayne redoubled his efforts in the studio and redirected his considerable energy. He spent nearly every night recording. If anyone wanted him on their song, he'd do it. (For a substantial fee, of course.) And every track he recorded, he released. If the commercial success of Tha Carter III proves anything, it's that consumers don't care about market saturation or competing sales models. If the music is good, they'll gladly fork over 15 bucks, even if the artist has plenty of other material available online for free.
And Tha Carter III is very good -- both audacious and accessible. His rhymes are sharp and woozy at the same time, and although Wayne's prodigal gift for language is often obscured behind sexual bravado and scatological silliness, it's enhanced by the dead-on emotion with which he invests his wheezes, mumbles, and howls. On "Playing With Fire," he sounds nervy and unstable delivering lines like "I feel caged in my mind, like my flow is doing time / I go crazy inside, but when it comes out, it's fine like wine," which incidentally is as useful an explanation as you'll ever get from him about his process.
In person, Wayne is a larger presence than his five-foot-six frame would suggest. Part of this can be attributed to the long dreads he usually pulls back in a rubber band, the shimmering grill that covers his teeth, and the tattoos that decorate nearly every visible inch of his body -- there's a lot to look at. But there's also the intensity he radiates, an uneasy calm that may be as much chemically enhanced as natural, which makes him unpredictable and therefore a magnet for attention. It's this intensity that has made nearly every one of the tracks he's put out in the past few years worth at least a listen.
"I truly believe he comes from the planet of Lil Wayne," says Wentz. "When we did the VMAs together, we did a remix of 'This Ain't a Scene, It's an Arms Race,' and we did two run-throughs. Each time, his verse was completely different, both times off the top of his head. It just boggled my mind that someone could have that sense of verbiage."
But for Wayne, Tha Carter III was as much about harnessing his talents into something more marketable as it was about showing them off. "I knew this was the album that I wanted to get me recognized," he says. "I simplified a lot of my words, took a lot of slang out of my vocabulary, and took myself off a lot of the hooks. I used to do everything myself. That's the Cash Money way: You do your beat, your song, your hook, your promotion."
Lil Wayne has been steeped in the Cash Money way for more than half his life. Raised as the only child of a single mother in the Hollygrove section of New Orleans, he was 11 when he got Baby's attention by leaving rhymes on the label chief's answering machine. He dropped out of school at 14 and fathered his first child at 15, the same year he released his first album as one of the Hot Boys. By 17, his solo debut, Tha Block Is Hot, was platinum. Back then, he was a fairly ordinary MC rhyming over the workmanlike bounce provided mostly by Cash Money in-house producer Mannie Fresh. But over time, Wayne did something few child stars manage: He got better. Some like toattribute it to some sort of Faustian deal; the truth is a lot less interesting.
"When you're trying to be the best, your work ethic has to be the best," says Baby. "All we do is be in the studio. That's the difference between him and the rest."
Read the entire interview with Weezy in the January 2009 issue of SPIN, on newsstands now.