Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood has in recent years become the center of the city’s ballooning arts scene, known as much for its galleries and museums as the murals and graffiti that decorate its buildings. But traces of its industrial past still lurk along the edges, with warehouses lining deserted streets and tall chain-link fences dividing different properties. It’s here that one of the most famous artists of the past two decades has holed up for the last several months, in a low, nondescript building distinguished only by a single word on its front door: Trukfit.
Inside, the building’s a sort of teenage Neverland, complete with a slot machine, foosball, a one-lane bowling alley and, down a short hallway, a massive indoor skate park. It’s late on a sleepy Tuesday night in August, past 10 p.m., and the building is almost completely empty. Which is just fine with the low-key Lil Wayne, who is seated on a leather couch in the second-floor recording studio, wearing shorts and a T-shirt, a Thrasher hat over his scattered blond dreads and white socks pulled up high over lime green Vans classics.
Three days earlier, Wayne was across the Biscayne Bay at the Versace Mansion on Ocean Drive, his full suit and bow tie accented by the same green Vans, as 2 Chainz married longtime girlfriend Kesha Ward. Chainz, who goes back 15 years with Wayne, is part of a tight inner circle that includes Swizz Beatz, DJ Khaled and Wayne’s longtime right-hand man Mack Maine, who grew up with Wayne and serves as president of his label imprint Young Money Entertainment. Wayne was the best man at the wedding -- though he showed up slightly unprepared.
“Everybody was like, ‘You got a speech?’ I didn't know I was supposed to have one!” he says, laughing as he sparks a Backwoods blunt. “But his daughter had a speech, the bride’s mom had a speech, his mom had a speech, and all three of them was awesome. The daughter killed it, though. She’s going to be speaking for somebody some day.”
Wayne can perhaps be forgiven for the lack of wedding etiquette; his life has never known convention. He has been famous more than half his life -- this fall, he’ll turn 36, but his recording career is already old enough to drink, Wayne having risen to fame as one-fourth of the Hot Boys on Cash Money Records when he was barely a teenager. Cash Money, founded by brothers Bryan “Birdman” Williams and Ronald “Slim” Williams, remained Wayne’s home as he grew into a global superstar with three No. 1 albums, 138 Billboard Hot 100 appearances -- the third-most of any artist -- and 17.2 million albums sold in the United States, according to Nielsen Music. By the mid-2000s, Wayne was claiming to be the best rapper alive; by the end of the decade, when he landed his first four Grammy Awards in 2009, few were disputing it.
Wayne was the model of a prolific streaming-era artist long before Spotify and other services helped elevate hip-hop to music’s most popular genre. During his rise, he released mixtapes at a frenetic pace -- over two dozen in total -- while growing in stature with each installment of Tha Carter, his flagship album series. In 2008, Tha Carter III became the last rap album to sell 1 million copies in the United States in a single week, while in 2011, Tha Carter IV missed that mark by fewer than 40,000 copies. In 2018, with mixtape culture legitimized by streaming, his numbers could be unfathomable. But for the last four years, there has been no way of knowing for sure.
Tha Carter V, which Wayne first announced in late 2012 and was planned as the apotheosis of the run and the final album of his career, was scheduled to come out Dec. 9, 2014. (Wayne had announced, improbably, that he would then retire.) He released a tracklist and cover art that showed him as a kid with his mother, Cita, standing over him, a protective hand on his shoulder.
Then, five days before the album was due, the plan fell apart. In a series of tweets posted Dec. 4, Wayne trashed Birdman and Cash Money, saying they refused to release the album and that he wanted off the label, writing, “I am a prisoner and so is my creativity.” He followed that up in January 2015 with a $51 million lawsuit against Birdman and Cash Money, alleging breach of contract, failure to pay royalties and withholding advances, and requesting an audit of Cash Money’s books. Tha Carter V was put on hold indefinitely.
The lawsuit caused the first major public rift between Birdman and Wayne in their 20-plus-year relationship, one that was so close they often referred to each other as father and son. (A 2006 joint album called Like Father, Like Son debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200.) The two stopped speaking, and Wayne took solace in the studio and on his skateboard, where he would spend hours trying to perfect complex tricks.
“I only can imagine what was going through his head, just because everything was so personal and so public,” says Swizz Beatz, a close friend for 20 years. “This wasn't something he was dealing with with strangers -- he had relationships with everyone that was involved.”
Many rappers are studio rats, but to Wayne, creative expression is life itself. As the months turned into years, he carried on with his epic daily recording sessions knowing that most of the music would never come out. A deal to release his Free Weezy Album on Tidal in June 2015 was met with a $50 million lawsuit against the streaming service; the following year, Def Jam released a joint album with 2 Chainz, ColleGrove, with Wayne billed as a featured artist. But it wasn't his album. “You know when you get somebody’s album you’re getting a little piece of them,” says Wayne.
Wayne’s frustration mounted, culminating in another string of tweets in September 2016 in which he described himself as “mentally defeated.” “I’m a very passionate guy about anything I do,” he says now. “So once I find out that I’m being fucked over, I’m going to be passionate about that emotion toward how I feel about it.” But what Wayne really resented was the distraction from his art -- not the money he claimed he was owed (“My mama,” he says, is the only one with “things in her mind that she wanna buy”) or even the conflict with one of his closest friends. “The difficult part of it,” says Wayne, “was finally having to pull the curtains back and see what the hell was out that window -- having to actually care about other things than my music and my lyrics.”
There’s a winking cleverness to Wayne’s best rhymes, often delivered in a carefree manner that can mask a triple-entendre, a penetrating insight or an oddball sexual innuendo. He has that slippery quality in conversation, too: quick to laugh, cocky yet humble, with total confidence but a nagging insecurity about how his work will be received. He raps and speaks in a stream of consciousness; whatever’s on his mind will tumble out one way or another.
Wayne won’t talk about the songs on Tha Carter V -- which is now slated for release this fall -- because the album is still in flux. But at the end of the interview, he stands up from the couch, walks over to the sound board and pulls up a mix on his phone to play through the speakers.
When he was 12, Wayne came across a gun in his mother’s house and shot himself in the chest, just missing his heart. In the past, he has called this an accident. But on the new verse he plays, Wayne admits this was a suicide attempt, undertaken after his mother told him he would no longer be allowed to rap. The track, which samples British R&B singer Sampha’s brooding but hopeful 2013 song “Indecision” and will be the album’s outro, was on the original album tracklist, but Wayne added new lyrics this summer, following the suicides of designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain.
“He just told me one day that he was ready to address it now,” says Maine. “Just being an adult, reaching a level of maturity and comfort where it’s like, ‘I want to talk about this because I know a lot of people out here might be going through that.’”
In the last few years, Wayne has made similar references to the incident. On the Free Weezy Album track “London Roads,” he addresses his mother: “Ms. Cita, I remember goin’ in your gun drawer/Puttin’ it to my chest and missin’ my heart by centimeters, oh Lord.” His guest verse on Solange’s “Mad,” from 2016, is more specific: “And when I attempted suicide, I didn’t die/I remember how mad I was on that day/Man, you gotta let it go before it get up in the way/Let it go, let it go.”
The parallel between Wayne’s mother forbidding him from rapping and his father figure doing effectively the same thing almost 25 years later is obvious. This time around, Wayne has taken comfort in his music, even if he can’t release it -- and in practicing his skateboard tricks, even if he can’t land them: “Once you put your feet on the board and start a session and notice that five hours have went by, you actually forgot what you was mad about ’cause you been too stuck on what you was trying to do. Whatever other reality is going on outside -- I don’t care how serious it is -- to you, it is not landing that fuckin’ fakie switch nosegrind.”
Wayne also relies on his children. “My four jewels -- when I FaceTime one of them, man, everything goes away,” he says. “I didn’t let it get to me too much,” he continues, addressing how he pushed through the legal drama. “Just the confidence in knowing that there’s always a tomorrow and I’m going to make sure that tomorrow is bright. Some people can’t go on [like] that, like, ‘OK, tomorrow will be better.’ They need it to be better right now. And thank God I didn’t, and I never did.”
“We from New Orleans, man, a place where we strong,” says Maine. “We got through Katrina. We had to keep going and figure it out.”
It was after Wayne recovered from his gunshot wound, when his mother saw how serious he was about his rap dreams, that she allowed him to join the Cash Money crew -- as long as he didn’t swear. (His 1999 solo debut, Tha Block Is Hot, is, as a result, squeaky clean.) Wayne signed his first solo deal with Cash Money Records in 1998, the same year the Williams brothers secured a historic $30 million deal for Cash Money Records: major-label distribution through Universal Music Group, a $3 million advance and ownership of their masters and publishing. In 2003, Cash Money handed Wayne his own imprint, Young Money, a 51-49 percent joint venture; the following year, Wayne released Tha Carter, which went on to sell 1.36 million albums in the United States.
Young Money would eventually sign Drake and Nicki Minaj, and the Williams’ deal with Universal’s Republic Records continued to grow with each renegotiation. The last time the two sides re-upped, in 2012, Cash Money received a $100 million advance. The same year, Wayne extended his solo deal for four more albums, which guaranteed him $10 million per album -- $8 million up front, then $2 million when he delivered -- and extended the Young Money venture through June 2015.
But beginning in 2013, court documents show, Cash Money’s monthly accounting and payments to Young Money and Wayne became erratic, stopping altogether in February 2014. Drake’s accounting was also in disarray. By the time Wayne delivered the masters for what was to be Tha Carter V in December 2014, he had only been paid one-fifth of his guarantee. “As the deals got bigger, they got more complicated, and our money slowed,” says Ron Sweeney, Wayne’s attorney and manager.
On June 7, over three years later, Cash Money and Lil Wayne finally settled their lawsuits for an undisclosed sum. Each side retained their stakes in previously established Young Money deals, and Wayne was paid in full. Young Money now belongs solely to Wayne, and its distribution deal with Republic remains in place. Tha Carter V will be the first album in his career to not have the Cash Money logo on it. “There’s no hard feelings or animosity,” says Sweeney. “This is business, and we finally got our business straight.”
Wayne and Birdman are back to talking every day, usually about the Red Sox. But Wayne is less trusting and focused on his album. “Not even just with him, but my relationships with a lot of people have become different, just because of how different I work now,” he says. “I’m submerged in everything about myself, trying to be better at who I am. It’s something where you have to cut some things off.”
Four months ago, Wayne moved into this new space, with the skate park and ESPN playing on mute around the clock in the recording studio. Soon after, he injured his heel, which kept him off his board for a month and forced him into the studio full time. It was, he says, “God telling me, ‘You have to go to work, bro.’”
After experiencing a series of widely reported seizures between 2013 and 2017, Wayne has cut his marathon recording sessions from what he says were 26-hour runs down to “12 or 14” hours. “That’s the main thing that friends and family and the doc and all them recommend,” he says. “Just get you some rest.”
Even as the Cash Money dispute raged on, Wayne quietly earned a new title: greatest mentor alive. Minaj and especially Drake have defined hip-hop’s last decade. “They all the way -- they got it,” he says. “They know how to make them joints that y’all going to be runnin’ to. I’m something else with my music.” But they’re inspiring him to truly bring it with that something else: “I’m coming straight at Drake’s and Nicki’s neck, Lord have mercy,” he says, laughing. “I’m talkin’ ’bout machetes. I’ma out-sing Drake, I’ma date Nicki. It’s goin’ down.”
Wayne constantly tinkers with older material, even as he records new music. “I’m very much a perfectionist,” he says. But he knows he can’t control how the album will be received. “I don’t know what it’s setting me up for -- some big comeback, or maybe some big fall back or whatever -- but it’s setting me up for something, and I’m ready.”
As the clock ticks toward midnight and Wayne puts on the outro track, Maine punches the air at key moments. As Sampha’s hook -- a plaintive plea, “Let it all work out,” repeated over and over -- lands, the full force of the song comes to bear, and Wayne stands, eyes closed, swaying slightly. He’s holding another blunt in his hand, but it’s unlit and forgotten as he lets the sound wash over him. When the song’s over, he flashes his diamond-watt grin, satisfied.
”I got four beautiful jewels. As long as they’re smiling, I’m on cloud 39.”
”There came a time when it was like, ‘Let’s just go ahead and be me.’ I’m always appropriate. Sometimes appropriate may be crazy, but I’m always appropriate.”
“I don’t write. When you write something down, you know which thoughts to put on paper to keep you in the subject. You can send me a love song, and I may still find a way to bring [something else] up, ’cause it’s what I’m going through.”
“I must be a hell of a motherfucker. In football, when a motherfucker hasn't been playing one year, we expect him to be nothing. Thank God I’m in music, and they still expect me to be up there with no one touching me, other than my own [Young Money] artists.”
“I do think about retirement. I think about how I don’t think I ever will.”