Lil Wayne: The Best Rapper Alive

How Lil Wayne gave away his songs and got paid back a million times over. Hint: he's good

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Lil Wayne has a smoke-scarred rasp that makes him sound like Redd Foxx covering Bob Dylan. It's hardly the voice you'd expect from a 25-year-old rap star, but then, it's been a busy 25 years.

Born Dwayne Carter Jr. and raised in Hollygrove, a New Orleans neighborhood famous for producing soul singers, Wayne signed his first deal at age 11 after rhyming on a record executive's answering machine. At 12, he distinguished himself by starring as the Tin Man in his gifted middle school's production of The Wiz--and by accidentally shooting himself in the chest with a .44-cal. while imitating Travis Bickle in his bedroom. After teenage years that were lost to the comically awful gangsta group Hot Boys (like 'N Sync with shivs), Wayne went solo and undertook a transformation almost unprecedented in hip-hop. Over four years, he morphed from a mediocre rapper with a thuggish point of view into a savant who merges sex, drugs and politics with a sneaky intellect, a freakish knowledge of pop culture and a voice out of the Delta. Whether Wayne is, as he claims, the "best rapper alive" is no longer even debated in hip-hop or commercial circles. Since June 10, when his latest album, Tha Carter III, sold 1,005,545 copies in its first week, he's been the undisputed champ.

That number would be huge in boom times, but at a moment when most records languish on the racks like Depression apples, it's titanic. It also represents the victory of a business model every bit as counterintuitive as Radiohead's. Most musicians still carefully dole out an album's worth of songs every few years to keep from saturating the market. Vibe magazine counted 77 new Lil Wayne tracks in 2007. Besides coughing out guest verses for seemingly anyone who asked, he sometimes recorded three songs in a night and gave them away on the Internet minutes later on a series of superb mix tapes. In June, just before Tha Carter III went on sale, Wayne announced on YouTube that he'd be releasing the tracks for free on a tape called The Leak.

If the charts are to be believed, his goodwill has been repaid many times over. Of course, it helps that Tha Carter III is one of the best albums of the year. It's a pop play--and smelling it, everyone from Jay-Z to Robin Thicke jumped on board with contributions--but it's still weird enough to sound like underground Lil Wayne. His wordplay can be thrilling ("My picture should be in the dictionary next to the definition of definition"), and no other rapper finds as much joy in rhyming; "in the way," "everyday," "what we say," "cliché," "Andre 3K," "sensei" is a typical string from Dr. Carter, his prescription for what ails rap. But the impact owes more to his delivery than to his wit. Wayne isn't afraid to sound bizarre. On Phone Home, he rhymes like E.T., and throughout, he stammers, intentionally misses beats and defies most of the rules of contemporary rap. On DontGetIt, over a sample of Nina Simone's Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood, he tells a life story that veers into an indictment of drug laws and finishes some 1,200 words and 10 minutes later by dismissing Al Sharpton with a theatricality even the good Reverend would have to appreciate.

Wayne claims his rhymes are stream of consciousness, but even if they aren't, they sound as though they're hitting the air for the first time, unfolding with an electricity that's--forbid the sacrilege--Dylanesque. Redd Foxx would probably dig 'em too.