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THE GRAMMYS

Out of Lil Wayne's purple haze

The MC proclaimed himself the best rapper, then backed it up with album sales and free downloads. So why is his taste turning to rock (as well as cough syrup)?

February 08, 2009|Chris Lee

In "The Carter," the documentary about Lil Wayne that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last month, the superstar rapper is filmed in some compromising positions. Namely, he's shown taking his medicine.

In one scene, the extravagantly tattooed and dreadlocked rhymesayer pours a viscous purple liquid from a prescription bottle into a soda jug then mixes himself a cocktail, gulping it out of a giant Styrofoam cup. In Southern hip-hop circles this potent narcotic mixture is known as "purp," "drank" or "sizzurp" -- cough syrup fortified with codeine, hydrocodone and/or promethazine that, if taken at a high enough dosage, can produce a swooning high. One that's also potentially fatal.

At another moment in the film, the multiplatinum-selling New Orleans MC opens up a Louis Vuitton attache case that travels with him everywhere to reveal a stack of money as thick as a brick and a Glaceau VitaminWater bottle filled with purple fluid. "That ain't VitaminWater," Wayne says in the film, laughing at his ruse to smuggle the stuff across international borders.

Filmed between May and September 2008, just as his popularity was hitting critical mass, "The Carter" presents an unexpected slice of life from last year's top-selling pop artist, who comes into tonight's Grammys nominated for more awards than any other act. Lil Wayne (a.k.a. Weezy F. Baby, government name: Dwayne Michael Carter Jr.), who will also perform on the show, which will air on CBS beginning at 8 p.m., is up for eight statuettes in categories including album of the year.

But in addition to those revealing scenes, "The Carter" underscores what many of the rapper's collaborators, career overseers and industry observers already know. In ways both profound and ridiculous, Lil Wayne is defined by his contradictions.

Weezy declined to be interviewed for this story. But at a time when other MCs prematurely have mourned hip-hop's death and rap sales are down across the board, Lil Wayne remains the genre's raging id, the guy who called himself "the best rapper alive" until nobody could deny it anymore. A trickster griot with a sneaky intellect and a smoke-rasped voice, he can be viewed as the fruit of hip-hop's world-beating ambitions as well as the embodiment of the culture's untamable contrarian streak -- no mean feat considering that the mainstream seems to have crossed over into Lil Wayne's world rather than vice versa.

As a preamble to selling nearly 3 million copies of his seventh studio CD "Tha Carter III" last year, Lil Wayne first flooded the market with his music, digitally distributing some two dozen albums' worth of material free. "It's a simple process. You've got to give to get," said Danyel Smith, editor in chief of Vibe magazine. "Fans feel like, 'You gave me all this for free. Now I'm going to support you when you actually need me.' "

And now, after having outsold everyone on the pop landscape and becoming a Top 40 fixture by contributing his free-associative verses and Auto-Tune crooning on hundreds of other artists' songs, Lil Wayne, 26, is moving into relatively uncharted territory.

Collaborating with hip-hop-rock fusionist Kevin Rudolf on last year's smash single "Let It Rock" (which has sold around 2.5 million copies worldwide) has led to Lil Wayne's next iteration. His album "Rebirth," slated for release in April, finds the rapper continuing "in a rock vein." Rudolf recorded two new songs with him and is at work on a third. He couched Weezy's efforts to recast himself as a rock star in terms usually reserved for Guns N' Roses' seminal 1987 album.

"It's real bad ass. Pure attitude. Real rock 'n' roll," Rudolf said of Wayne's new music. "That's where music's going. What music's missing. You can't do it in rock anymore because rock takes itself too seriously. What Wayne's doing, he's bringing 'Appetite for Destruction' into 2009. That's what's really setting him apart."

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An early start

Standing just 5 feet 6 and boasting a mouth full of gleaming diamond- and platinum-encrusted teeth, Lil Wayne has grown up in public. And everything from his earliest sexual encounter (credit groupie love) to his protean work ethic has come courtesy of hip-hop.

Raised in New Orleans' rough-and-tumble 17th Ward, young Dwayne was unofficially adopted around age 13 by that city's gangsta rapper turned music mogul Bryan "Baby" Williams, co-chief executive of Cash Money Records. Weezy came of age just as Southern rap found widespread national recognition, and he devoted most of his teens to the platinum-selling gangsta rap trio the Hot Boys.

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