Why the incarceration of Lil Wayne may be worth more than his freedom
On Tuesday, New Orleans rap phenom Lil Wayne (born Dwayne Carter) will report to New York’s Rikers Island prison to begin serving a 12-month sentence for weapons possession. The sentence begins just one week after the release of Rebirth, the rapper’s oft-delayed/much-anticipated new album. Wayne, who originally pleaded not guilty to weapons possession, changed his plea to guilty back in October 2009 in exchange for a reduced sentence. The felony charge stems from a July 2007 arrest in New York City, when police found a .40-caliber handgun in his tour bus.
But what does a 12-month prison sentence mean for Lil Wayne? The answer is simple: More fame. More money. One step closer to pop-culture immortality.
If Wayne can survive incarceration, and emerge unscathed, it’s quite possible he will cement himself as a modern-day folk hero — mirroring the legacy of populist artists such as Johnny Cash (who never served longer than a night in jail), and more closely, the late Tupac Shakur. Already considered by many as heir to the throne of Tupac, prison may just be the bizarre rite of passage that tips the scales for Wayne, turning even more fans on to his music and larger-than-life public persona. In essence, Lil Wayne’s incarceration may be worth more than his freedom.
There are already early signs that this is true. Cash Money Records, Wayne’s label, is relocating to New York during his prison stint. In the March issue of Rolling Stone, in the cover story “Lil Wayne Goes to Jail,” written by Chris Norris, Wayne’s manager Cortez Bryant says he is “exploring ways to keep Wayne in his fans’ minds for the duration — from jailhouse Twitter accounts to endorsements.” Both are signs that the monetization of Wayne’s prison bid has only begun.
In the essay, “Weezy Phone Home: Is Lil Wayne Hip-Hop’s Alien or Simply the Greatest?” Rolling Stone’s Chris Norris cites the positive and negative effects prison has had on some other rappers’ careers:
[We] have a few indications for how this story usually goes. If you’re Lil’ Kim, you go in, release a critically acclaimed CD you can’t promote, and wind up on Dancing With the Stars. If you’re Shyne, you go in, convert to Judaism, come out a changed man, and get deported to Belize. If you’re T.I., you enter and leave jail with your career still breathing, and show signs you just might get back on course. Or if you’re Tupac — third behind Biggie and Jay-Z on Lil Wayne’s list of top-three MCs — you become the first inmate to top the Billboard Top 200, get bailed out by Suge Knight in exchange for signing to Death Row Records, and uphold that label’s gangsta ethos for the full 11 months until you’re shot to death. (via Rolling Stone)
According to today’s sales predictions from Billboard.com, Wayne may already be on his way to matching Tupac’s Billboard 200 feat:
The highest debut will likely be Lil Wayne’s almost-mythical rap/rock “Rebirth” album, which industry sources are suggesting may sell 125,000 to 150,000 copies. The repeatedly delayed “Rebirth” finally arrived in stores this week, nine months after its original release date. (via Billboard.com)
Analyzing potential sales numbers for Wayne’s Rebirth, as he is set to enter prison, seems odd. But it is also the model the rapper has set for himself. He is a product first, individual second — all engineered by his own hand. For Wayne, who has spent nearly his entire adult life beneath the glowing intensity of stage lights, it may even be difficult to discern where public life ends and personal begins — the line so blurred between the two that privacy nearly ceases to exist. Rolling Stone’s Norris touches somewhat on the Lil Wayne branding machine/self-fulfilling prophecy in his essay:
The other, equally significant part of the Lil Wayne mojo is in the distribution, the star vehicle he created for delivery. Like many who came into their powers in the early ’00s, Lil Wayne immediately grasped how the coming era would reward crazy-bold creative output and savvy branding. Not only did he make himself into the remorseless releasing machine that put out mixtape after mixtape and guest-spot after guest-spot, but he set up a three-part branding operation that involved the tagline “the best rapper alive” and culminated with 2008’s Tha Carter III, whose cover art featured a portrait of the artist as toddler, just like the covers of breakthrough albums by Biggie Smalls and Nas. Lil Wayne is a witty, captivating, wildly inventive rapper and lyricist, but by 2008 he was the world’s best rapper by virtue of the same corporate tautology Bill Gates used when he said, “Everyone uses Microsoft because everyone uses Microsoft.” He was the leading brand. (via Rolling Stone)
One question remains: Can Lil Wayne survive rebranding himself during his prison stint and after being released? Or will his 12-month incarceration be his unraveling, perhaps leaving room for the next entrepreneurial emcee to unseat the self-proclaimed “best rapper alive” from his throne? It’s hard to say. But just like Lil Wayne, we have time to see how things play out.