At No. 1, Lil Wayne Redefines Stardom Behind Bars

Jennifer Peltz, My Way, November 1, 2010

He had the top-selling album in the country earlier this month. He’s on the president’s iPod. He’s on the charts with two singles and a collaboration on a third. He’s on Facebook with updates for the more than 14 million people following them. He is, in every respect, on.

By the way, Lil Wayne’s in jail. {snip}

The rapper, who’s on track to be released Thursday after serving eight months in a gun case, is the first artist in 15 years to release a No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 chart while serving a sentence. {snip}

It’s hardly a coveted distinction. But it is both a reflection of Lil Wayne’s popularity–he went to jail a multiplatinum-selling Grammy Award winner–and a result of astute maneuvering in the multimedia landscape that now envelops pop stardom. Staying relevant? Try omnipresent.

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Members of the rapper’s management team carefully scheduled releases of music and saw to it that his responses to the deluge of fan mail that has descended on the city’s Rikers Island jail complex were typed up and posted online. {snip}

The Lil Wayne campaign even comes with its own insider-y slogan–“free Weezy,” one of his nicknames–circulated through channels ranging from T-shirts to a Twitter hashtag.

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“I never imagined that I could have such an impact on people’s lives,” he wrote in July on the site, Weezythanxyou.com.

Known for his workaholic output of witty, manifold and sometimes weird wordplay, Lil Wayne had the best-selling album of 2008 and won a best rap album Grammy with “Tha Carter III.” Time magazine weighed him for its most-influential-people list last year; President Barack Obama recently told Rolling Stone he has some Lil Wayne music on his iPod.

The rapper, born Dwayne Carter Jr., pleaded guilty in October 2009 to having a loaded gun on his tour bus after a Manhattan concert in 2007. He began serving his one-year sentence in March.

He’s expected to get out early because of time off for good behavior, despite the electronic contraband that landed him in solitary confinement for the last month of his term: a charger and headphones for a digital music player were found in his cell, jail officials said. (He acknowledged the misstep on his blog.)

While at Rikers, he also pleaded guilty to an Arizona drug possession charge and was sentenced to three years’ probation.

Lil Wayne joined a roster of successful rappers who have spent time behind bars, a list that has muddied the line between art and life in a genre that arose from inner-city streets and often chronicles crime and violence. Big names including Tupac Shakur, Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, Shyne, Mystikal, Gucci Mane and T.I. have been incarcerated for periods ranging from months to years.

Several rappers have put out albums while locked up; the late Shakur became the first to hit number one with 1995’s “Me Against the World,” released while he was imprisoned on a sexual assault conviction. Some have recorded songs behind bars.

Lil Wayne made a slew of recordings and videos in his final weeks of freedom. The recording blitz provided enough material for “I Am Not a Human Being” and appearances on songs by artists ranging from his protege Drake to Eminem, their releases timed to keep him fresh in fans’ minds, his managers said.

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But perhaps the most telling way Lil Wayne has made himself heard from jail hasn’t been on records, but in writing.

His managers say the rapper proposed the Weezythanxyou blog, which has become a public-yet-personal conversation between the star and his fans. They have sent so much mail that members of his management team routinely take home garbage bags full for safekeeping after the rapper has read it.

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He even brokered a marriage proposal after getting a letter from a woman who had appeared in one of his label’s videos, popping her question to her boyfriend on the site at her request, said Mack Maine, the president of Young Money Entertainment, Lil Wayne’s imprint within Cash Money.

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Lil Wayne’s world, meanwhile, is already moving on. The rapper has written new lyrics in jail (describing them as “amazing would be too typical and perfect would be unfair,” he said on his blog) and envisions releasing a much-anticipated “Tha Carter IV” next year, Williams said.

He also has kept a journal in jail, Maine said, and might release it as a book.

rapper

Lil Wayne, a/k/a Weezy.

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