The first time I held a copy of Tupac’s All Eyez On Me was behind the driver's seat of my father’s violet ‘96 Impala. There was a pocket connected to the seat that was filled with rap albums like JAY-Z’s The Blueprint, Biggie’s Life After Death, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper—the list goes on and on. There was one album in particular, though, that I would look at during long drives—it had a crack down the cover’s center. My eyes were attracted to the young man standing in the street, surrounded by fire, police cars and helicopters overhead. Out of all the CDs crammed into that pocket, he was the only face that seemed just a few years my senior, a teenager, but our surroundings couldn’t have been any more opposite. I never heard the album, but on those car rides, I always wondered about his story.
Lil Wayne was no older than 16 when he shot the cover for Tha Block Is Hot, his solo debut on Cash Money Records. For many of us who got into Wayne in our teenage years, the introduction to his music was likely through Tha Carter albums, but by the time the first Carter dropped he had already released three solo albums, and three collaborative albums as a member of the Hot Boys. The early years of Lil Wayne are rarely acknowledged, he was just a grasshopper still in development, a piece of coal not yet a diamond, a hungry rapper not yet a conquering martian.
In a recent interview with The Fader, former Cash Money producer Mannie Fresh shed much-needed light on when he was first introduced to Lil Wayne—a 12-year-old prodigy in the making. Mannie remembers when Wayne’s stepfather Rabbit brought him through as a kid with the desire to rap, but he could only participate if he kept his grades up. Taking Wayne to Mannie wasn’t meant to be the beginning of a career, but an incentive to keep up his grades, no different than parents who promise toys and video games for As and Bs.
“After our first introduction, I was thinking 'That's not going to really work for him [Wayne] because it’s obvious that school work is not hard for him.' You could tell he was a very intelligent kid. He was a kid genius. It wasn’t nothing for him to do homework. I thought rap was something that Wayne needed to do to channel some of the things that he wasn’t learning in school and some of the things that he wanted to say.”
Mannie’s quote provides insight into a kid searching for an outlet for expression. When Wayne first started rapping, the only rule his parents placed upon his rhymes was that he couldn’t use profanity; no curse words. Deeper in the interview, Mannie unearths a bit of history on the Hot Boys, and how they were worried about the youngest member of their group being restricted in ways the others weren’t.
These kids came from rough neighborhoods, there was no shield blocking them from what was happening outside their front doors, so they used the language of men and the words of sailors. Cursing didn’t hinder Wayne, Mannie went on to say his passion for rhyming motivated the others to become better rappers. He taught them about rhyme schemes and structure, wrote hooks, and was the pace-setter for records. Even back in his younger days, the junior Carter had the drive to be the best, a constant hunger to be better, and it showed within his work ethic.
Wayne was able to keep up because there was nothing he wanted more, a child in the wilderness who didn’t cower from the lion's roar.
"Let’s just say it was a Hot Boys song and that day we were supposed to record only Juvenile’s songs. If Juvie didn’t show up, Wayne killed that song. He made everybody wanna rap better. He would be like, 'I wish he [Juvenile] don't show up because I'm gon’ kill his verse.' It was that friendly competition and if anybody messed up or something, he was there. He’d be like, 'I gotta hook for it. I gotta line for it. I know what to put right there.'"
What I found most interesting about the interview is what Mannie had to say about the 12-year-old kid genius becoming a 17-year-old adolescent rap star—confident, constantly getting better at rhyming, but his surroundings were getting worse. Around the time the label was preparing Wayne's debut album, the songs he wrote reflected reality in Hollygrove. The block being hot wasn’t just an album title, it was the scorching reailty—drugs, guns, cops. If you listen to his self-titled single, Wayne once used rap as an outlet to document the world he lived in.
At the time, Mannie witnessed his underage drinking and was surprised how no adults were supervising the young rapper. This wasn’t pleasure drinking, but a bottle meant to ease the stress, bandage the hurt—an escape from reality. Wayne had lost his beloved stepfather, was learning a hard lesson about the merciless street life, and the heavy hand of growing up pushed him from adolescence to adulthood, a hand that had been at his back for most of his life. It’s a reminder that Wayne didn’t have much of a childhood, and even as a child rap star his life wasn't all glitter and gloss—rap money didn’t stop Hollygrove from slowly swallowing him whole.
"I don’t even know if he remembers this but, we had a conversation and Wayne was just like, 'I feel like I’m old enough now. I wanna curse. I’d rather not be a hypocrite and be cursing by myself.' I'm asked him, 'What’s the idea?' He says 'Well, I got this song that I wanna do and it’s kind of heartfelt so it’s gotta be like that.' That’s when he did 'Fuck the World.'"
Fuck. Only four letters, but that tiny word carried so much power when Wayne rapped it into the microphone. It wasn’t a word in defiance of his mother wishes, but the only word that truly defined the angst he carried at that very moment.
“Fuck The World” is an autobiographical song that captured a young Weezy in that moment—dealing with the murder of his father, the breadwinner and bill payer, drinking liquor like it was water, carrying guns while on probation, fathering his first child while learning what it means to be a man, and making just enough money where many hands began reaching for his pockets. Coming from a voice that had yet to fully reach puberty, Wayne had a lot to be mad about.
"Fuck The World" perfectly captures the album's cover, and gives a glimpse into the hardships faced by a Lil Wayne when he was truly little, both in the world and in rap. Wayne's first curse reminds me of the Lupe lyric, "Omitting the word 'Bitch,' cursing I wouldn't say it, Me and dog couldn't relate, till a bitch I dated." It gives context to profanity, words used when life presents an experience that can only be defined by obscene language.
Wayne was the child star that didn’t have a chance to be much of a child. He shot himself at an age most kids were holding water guns, he joined a rap group at an age where most were joining school clubs and dealt with being the man of his house when most were still enjoying the benefits of being boys. A father without a father figure, a child on child support, making sure his mother was paid as if she wrote his raps, and we haven’t even touched the collapse of the Hot Boys and him transitioning into the role of Cash Money’s flagship artist. I imagine his shoulders must have been tired bearing all this weight, and somehow he didn't buckle under the pressure.
Lil Wayne has had one hell of a career and has lived one hell of a life, and I hope that in his coming years the boy who stood on the block of fire will find peace somewhere in the very world that encouraged his first curse word.
By Yoh, aka The Blog Is Hot aka @Yoh31.