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. My father filled the pocket connected to the seat 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, and the list goes on. There was one album in particular, though, that I would look at during long drives. It had a crack down the center of the cover.
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 a few years my senior, a teenager, but our surroundings couldn’t have been 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 during our teenage years, Tha Carter albums served as our introduction. Still, by the time the first Carter dropped, Wayne had already released three solo albums, and three collaborative albums as a member of the Hot Boys. We rave about Wayne’s growth and maturation. However, we rarely acknowledge the early years of Lil Wayne, when 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 an interview with The FADER, former Cash Money producer Mannie Fresh recalled his introduction to Lil Wayne—a then 12-year-old prodigy in the making. Mannie remembers when Wayne’s stepfather Rabbit brought him through the studio as a kid. He had the desire to rap, but he could only participate if he kept his grades up. Wayne meeting Mannie wasn’t the beginning of his career in music, 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 Fresh
Lil Wayne, according to Mannie Fresh, was a child searching for an outlet for expression. When he first started rapping, his parents had but one rule: he couldn’t use profanity—no curse words. 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. Not 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 pang of 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.
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“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.’” —Mannie Fresh
Incredibly, a 12-year-old genius eventually became a 17-year-old adolescent rap star—confident, continually getting better at rhyming, all while his surroundings were getting worse. Around the time Cash Money Records was preparing Wayne’s debut album, the songs he wrote reflected reality in Hollygrove, his neighborhood in New Orleans. The block being hot wasn’t just an album title; it was the scorching reality. Listen to his self-titled single. Wayne was using rap to document his world.
Mannie was a witness to Wayne’s underage drinking, and he was surprised how no adults were supervising the young rapper. This behavior 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. 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 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.’” —Mannie Fresh
Fuck. The word is only four letters, but when Wayne rapped it into the microphone, it carried tremendous power. “Fuck The World” is an autobiographical song that captures a young Weezy at the 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; making just enough money where many hands began reaching for his pockets. From a voice that had yet to reach puberty fully, Wayne had a reason to be mad.
“Fuck The World” perfectly captures the sentiment of Wayne’s Tha Block Is Hot album cover and provides us with a glimpse into the hardships he faced. Wayne’s first curse on wax 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.” The line gives context to profanity, words used when life presents an experience that can only be defined by obscene language.
Wayne was a child star who 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. Wayne was a father without a father figure, a child on child support, and a breadwinner who took care of his mother as if she wrote his raps— and we haven’t even touched the collapse of the Hot Boys and his transition into the role of Cash Money’s flagship artist. I imagine Wayne’s shoulders must have been tired bearing all this weight. Yet, somehow, he didn’t buckle under the pressure.
Lil Wayne has enjoyed 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 real world that encouraged his first curse word.
By Yoh, aka The Blog Is Hot aka @Yoh31