Celebrity culture and its intertextuality have always caused tension in hip hop, a genre founded on authenticity. Famous people strive to control their public perceptions by presenting themselves through carefully crafted, often glamorous lenses, but rappers have traditionally been expected to portray themselves unashamedly. At the art form’s inception, cyphers occurred on street corners, and lyrics represented livelihoods. Fibs were pounced on. Word was bond.
By the 2000s, hip hop had exploded into the mainstream and its fanbase evolved into a reliable market. Clothing labels, movies and TV shows emerged, all represented by rappers, the 21st-century rock stars and starry-eyed fans were expected to purchase the products. Veterans who retired or lost steam — Diddy, Jay Z, 50 Cent and more — expanded into less artistic industries and the expressive lifestyle that the genre once stood for started to dissolve into a corporate scheme. Artists’ focuses seemed to switch to creating crossover hits and earning enough celebrity status to do an expensive endorsement. Hip hop’s humanity was dwindling.
Throughout the aughts, Lil Wayne combatted this mentality switch ferociously. He released what felt like infinite mixtapes of fully engaged lyrical exercises for free on the Internet and challenged peers to match his work ethic by rapping on beats that belonged to them. From 2003 to 2007, he pushed out 11 free projects and two major-label albums. In between his own hits, he hopped on other artists’ songs to stay creative. An avid sports fan and self-described competitor, he started rapping at eight-years-old and released his first album at age 15. Much like Michael Jackson, Dwayne Carter seems to view himself as a performer first, human being second. He never “turns off” Lil Wayne. Years before hip hop’s morphing with social media, he worked endlessly to be present in his fans’ lives.
It should be unsurprising, then, that Lil Wayne’s first literary endeavor is a chillingly personal memoir. But what’s most intriguing is its setting: Rikers Island Correctional Facility. In November 2010, Lil Wayne was sentenced to a year in prison for firearm possession, and though other rappers have served time — notably, Bobby Shmurda, who’s still incarcerated, and Gucci Mane, who was released in June — few have done it with the theatrical quality of Lil Wayne, who was well-represented by his then-rookie prodigy, Drake, during his absence and even appeared on new songs from jail.
Lil Wayne’s first book — titled “Gone ’Til November” and published in his handwriting — offers unfiltered glimpses at the thoughts and emotions that fueled the rapper’s persistence throughout his incarceration. It’s more of a cathartic clearing of conscience than a project designed for fans: the journal is part of a daily regimen that Wayne creates to stay busy and sane. His other routine activities include watching television in the dayroom, listening to sports on the radio, praying and making phone calls to friends, family or his children (whom he refuses to allow to see him in prison, despite never wasting a visitation day).
On the second day of his sentence, Wayne becomes acquainted with a group of inmates that he calls a “brotherhood,” and its members ease each others’ time by sharing food, wisdom and conversation. A lot of the group’s activities are documented in “Gone ’Til November” — cooking dinners with items from commissary, watching sports and fantasizing about the outside — and Wayne narrates their routine with an underlying sense of gratitude. When Flea, one of his peers, is released, he says: “I am happy like I am getting out.” When Coach, another peer, wants to marry another inmate, Wayne grabs a Bible and officiates the ceremony. He often sounds stripped from star power and humbled by his surroundings. Wayne sincerely cares about his peers’ happiness.
Yet “Gone ’Til November” is filled with analyses of different guards and the special privileges that each grants Lil Wayne. On his first day, two female guards are suspended for leaving their posts to seek him out and Wayne accepts the news as proof that attracted fans will pursue him anywhere. The most exciting thing about this book is its constant and inevitable Lil Wayne-ness: even while incarcerated, his optimism and humor remain mostly intact. His visitors include Diddy, Chris Paul and Kanye West; he makes a phone call to order a new Ranger Rover after seeing it in a commercial; he doesn’t wear the same pair of underwear more than once.
It’s been years since Lil Wayne released a relevant solo album. With “Gone ’Til November,” he offers something different to appease fans while court battles with Birdman, his former business partner and father figure, continue to restrain his musical freedom. In the book’s preface, he notes that he didn’t initially intend to publish the journal. Thus, some sections are scarily dark and hopeless. Wayne’s willingness to share such deeply pained material is another example of his unswerving commitment to pleasing fans.
During a mild confessional that occurred on Twitter last month, Lil Wayne hinted at his retirement and publicly dreaded his own helplessness. He claimed that his final album, Tha Carter V, is finished and sitting in a drawer, waiting to be released at the convenience of Birdman. “I AM NOW DEFENSELESS AND MENTALLY DEFEATED,” he wrote. It’s an upsetting road to retirement for a performer who was once the best at his craft, who has been cited as a major influencer by younger stars like Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper, who actively steered hip hop toward its modern, anarchic race to release music constantly. He should at least be able to walk away from his field at peace. Lil Wayne tweeted that he: “ain’t lookin for sympathy, just serenity.” I hope he’s able to find it.