Apart from Lady GaGa, you’d be hard pressed to find another pop-music phenomenon over the last few years on the level of Lil Wayne. Via a series of critically acclaimed street mixtapes and the collective praise of the Internet, Wayne went from being the scrappy teenager of the Cash Money Millionaires to a rapper with a style that pushed at Ghostface levels of esotericism and absurdity. He’s the self-proclaimed greatest rapper alive, pumping out enough tracks to fill the careers of 30 rappers. He’ll likely spend the next year in jail, although he promises to release three more albums before that happens. This is a man who’s begging to burn out rather than fade away.
Two Wayne’s appear over the course of The Carter, the recent controversy-stirring documentary. The first is before the release of his breakthrough commercial album, Tha Carter III: a man determined, who knows nothing else but doing what it takes to make it. It’s a side of Wayne that we almost forgot existed. He is visibly giddy, whether joking with friends in the studio or going back and forth with reporters in the press room, by the end practically having them eating out of the palm of his hand.
The second Wayne we see is the inverse, and the camera catches the clear moment when his two selves cross over each other. A week after the release of his smash-hit album, upon the news that he sold over a million records, Cortez Bryant — Wayne’s manager and DJ and friend since grade school — runs out to the bus to let his friend hear the news. Wayne is, of course, recording (which you will see him do in every room he steps into throughout the film). While the rest of his entourage jumps up and down, throws hugs all around, and gets ready to celebrate with a bottle of Remy Martin, Wayne does not partake. He almost seems embarrassed that he has reached this level of success. When you finally achieve what you’ve been working toward your whole life, where do you go next?
As evident from the descending slope the film takes, the place you go is not a fun one. Wayne, instead of looking possessed, now looks dazed. The syrup he is famous for endorsing — a mix of prescription-strength cough syrup and (usually) soda, always in two stacked styrofoam cups — is constantly in his hand. If his other hand is free, it is usually lighting or pulling from a blunt. His face is hallowed out, his new grill making him look more like a skeleton with each passing day. In an interview with the film crew (Wayne refuses to grant the crew an interview, although they have him on camera being interviewed by many other journalists), Bryant recalls a moment when he was verbally attacked on stage by Wayne, and how from there he has seen his friend go deeper into a hole, becoming less human. He thinks Wayne is aware of the direction he is headed. The dread is visible on face, literally; one scene shows him getting a tattoo of a crack, “like Frankenstein,” on his forehead.
With jail time imminent, I almost wish somebody would have shown him the footage that comprises this documentary sooner. Maybe then he could have saved himself.