Not only has Lil Wayne beaten the odds to make the transition from child star to adult superstar, and not only has he done it in the notoriously fickle rap genre, but he’s also succeeded despite debuting as more or less a novelty act. The New Orleans rapper has evolved from gimmicky teenage rapper to the most popular rap artist of his era over the course of a decade, sustaining one of the most unlikely hip-hop careers in the process.
Dwayne Michael Carter first gained notoriety as a member of The Hot Boys collective in 1997. Led by producers Baby and Mannie Fresh, they put New Orleans on the hip-hop map with their take on gangsta rap. As their label, Cash Money, gained national distribution, the individual artists signed to the collective-Juvenile, B.G. and Turk-became superstars. Wayne’s first album, The Block is Hot, hit the Top 10 in 1999 and established the then-17 year old as a star.
Two more successful albums followed, but Wayne wasn’t truly recognized as a star until 2004’s Tha Carter. Boasting the hit single Go DJ, Wayne scored his biggest hit album and began to gain notice for his prolific writing skills and rapping ability in areas outside the South. Guest appearances with popular mainstream artists like Destiny’s Child helped his cause. 2005’s Tha Carter II gained him even more success, and hip-hop fans nationwide took notice of Wayne’s improved skills, even as unsubstantiated whispers of Wayne hiring ghostwriters spread.
Over the next three years, Wayne increased his profile tenfold without commercially releasing a note under his own name. His extracurricular exploits included an addiction to codeine-laced cough syrup, his enrollment in college, and his much-touted affiliation with the Bloods street gang. A duets album with his mentor/father went Gold, he released tons of material via the internet and the mixtape circuit, and guested on songs by just about every artist in existence. Enrique Iglesias, Robin Thicke, Lloyd, Kanye West and Jay-Z all recruited Wayne to appear on their records.
The attention built interest for his sixth solo album, Tha Carter III. Preceded by the single Lollipop, Tha Carter III became the first album in three years to sell over a million copies in its first week and closed on three million units sold in less than six months with a barrage of hit singles. Between album tracks and collaborations, there were periods in 2008 when Wayne had as many as eight different entries on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart. Despite his successful 2008, Wayne’s recurring legal problems threaten to derail or at least dampen the future of one of hip-hop’s most successful artists.