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How Lil Wayne Became a Superstar

Mixtape strategy pays off with new Tha Carter III

Evan Serpick Jul 10, 2008

Tim Mosenfelder/Corbis

Lil Wayne was in the middle of one of his all-night recording sessions when he had a breakthrough. “He called and said, ”˜Slim, come here,’ ” recalls Ronald “Slim” Williams, president and CEO of Wayne’s longtime label, Cash Money Records. “He played ”˜Lollipop’ for me, and I’m like, ”˜Play it again, I love this record.’ He played that record about 10 times, and I said, ”˜That’s it, Wayne, that’s the record right there. We hit the lottery.’ ”

On ”˜Lollipop,’ vocoder effects give Wayne’s melodic singsong rhymes a sexy, futuristic vibe that combines with an echoey synth beat to make an irresistible pop hit: It reached Number One on Billboard’s Hot 100 and has broken records as the fastest-selling ringtone in history. The song’s massive crossover success is the culmination of a groundbreaking three-year promotional campaign, during which the rapper released hundreds of songs for free ”“ and which has positioned his long-delayed record, Tha Carter III, as one of the most anticipated albums
of the year.

Since his last official album, 2005’s Tha Carter II, Wayne has released four double-album mixtapes, The Drought Is Over 1 through 4, on the internet, leaked dozens of other songs and guested on more than 100 tracks by everyone from Jay-Z to Britney Spears. “The mixtapes were obviously very concerning to us as a label,” says Sylvia Rhone, president of Universal Motown ”“ the major label that is releasing the album in partnership with Cash Money ”“ who predicts that Tha Carter III will be the label’s biggest release of the year. “It really goes counter to what we would like our artists to do, but I think in this case we have this ”˜Wayne mania,’ even though he hasn’t released a record in over two years.”

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Wayne launched his underground assault after being disappointed with the sales of his last album. “Tha Carter II was a great body of music, but it didn’t have the big singles on it,” says Katina Bynum, vice-president of marketing at Universal Motown, who has been working with Lil Wayne since 1998. “So he was like, ”˜I’m not going away, I’m not going on vacation, I’m going to work. I have lots of music, I have things to say. I’m going to change the game.’ And people always say they’re going to change the game, but Wayne actually did it. He just worked his ass off for the last three years.”

The task of selecting tracks for the album from among the hundreds Wayne recorded fell to Cash Money bosses Slim and Bryan “Baby” Williams. “We pick to make the album complete, just like a movie,” says Slim. “You got action scenes, you got violence scenes, you have a love scene.” In addition to ”˜Lollipop,’ the latest disc includes ”˜Mr Carter,’ on which Wayne and Jay-Z ”“ who share the last name Carter ”“ trade verses over a sped-up soul sample, and ”˜LaLa,’ with a spare nursery-rhyme beat by David Banner and verses by Busta Rhymes and Florida MC Brisco.

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“Of all the rappers that I ever worked with, Wayne was the only one that really believed in his music,” says Banner. “Wayne has given them so much fire, consistently, that it’s built up. He gave away a million dollars’ worth of shit so people can buy an album for $9.99.”

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