His soul is still dancing.
I had the good fortune to see Werner Herzog’s maniacally fun take on Abel Ferarra’s classic Bad Lieutenant the same weekend I got a long anticipated DVD in the mail. It was the hotly contested critical darling doc The Carter, following Lil Wayne in the halcyon months surrounding the release of his greatest professional achievement to date: The Carter III. I knew I was in for a unique, trippy experience from the DVD menu alone, which is a snippet of Nina Simone’s “Misunderstood”, sampled for TC3’s grand finale. It’s a screwed watermarked loop of Simone moaning “Baby, you understand me now” as a music box melody plays sadly over and over again. And you certainly will come away more intimately familiar with Weezy, though I’m unsure the result is increased understanding, or if understanding an individual as far gone as Wayne is even possible.
Forgetting the specifics for a moment, The Carter is groundbreaking for its access into the artist’s creative process. This is an area I’ve been waiting to see Hip Hop media tap for a long time and The Carter delivers on a grand scale. For me Fade To Black was a Rap Triumph of the Will, our access is hardly unfettered as co-directors Pat Paulson and Michael John Warren seemed directed to be as protective of the Shawn Carter mystique as Jay-Z himself. Perhaps it’s a feature of just how fucking insane and interesting Wayne’s process is to simply watch, but Adam Bhala Lough’s best work in this film is showing us Wayne dutifully toting around a suitcase on rollers containing his own mini studio, unpacking amps and top of the line mics in the hotel rooms he lives out of, improvising mixtape verses on the fly and punching his own edits. (His verse on a recently released collaboration with Gudda Gudda over Jeezy’s “Get ya mind right” is a borderline classic and we get to watch him work his way through his verse on “Magic” from last Winter among other verses)
Demolition Part 1 (Ft. Gudda Gudda)
The film’s focus as well as much of the surrounding controversy has been unnecessarily placed on Wayne’s excess, a fact anyone familiar with his work has long been aware of as he talks about it openly in his music. For me it was interesting to watch his day to day, a similar pattern of habitual behavior: a constant background of ESPN, a disturbing addiction to getting inked and a clear workaholic, even at the heady heights we see Wayne at, on tour and celebrating a platinum album he’s tirelessly, obsessively tinkering with what will become largely obscure mixtape verses, listening to nothing but his own shit and explaining Boy Meets Girl references for the camera crew. He's clearly an individual damaged from a traumatic home life and a non-existent childhood, pretty transparently diving into any diversion that comes his way with all his being as a means of escape.
The film’s unsung hero is Wayne’s longtime friend and associate/manager Cortez Bryant. He’s the sober steady hand trying to keep human nitro glycerin from exploding, worrying about TC3s premature leak, delivering Wayne to photo shoots and interviews, threatening random shady characters hanging around backstage at shows, unable to be around Wayne because of his concern for Wayne’s syrup addiction. It’s through him that we most feel the consequences of Wayne’s abuse, how real the concern is in his circle and how powerless anyone is to do anything about it. Wayne is a force of nature operating largely on impulse and the moment’s whim.
Me & My Drank
Wayne’s magnetic rock star charisma is apparent on stage performing his verse off Shawty Lo’s “They Know (Remix)”, “Pussy Monster” and an electric performance of “A Milli” (featuring the wildest crowd response I've ever witnessed), in interviews where he gets off on torturing reporters, a particularly great moment comes in his dismissal of a Brit quickly caught trying to intellectualize Wayne's work and place it within a tradition of New Orleans music (his interactions with the press are reminiscent of the clueless British reporters Bob Dylan gets off on fucking with throughout Don’t Look Back) not to mention the general conversation in every room we see him in. The film’s most disturbing scene is Wayne lecturing a 15 year old for still being a virgin in front of what appears to be the boy’s bemused/horrified mother, telling an anecdote of getting blown at 11 that tip toes a line between funny and scary/depressing. Heath Ledger’s Joker stories concerning the origin of his scars come to mind as Wayne at times sounds less like he’s bragging than confessing on a therapist’s couch.
The Carter ends up operating on a logic not unlike Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, as a fever dream rewarding its likable anti-hero for his sins. Wayne spends the film high and slumped, screwing off and pissing off everyone around him to seemingly no consequence, his star continues to rise and burn even brighter and we’re shotgun for the gleefully nihilistic ride. Watching Wayne before he self destructs it’s even more apparent a timeless talent has spent the last decade captivating us, making music that will be the subject of a countless number of documentaries and similar tributes to come for generations. With his prison sentence looming and his music pushed to what feels like a logical conclusion, with little place to go but down it’s possible that his prime has passed. Even if this is so Lil Wayne changed Rap for the better, taken it to playful uncharted stylistic extremes and practiced forms previously unseen that have already had a tangible effect on the current Hip Hop landscape. He gave us a taste of what the great inebriated poets of the 60s and 70s did for their art forms. A Morrison, a Reed.
Wayne has changed rap, and his Young Money label of emerging minions currently owning New York radio following in his footsteps will assuredly be pushing the ball forward long after he’s fallen back, something that at the age of 27 I can’t imagine happening anytime soon regardless of how his work will be received. The sad/fantastic truth is Wayne needs Rap as bad if not more than Rap needs him. The Carter gives us a portrait of the artist at his very best, and it’s without a doubt the best documentary about Rap music I’ve ever seen (This doesn’t count), must see shit for anyone remotely interested in popular music.