The Making Of The Best: Lil Wayne Plots His Path To The Top

'Everybody like, 'Jay's the best. Biggie's the best.' That'll be my goal,' rapper says on the road with Up Close and Personal Tour.

LOS ANGELES — “Go DJ/ That’s my DJ!” Lil Wayne might have made that line famous, but now he doesn’t need a record-spinner to help him navigate his music collection. All he needs is the tiny remote control in his hands that flips from song to song on his iPod.

“Can it be I stayed away too long,” Michael Jackson’s voice blares from the speakers, which are connected to his iPod. A little Michael inspires Wayne to sing along. A little of Prince’s “When Doves Cry” comes soon after, rousing laughter from Wayne’s tour bus, which is traveling from L.A. to Irvine, California, for an Up Close and Personal Tour stop with Chris Brown, Ne-Yo, Dem Franchize Boyz, Cherish and the MC who Weezy considers his stiffest competition on the mic: the Diplomats’ Juelz Santana (see “Chris Brown, Ne-Yo, Lil Wayne, Juelz Give UCP Crowd Plenty To Scream About” ). Luckily, the two rappers have formed a friendship that has blossomed into a working relationship (see “Lil Wayne, Juelz Santana May Turn Upcoming Mixtape Into Full LP” ).

“We have an album coming out at the top of the year called I Can’t Feel My Face: The Album,” Wayne said September 27 as he celebrated his 24th birthday. “Twenty-four — yeah, be afraid,” Wayne said with a smile, marveling at how much he’s accomplished at such a young age. “Yes, just 24. I’m 13 years deep in this. Wow, who’s younger than me? Bow Wow? Jibbs?”

While Wayne might not be the youngest in the game, he’s become a microphone ruler over the past two years. He’s certainly one of the hottest MCs in the game right now, and if you listen, he might just be the premier rapper when it comes to lyrics and style (see “10 Candidates For The Next ‘Greatest MCs Of All Time’ List” ). All of his verses have been laced with toxins, and Weezy has never tried to be something he isn’t. Slowly but surely, fans, critics and peers are starting to agree with his claim that he’s “the best rapper alive.”

“Those that agree, I do it for them,” he said. “Every time I get in the studio, I do it for those people. And for the people that don’t agree, I do it for them too. So hopefully one day they do agree. But if you agree with what I’m saying, then I love you, but if you don’t, I love you too — but you will [agree] one day.

“I love what I do,” he added. “I love this job. My job is my dream, so every time I get in the studio, I get to dream again. I just chase my dream. I’m always in the studio, so people find things to do. ‘Here’s a mixtape you should be recording,’ or ‘Here’s somebody that wants you to be on their song.’ I never say no and my prices are reasonable too, so that’s why you hear me on everybody from Fat Joe to Mya to Kelly Rowland. I just did [a track with] Jibbs. My price range is the same, so everybody rocks with me.”

Outkast, Jim Jones, Fabolous, Nelly Furtado and Murder Inc. singer Lloyd are just some of the other artists Wayne has worked with. His key has been doing the most consistent guest spots — not just the most. Wayne’s career before Tha Carter series was good: As a member of the Cash Money Millionaires, he helped set trends, sold out concerts and made millions. He had so much style that his phrases — like “bling-bling” and “drop it like it’s hot” — became pop-culture mainstays, but he wasn’t exactly the go-to guy for hip-hop quotables.

Now, Wayne has hit a whole new stratosphere. He’s evolved into one of the top-tier playas in his field, truly on another planet with a chosen few. What’s even more amazing than his incessant output is the fact that he writes nothing down in the studio. It’s the same method used by greats like Notorious B.I.G., Ja Rule and Wayne’s idol, Jay-Z.

“I haven’t [written] a rap [down] since I was 16,” said Wayne, who laughed off the notion that former Cash Money artist Gillie Da Kid ghostwrote some of Weezy’s rhymes for the first Carter LP. “Sometimes I have ideas in my head, things I may have wanted to say, but I have a little notebook that I write my ideas down. If I feel like it’s good enough to write down, I put a little check mark next to it or something. But other than that, I think it’s best if you go into the studio with nothing. Somebody gives you their song, or you approach a song, they gonna get the full thing. If you were contemplating it, then anyone could do it.

Wayne’s performance on 2004′s Tha Carter brought him back in the game. When the disc was released, Cash Money Records seemed to be on its last leg. The roster had lost acts like Juvenile and BG, and Wayne seemed to be in a musical rut. Southern artists such as T.I., Ludacris, Young Buck and Lil Jon were eclipsing him in mass appeal and quality of music.

“That album was a rebellious album,” he said of Tha Carter. “Because at that time, everybody was gone. When you got people forcing you to do something, you start looking for reasons to do it. That was my answer to all those people. I knew [the responsibility] I had on my back at the time. I knew if it ain’t hot, then Cash Money would be gone forever. Then I was left with the option also, ‘Do you even want to drop the album under Cash Money?’ ‘Cause that was putting me in a position because I could still be hot, but if the album wasn’t hot, then Cash Money would be gone and Lil Wayne would be gone. That’s when you started hearing rumors about [me going to] Roc-A-Fella and all that.”

Not only did Tha Carter turn out to be Weezy’s reintroduction into the forefront of Southern hip-hop, the LP became more than just a regional sensation. Furthermore, Wayne stayed with the label he’d been down with since he was a preteen.

“That was like a building moving off my back,” he said about staying under the wing of the man he calls his “pa,” Cash Money CEO Bryan “Baby” Williams, instead of going with other executives like Jay-Z or then-Def Jam CEO Lyor Cohen. “Like I said, it was pressure, but under pressure, I ain’t gonna bust. That’s what I’ve done. … Quality is key, but once I made that decision [to stay], I got some sleep.”

Wayne’s tie to Cash Money is more than just, well, money; it’s a family affair. His relationship with Baby is deeper than just naming their duet LP Like Father, Like Son — they’re like actual blood relatives.

“He’s my first son,” Baby told New York radio personality Angie Martinez of his bond with “The Birdman Jr.” The two are so close, they can greet each other with a kiss on the lips and couldn’t care less who it surprises.

Wayne released his first album when he was just 12 years old. The now-adult Weezy credits his growth as an artist to the freedom given to him by Baby and his brother Slim.

“I remember they used to make me rap when I was down with the team at 11,” Wayne said. “It’d be in front of people like Bun B, and they’d be like, ‘Rap for them, rap for them.’ And they’d make me rap and they’d all laugh at me. It was just too cute. I’m talking about guns, and I’m like, ‘Why y’all laughing?’ And I think that’s why they never tried to tell me to do this or do that, because they didn’t have to.”

Like Father, Like Son dropped on Halloween, and I Can’t Feel My Face should be dropping sometime in late winter or early spring. After that, Wayne’s pulling out his big big gun, Tha Carter, Vol. 3 (see “Busy Lil Wayne Says ‘I Am The Kobe Bryant Of Hip-Hop’ “ ).

Tha Carter 3 is amazing, man,” he said, playing a few tracks that might make the LP. “I’ve been talking to people like Kanye, these people I never even imagined knew who I was. They could be like, ‘What up, Lil Jon?’ — yes, people have come up to me and said that before — and I wouldn’t think nothing of it. But Kanye called me personally and told me, ‘I’ve gotta work on Tha Carter 3.‘ And [Andre 3000], he wants me to put something out with him. He’s got a production thingy he’s working on. And I’ve been recording already, and everything I’ve recorded is crazy. But like I said, it gets better and better. I can imagine whatever I do after this will be crazy. With those people’s help, that ain’t fair.”

So what does it feel like to be one of the best? Wayne admits he still doesn’t know yet. He won’t feel like the best until he’s hands-down everyone’s pick.

“Yeah, a unanimous decision,” he reiterated about what it will take for him to feel he’s truly musically superior. “Everybody like, ‘Jay’s the best. Biggie’s the best.’ That’ll be my goal.”

And another goal is to sell at least 5 million units of one record.

“I think I need that one too,” he chuckled. “I mean, come on, 5 million? That’s a lot of money, if you make it to that company. That company gives you executive spots after that. You be on the verge of Wayne Records. But I think I gotta do that. We gonna get there.

“I ain’t nowhere near my goal. I’m just having a great time getting there.”

For more on Lil Wayne, check out the feature “Lil Big Man.”