You know you're bad if you can convince DMX to lie in a bathtub full of blood and Lil Wayne to take a bite out of his own heart. Weezy F. Baby is spread out on a doctor's gurney while yet another Weezy F. Baby, dressed in eyeglasses and a white doctor's jacket, stands above him with a heart. The heart is in his hands, and he's about to take a bite. Photographer Jonathan Mannion is working his magic.
"A couple concepts," Mannion explained on the shoot's Miami set. "We got Dr. Carter, Mr. Carter, we got Lil Wayne. There are alter egos happening, and we're going to present that to you all day. He's got an album — he has songs that he wants to define. He's kind of gone on a journey and explored his character, and it's definitely pushing the envelope a little bit from the expected Lil Wayne and what's gone before. Dr. Carter is one of the characters he's created. I heard the tune yesterday — it's unbelievable. On a surface level, it's about him breathing life back into people's careers. That's only my layman's translation, but it's pretty incredible. We're going to illustrate that the best we can.
"Another scenario that we're gonna do is sort of old money, sort of a big-time boss behind the desk," Mannion added. "A little more CEO, a little more corporate, but kind of with a twist. There are a lot of rappers that have stepped up, and they jump into a suit with a pocket square, and they look sharp, man, all of them. But I think this one is going to take it one step farther."
Mannion has been one of hip-hip's most heralded since 1996, when he got his first gig, shooting the album artwork for Jay-Z's Reasonable Doubt. Since then, he's photographed the likes of Notorious B.I.G., Slick Rick, Allen Iverson, Eminem, the Game, Dr. Dre, 50 Cent, Kanye West, Outkast and countless others. His relationship with Weezy dates back to 1999, when he captured the Cash Money Millionaires for an XXL magazine cover.
"I don't know if he was 11 at that point. I think maybe 15," Mannion recalled. "But [he was] definitely a little kid and doing little-kid things: eatin' candy bars and drinking Hawaiian Punch.
"[Once] Wayne wanted to shoot in a casino," the photographer added. "Baby's idea was, 'Yo, let's go to the casino, we'll do some stuff by the slot machines.' This was in New Orleans, and [Wayne] couldn't get in because he was underage — they wouldn't let him in. He's a funny guy and a real easy dude to deal with. His disposition is really calm."
Although Mannion ultimately lost out on the cover shot for Tha Carter III to Wayne's mom (she shot the baby pic of the Birdman Jr. that graces the jacket), the photography from the Miami shoot is still part of the album's packaging and is the single artwork for "Lollipop."
We pulled the photographer aside to get some of the stories behind Mannion's most iconic album shoots:
Jay-Z's Reasonable Doubt
"I spoke to Damon Dash first [about shooting the album artwork], and he goes, 'All right, cool. Nice pictures. What are you going to charge me?' And I was like, 'I'll do it for 300 less than your lowest bid.' I was talking hundreds. ... I was like, 'Just let me do what I want to do, man. My vision.' I went with Jay on the creative stuff and had a whole list of things. Then he changed his title. I don't know if it's common knowledge, but it was originally going to be called Heir to the Throne. That was a title that was tossed around. Reasonable Doubt came around, and I came back with a whole other set of ideas. They styled themselves. I told them I didn't want the whole Versace, 'Scarface,' Miami Mafia drug-running kinda thing. I wanted the New York, the Brooklyn Mafia. Little Italy surveillance, the real business."
DMX's Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood
"I met X on the set of '4-3-2-1.' I was shooting behind the scenes. X was like, 'That's my dude. That's my man. That's who I want to do my cover.' So then [we shot] It's Dark and Hell Is Hot — came up with the iconic shot of him with his arms crossed and his shirt off, which really captured who he was at that moment. Then he wanted to push borders out a little bit farther with Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. That we shot in L.A. He was down with taking a chance. It took some convincing to get him into a bathtub full of blood. But it happened, and I think now it's one of the most recognizable pictures in hip-hop. It was horse blood. We slaughtered a horse. Nah, I'm kidding. I don't wanna reveal the secret of what it was. Leave the mystery, buy the book. I really went deep as far as my research. I wanted something that was like, 'Whoa!' And he was willing to take it there. He's like, 'Man, if you believe in it, I'll go with it.' "
"God, everything everybody says about her being an angel and being amazing, that is true but probably an understatement of how sweet she was. There were demands put on me that day of shooting. I produced literally to the minute, more production than I had ever done, just to make sure I got this. I wanted to shoot her. I don't know if there were other things [after this particular shoot], but I have been told this was her last photo shoot. [It was], like, two or three weeks before [her death]. I really wanted to do a good job."
Eminem's The Eminem Show
"The Eminem Show [cover] was sort of like, 'You see me onstage. You see me here, not ready to come out for the crowd exactly. But [I'm] behind the curtains and you caught a glimpse of it, like they opened the curtains too soon.' You just build up this dialogue that just becomes easy. To me, the relationship between photographer and artist is everything. People that you've worked with prior to shooting them, you already have that dialogue built in. They know what you're about, you know what they're about. I do my research. I want to hear music. I want to know what you're about. What's the name of the album? What inspires you? Where are you at in your life right now? All those things allow me to go one step deeper."
Lil Mama's VYP: Voice of the Young People
"I just did her album cover. I did it, I guess, last year. You know, it was when 'Lip Gloss' was poppin' and the lip gloss was cool. I don't wear lip gloss — I keep it ashy and classy. We shot it in my studio in Harlem. Great day. She showed up a little late, but talk about energy, man. She just doesn't stop. It's the next generation, it's the kids paving what their paths are gonna be. We just sort of ran around. And she had a set of ideas she really wanted to achieve. She wanted to be on the phone in a pink room, in a pink chair. So that was sort of a collaborative effort."