Can Lil Wayne's Career Thrive Despite Prison Sentence? Experts Weigh In

Experts point to T.I.'s careful strategy of good works and steady single releases.

The parallels are eerie: Two young rappers at or near the peak of their powers are taken down by gun charges that result in plea deals sending them away for a year. While T.I. is currently serving a yearlong sentence for his attempts to buy machine guns illegally, Lil Wayne copped a plea on Thursday (October 22) to attempted criminal possession of a weapon that will send him to prison for a year.

With multiplatinum sales of Tha Carter III, a smash summer tour with his Young Money crew and anticipation still high for his long-awaited Rebirth album, Wayne is one of the biggest names in hip-hop right now. The sentence has the potential to be a career momentum killer for the rapper. Or does it?

"It depends on the artist," said Marc Byers, former manager for rapper Beanie Sigel, who faced his own career stoppage when he was found guilty in 2004 of federal weapons charges and spent a year in prison. "Wayne is probably the hardest worker in the business. He's made the strongest impact, so it will probably be easier for him to make a comeback."

Given the possibility that Wayne could serve as little as eight months, Byers thinks that if the rapper's team built up enough music and shot a couple of videos — similar what Sigel and T.I. did before their incarcerations — Weezy could easily come back just as strong.

"It's never a good time to go away, but if you are an artist who can withstand it, like T.I. or Wayne ... Look at T.I., he's away and he's picking up MTV awards, BET awards," Byers said. "Wayne's the top guy now. He can definitely make it."

Former Island Def Jam publicist Shante Bacon, who has worked with everyone from Kanye West to Ludacris, Method Man and Ghostface Killah before starting her own 135th Street Agency, agreed that the combination of the relatively short sentence and Wayne's legendary studio stamina should mean he'll walk out just as, if not more, popular than he was before.

"If he were the average artist with an average drive, this could be a momentum killer," she said. "But one thing Wayne has proven over the past six to eight years is that he's hungrier than 98 percent of the people out there. It might slow him down temporarily, but he's proven to everyone that he's not gonna stop, and maybe he'll just work harder and be smart about it."

Bacon said that if she were advising Wayne, she'd suggest he do what T.I. did: stockpile as much music as possible to remain visible while he's away. "The strategy implemented before T.I. went away was genius. ... They got five, six singles off the album and kept him visible for a year while they were awaiting the sentence, and it was his hottest year ever. By no sense of the imagination has he gone away, and that won't happen to Wayne." Even without Rebirth, Bacon pointed to the eagerly anticipated album by Young Money protégé Drake that is coming soon, which she predicted would help keep Wayne in the spotlight as well.

The T.I. parallel is important for another reason, according to veteran publicist Jody Miller: "It's a tremendous opportunity for him," said Miller, who worked with Tip last year on a voter initiative called Respect My Vote. "Look at T.I., he went away a hero because he took a bad situation in his life and turned it around and made it work for his career and fans, and he touched people with a positive message."

Miller said that Wayne has a similar opportunity to make a positive change by talking about what happened to him and telling fans that he's learned from it and is going to do his best to avoid similar situations in the future. "He's scheduled to release a new album in December, so that's actually good timing in terms of when he's supposed to go away," she said. "It's up to [Cash Money founders] Slim and Baby to utilize whatever they can to keep the momentum going and for Wayne to do as much as he can before he starts serving his sentence."