Synonymous with rapper Lil Wayne's raspy, crackling voice is his near constant stream of track releases--experimental beats, albums, collaborations and cameo appearances on songs--more than 300 tracks in the 18 years since he began his rap career at age 9. So when the eccentric artist began serving a one-year jail sentence for weapons possession on March 8, a question loomed: Could Lil Wayne maintain his prolific pace from behind bars?
Thus far, the answer has been a resounding yes, thanks to some manic preparation. During his first five months at Rikers Island other artists have released at least 23 tracks featuring guest appearances by Dwayne "Lil Wayne" Carter, including a remix of Drake's Jay-Z collaboration Light Up, for which Wayne contributed verses by phone from jail. By our estimates, he actually earned more money this year ($20 million) than last ($18 million), in part thanks to a plan dreamed up by Wayne's camp in the months before his incarceration.
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"We thought that although he would be away from the public eye, it's so important to keep the audience fed," says Jeffrey Panzer, executive producer of Wayne's videos. "You're as hot as your last hit."
Wayne maintained a frenetic pace during his last weeks of freedom, traveling with a mobile studio so that he could record more music during his down time. In one 48-hour period over Super Bowl weekend, Wayne shot nine music videos. Panzer says pieces of 11 other videos were also recorded over that weekend, many for songs none of them had heard yet. Ninety percent of the scenes were shot on a green screen so the concepts and backgrounds could be added later, and many people heard the songs for the first time on a Mac computer on set. Says Panzer: "The hardest part was deciding which ones to do, because Wayne has so much music."
This clever marketing plan, aided by some strokes of luck (two delays in sentencing--a stay to allow for the completion of exhaustive dental work to remove Wayne's grills, and then a fire at the Manhattan courthouse where sentencing was set to take place), has kept the jailbird on the scene. "He's kind of reached that rock star status," says Troy Marshall, vice president of rap promotions for Interscope Records. "The consumers are in love with him."
Lil Wayne isn't the only one of hip-hop's cash kings to turn a jail sentence into marketing clout. 50 Cent parlayed a short stint in state custody into a gritty image and a lucrative recording career, and Senegalese crooner Akon used (and often exaggerated) his jail time to launch brands including Konvict Clothing and Konvict Muzik. Rapper Clifford "T.I." Harris finished serving a one-year sentence earlier this summer and promptly scored a deal to become the global spokesperson for the French cognac Remy Martin.
Lil Wayne won't be signing any endorsement deals from Rikers, but he has an extensive support network waiting for him when he gets out. There's his record label, Young Money Entertainment, which was thrust into the poposhere with "Bedrock," not to mention his red-hot protégé Drake, whose debut album Thank Me Later sold half a million copies in its first week.
Lil Wayne's camp launched a website, weezythanxyou.com, in early April, that sells "Free Weezy" T-shirts and asks fans to write to the star in jail. He responds personally to some.
When he gets out he'll have to get down to business finishing his next album, Tha Carter IV, which he arguably needs to be a success in the wake of shaky reviews and sales for Rebirth, his rock-tinged album released Feb. 2, a month before he began his sentence. "Even in the hands of audacious Lil Wayne, rap-metal still ends up sounding ghastly," quipped The Guardian.
"I think at the end of the day, if he puts out a hot record, people will be back on the Lil Wayne bandwagon," Marshall says. "I guarantee that as soon as he's out, he'll put out two or three singles back to back, and they'll be hot."