Lil Wayne has a smoke-scarred rasp that makes him sound like Redd Foxx covering Bob Dylan. It's hardly the voice you'd expect from a 25-year-old rap star, but then, it's been a busy 25 years.
Born Dwayne Carter Jr. and raised in Hollygrove, a New Orleans neighborhood famous for producing soul singers, Wayne signed his first deal at age 11 after rhyming on a record executive's answering machine. At 12, he distinguished himself by starring as the Tin Man in his gifted middle school's production of The Wiz--and by accidentally shooting himself in the chest with a .44-cal. while imitating Travis Bickle in his bedroom. After teenage years that were lost to the comically awful gangsta group Hot Boys (like 'N Sync with shivs), Wayne went solo and undertook a transformation almost unprecedented in hip-hop. Over four years, he morphed from a mediocre rapper with a thuggish point of view into a savant who merges sex, drugs and politics with a sneaky intellect, a freakish knowledge of pop culture and a voice out of the Delta. Whether Wayne is, as he claims, the "best rapper alive" is no longer even debated in hip-hop or commercial circles.