Last July, at the start of Lil Wayne’s performance at Jones Beach as part of the America’s Most Wanted Music Festival tour, I was jogging through the Nikon Theater’s deserted food court beside an anxious publicist. Wayne had just gone into a booming rendition of “A Milli,” accompanied by onstage fireworks and the collective scream of roughly 15,000 people. “I’m sorry, but we’re gonna have to put you in the sound booth,” the publicist shouted over the din. The media, apparently, was not allowed near the stage. “Wayne’s tour has been a total mystery!” she continued. “I’ve been doing this for 12 years, and the only act that wouldn’t let photographers shoot from the first row was Barry Manilow! Because he’s old and didn’t want any close-ups!”
A similar shroud of mystery has surrounded The Carter, an incendiary new documentary about the rapper, scheduled for release on iTunes and as a DVD next week. The film follows Lil Wayne on tour through Europe and the U.S. in 2008, during the heady months that his last album, Tha Carter III, went platinum. Thirty-year-old director Adam Bhala Lough is given access to Wayne’s bus and hotel suites, where Wayne is seen smoking staggering amounts of weed and tirelessly recording on portable studio equipment he carries around in a black duffel bag. Unlike Bob Dylan, who received similar vérité treatment in D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back, he never writes anything down, he says. He’s afraid his notebooks will be plundered and exploited, like Kurt Cobain’s journals.
The Carter is packed with Lil Wayne’s music, all of it carefully contextualized according to fair-use laws. Subtitles are appended to most of his songs as they’re played on stereos, improvised in studios, or performed live, highlighting the rhythmic complexity of his lyrics. But Wayne’s “persona,” as he calls it, is the main attraction. When told Tha Carter III sold over a million copies, he grins indifferently and says, “The Mets fired Willie Randolph today.” He gets the letters “ESPN” (like the channel) tattooed on his triceps. He dispenses wisdom (“Repetition is the father of learning”) and dismisses an interviewer for asking silly questions, such as, “Is there jazz in your poetry?” “No, sir, there isn’t,” Wayne replies, ending the conversation.
The Carter debuted at Sundance earlier this year to wide acclaim; indieWIRE called it the best film at the festival. But on January 23, its fourth and final night, the film was mysteriously pulled from the screen. And, two months later, Wayne’s management, Young Money Entertainment, filed a $50 million lawsuit against the film’s production company, QD3 Entertainment, in an effort to block The Carter‘s release.
“I was flabbergasted, honestly,” recalls Quincy Delight Jones III, founder of QD3 and son of music legend Quincy Jones. He has worked in music and media for almost 30 years, composing tracks for Tupac Shakur: Thug Angel and producing the renowned TV series Beef, about infamous MC grudges. “I’m like the Forrest Gump of hip-hop,” he jokes. “And yet I’ve never had a dispute or legal suit of this nature.”
Before Sundance, Wayne’s team had objected to an undisclosed scene in the film.
“We made the change, even though their approval period per our agreement had passed,” Jones recalls, adding that he’d wanted to preserve the relationship and avoid putting Wayne in jeopardy. The two camps were in the middle of negotitions when Young Money suddenly pulled the trigger on the lawsuit. The 26-page document accused QD3 of breach of contract, character defamation, invasion of privacy, and other wrongful conduct. It stated that Lil Wayne was denied his right of final approval over the film’s contents, and that a number of “highly damaging and objectionable scenes” were allowed to remain. These included “scenes related to drug use or alleged drug use,” which might have “an adverse affect [sic] on his pending criminal trials” for gun possession in New York and drug possession in Yuma, Arizona. Moreover, they claimed QD3 had the “intent to vex, injure or annoy Lil Wayne.”
Although it is never explicitly stated, one can assume the scenes in question involve Wayne sipping and discoursing on prescription-strength cough syrup. At one point, he withdraws a large Vitamin Water bottle full of “sizzurp” from his Louis Vuitton suitcase—”Vitamin Water ain’t that thick,” he wheezes. Throughout the film, he’s shown mixing it with Voss and A&W Root Beer, and drinking the concoction from a double-, sometimes triple-stacked Styrofoam cup. Of course, this should surprise no one remotely familiar with Lil Wayne, author of the love song “Me and My Drank,” who once demonstrated how to blend syrup with Hawaiian Punch in a widely viewed 2008 YouTube clip.
Still, these scenes might have constituted a violation of privacy, had Wayne not been fully aware they were being filmed. “We only shot what he wanted to shoot,” Bhala Lough tells me. “He’d invite us to film a show in Atlanta, or inside his hotel room in Amsterdam. He’d ask us not to shoot certain things, and we complied. So to be told it was slanderous? I thought they’d made a mistake.”
Days before Sundance, QD3 producer Josh Krause had screened the film for Wayne aboard his smoke-filled tour bus in Hollywood, later reporting that the MC loved it—that he was laughing and singing along with himself onscreen. More recently, a rapper with ties to Young Money revealed that Wayne has been watching The Carter constantly on his bus, even burning copies for friends.
When I ask Lil Wayne’s L.A.-based attorney, Ron Sweeney, whether there’s anything to these rumors, he replies, “If what you’re hearing is true, there would be no lawsuit.” So was it fair to say that Wayne objected to the way he was depicted in the film? “My standard answer to that is, ‘No comment.’ ”
In April, a California Superior Court Judge dismissed Young Money’s request for a preliminary injunction, freeing QD3 to seek distribution. Last month, a disclaimer was added after the opening credits, calling Wayne a “true American artist” while regretfully indicating that he has withdrawn his support. Wayne’s guilty plea on October 22 to attempted criminal possession of a weapon—for which he is expected to be sentenced in February and serve at least eight months—has not affected the film’s release.
“The last time I talked to Wayne was on the last day of shooting,” Bhala Lough recalls. “He was amazing to work with. He’s got a really big heart. It was probably the most positive filmmaking experience of my life.” He pauses. “I wish I could just ask him what happened.”