NEW YORK - At 23 years old, Lil' Wayne has already coined a few indelible phrases. Few artists can claim the cultural impact of "bling bling," let alone "drop it like it's hot."
Though Wayne hasn't always gotten the credit for those phrases (largely popularized by others, including Snoop Dogg), he's not mad. Why should he be? His own fortunes have climbed steadily, peaking on his most recent album, "Tha Carter II," which was hailed by critics and debuted at No. 2 on the charts.
At a recent interview, Wayne's Manhattan hotel room appears a little like a college dorm room - and to some degree, it is. He has been studying (online) to get his undergraduate degree from the University of Houston.
While his room shows no trace of text books, it does contain other hallmarks of collegiate life: video games and a towel stuck under the door to contain smoke - Wayne is not bashful about smoking enough marijuana to make Ricky Williams blush.
The five-and-a-half foot tall rapper is also covered in tattoos, which even dot across his eyelids. As he rapped on Destiny Child's "Soldier," he's "marked up like the subway in Harlem."
Born Dwayne Michael Carter, Lil' Wayne - or Weezy - wrote his first rap at the age of 8. He's been making records for over a decade, but he says he "never took the Bow Wow route, never had the Romeo thing," alluding to two rappers who started young.
"Nobody ever looked at me as a little kid rapper - just a bad [filtered word] kid," he says. "I got rumors floating around me - I'm a man now."
The rumors about Wayne tend to involve his girlfriend, Trina, the 27-year-old rapper from Miami. He also has a 7-year-old daughter, born when he was just 15.
Growing up in New Orleans, Wayne idolized Bryan "Baby" Williams, co-CEO of Cash Money Records, the label of which Wayne is now president. In 1997, he was chosen for the popular teenage hip-hop group Hot Boys, which also included Juvenile, Young Turk and B.G.
"Tha Carter II" is now Wayne's fifth solo album, and the second installment of a planned 5-part "Carter" series. Though he has often rapped about his hometown in the past, the subject is given scant attention this time around - even after Hurricane Katrina.
"I don't have to prove anything. I am my city," says, Wayne, who now lives in Miami. "Nobody from my city wants to hear about my city."
He does touch briefly on New Orleans, including on the album's title track: "gangsta gumbo - I'll serve 'em a pot of it." But while many New Orleans musicians have been cast into the spotlight post-Katrina, it's not the kind of attention Wayne is interested in.
"The reality of it sucks," he says. "Why would you want to hear about it?"
One cause that Wayne does take up is the lack of respect Southern rappers receive. On one of the disc's finest tracks, "Shooter" (rapped over soul singer Robin Thicke's "Oh Shooter"), he confronts the hip-hop elite.
"To the radio stations, I'm tired of being patient/ Stop being rapper racist, region-haters.... This is Southern; face it/ If we too simple, then y'all don't get the basics."
"People come up here - up North, East Coast - and they won't be half as good as us, but they'll be highly boasted," he says. "Put 'em next to me, I'll eat their head off."
In the days after Wayne and Thicke performed "Shooter" on "The Tonight Show" in January, it became a minor sensation on the Internet, surprising hip-hop fans with Thicke's soulful passion and Wayne's clear, aggressive flow.
His latest single, "Hustler Musik," is similarly soulful and further proof that Wayne has more range than your average 23-year-old rapper. But the critical acclaim he has found isn't his goal; as he frequently repeats, money is always the real objective.
"I want to make sure my family's straight," he says. "I watch VH1 all day and I see these rich kids and they grow up and do nothing but just have VH1 cameras look for them at parties. I want my daughter and my sons to live like that."
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