April’s issue of Interview features a bold cover of idiosyncratic rap star Lil Wayne shot by Bjarne Jonasson, styled by Karl Templer. The stark monochromatic close-up is accentuated with gold touches in the art direction that bring a suitable sense of bling to the star who never entirely departs from the stereotypical iconography of rap but always brings a little twist or special flair to his rendition of the look.
Inside, there is an extensive interview with the former child prodigy of the genre who has since reached a new maturity by none other than Paris Hilton and Dimitri Ehrlich. An extended shoot of Lil Wayne by the creative team responsible for his image on the cover accompanies the article. Here, a deceptively simple device of playing with colour to bring a kind of dissonance between high-contrast monochrome and an almost trippy psychedelic rainbow spectrum (a nod to Lil Wayne’s personal style) has an unexpected effect. If the palette is one that we have come to associate with sickly sweet imagery of children’s illustration – the kitschy world of unicorns and My Little Pony- its effect here is rather macabre. Lil Wayne becomes something commanding and a little scary, a bit like Genesis P. Orridge’s Temple of Psychic Youth tribal aesthetic in a head-to-head clash with Mad Max. Heavily tattooed Wayne, sporting the heavy metal end of collections by Diesel, Levis and Calvin Klein customised by Search & Destroy, looks good but not exactly friendly. And that’s as it should be: who wants a rap star to look like a pussy?
As his lengthy chat with Paris and Dimitri reveals, Lil Wayne is one of those rap culture combinations of qualities that continues to present an enigma – and hence ongoing fascination- for the broader American psyche, highlighting as it does some of the more uncomfortable contradictions of social relations in contemporary America. A successful and hardworking student, Lil Wayne first entered the rap scene at a precociously young age and, even with all his smarts, he has hardly been a stranger to some of the bad boy antics or violent realities that are tied up with the rap scene. Nonetheless, for all the hand-wringing and anxieties that Middle America retains about rap and it concomitant culture it does remain one of the routes by which young black Americans without access to expensive educations or venture capital can make something of themselves and forge a financial independence. Perhaps what entirely scares white America about it is that, like organised crime’s concerted moves to legitimise its operations from the 1960’s onwards, the underlying risk of falling foul of the law is still probably less of a risk than falling foul of social injustice and a system in which poverty really is not far from death. As we have seen time and time again, the rap industry’s cost-benefit analysis of making headway in the USA tends to see legitimacy as something that it will attain on its own terms and not always in step with the enforcement of law.
Lil Wayne’s own story is far from the badass cliché that remains associated with rap thanks to the ongoing representations in bad TV movies speaking to middle-class America and apparently ‘from the streets’ stories told to vulnerable kids with screwed up expectations from the other side of the tracks. If you want to know how different, then you should read the insightful interview with Paris and Dimitri.
Yet, as one of the current music industry success stories – about to launch his ninth album on his own label Young Money Entertainment that also happens to be the label responsible for spotting hot talents like Drake and Nicki Minaj- and a former teenage star now reaching maturity, Lil Wayne personifies the challenges facing those in his position. As becomes clear in the interview, he is at once successful, solvent and talented and happily embracing his good fortune whilst being highly conscious of the need for some authenticity within it all. Rap, after all, is big business these days. And, no matter what the outer appearance, the lore about big business corrupting the soul equally applies.