Portrait of an Artist: “The Carter” Documentary

Regardless of whether you’re a Weezy fan, a hater or just indifferent to the rapper, The Carter documentary is a meditation on creativity, addiction and stardom. It’s up there with The Beauty of Questions as great filmic portraits of artists. Except while the protagonist of The Beauty of Questions, Robert Irwin drives across town for a Coca-Cola with crushed ice, Wayne sips syrup out of two styrofoam cups and argues that cocaine should be put back in Coca-Cola.

The Carter is not a bio-pic. It doesn’t attempt to tell Lil Wayne’s life story or explain much at all–at least not in any overt way. Instead, you get to watch Wayne record music, listen to music (mostly his own), sip syrup and punk off interviewers (I haven’t seen anyone give it to journalists like this since Bob Dylan did his thing in Don’t Look Back).

One of the most interesting scenes in the film begins with an interviewer asking Wayne whether he sees himself in the tradition of New Orleans music. Wayne responds that, given that he’s from New Orleans, the music he makes is going to be New Orleans music. Then he clarifies that he has no connection to–or interest in–brass band music or second line music. The reporter doesn’t get it and says, “The point I wanted to get to is, there’s some form of jazz in your poetry?” Wayne quickly comes back, “No sir, there isn’t.” The reporter still doesn’t get it and goes on to ask, “So you never did any kind of poetry?” At this point, Wayne ends it. He asks “Miss Kia” to get the reporter out and doesn’t say another word to him. The reporter asks what he did wrong, but to the rest of us it’s clear: he’s trying to turn Wayne’s art into something it’s not–perhaps thinking he’s going to validate it or contextualize it by connecting it to jazz or poetry. Whatever the case, Wayne’s not feeling it. He has no interest in playing along with someone who can’t appreciate his art on its own terms.

Throughout the film, you see how serious Wayne is about his craft. He’s constantly recording. This is no surprise to anyone who follows his career. In the last decade he’s put out six albums, at least 14 mixtapes, and has made over 80 guest appearances on other artists’ songs! If not the hardest working person in show business, he’s definitely the most working…

So it’s not surprising to see him spending time in recording studios like the Hit Factory, as well as in makeshift studios in hotel rooms and on the tour bus. What did surprise me was that he often seemed to be recording alone–no engineer, no entourage, just him, setting up a mic stand and recording himself from his laptop.

While nothing is written down, he has a clear sense of what he wants to say and how it should sound. Early in the film we see him in a hotel room in Amsterdam recording an early version of his verse for “Swagga Like Us”. Halfway through the verse, he comes to the line, “I have class” and then stops abruptly, saying to himself, “nnmm, he has class.” He goes over to his computer and runs it back to re-record.

“When you record a song an element of freestyle comes into it?” a reporter asks later in the movie. “Um, no,” Wayne corrects. “There’s a difference between that and freestyle and i don’t want nobody to get it wrong… Freestyling is more so coming right there off the dome and that’s not what it is. I stop.. I think my shit out… Okay.. I got something. Put it on there.”

In another scene later in the film, he asks a studio engineer to bring the track back because he wants to add something… He waits, listens and then adlibs one syllable (“pain”). The headphones come off. Now it sounds right.

“I can’t front, I listen to me all day,” Wayne confesses to another interviewer. “Only because I’m tryna critique…what I shoulda said…what I didn’t say…” He may sound conceited, but at the same time, it’s further evidence: dude is serious about his craft. Inspiring for artists of any type. Unprompted, at one point, he turns and gives the following lecture to the camera:

“Repetition is the father of learning
I repeat, repetition is the father of learning
intelligence–all that comes from repetition
awareness, preparation–all that comes from repetition…
rotation, record spins–repetition
TV spots, awards–repetition.”

Then he shows the camera a smiley face tattooed on the inside of his lip.

No doubt Lil Wayne’ll leave a legacy through his art. But his other legacy will be through his daughter, Reginae. In two brief interviews, it’s clear she’s wise beyond her years, plus she’s got a sweet persona…and rhyme skills!

But that’s the future. For now, it’s tour buses, autotuned surrealist verses, face tattoos, a briefcase full of hundred dollar bills and a whole lot of syrup.

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