I caught a screening of The Carter, the Sundance Award winning documentary produced by Quincy Jones III (a/k/a QDIII) and directed by Adam Bala Lough at a local theater about nine years ago, on the day before my birthday. I’ve never been connected enough to get invited to a private screening, but one of my best friends (the filmmaker/artist/entrepreneur Lyndon McCray) had the connections an an extra pass, so I got the opportunity to watch the doc and attend a Q&A with Mr. Jones 1 in a theater setting. I didn’t think that I would be among the few to watch The Carter in a theater. Although the film became a hit on digital streaming and home video (and became one of the most critically acclaimed pop music documentaries of all time), it never had a run outside the festival circuit and was tied up in years of litigation between Wayne and the film’s producers.
I wrote some thoughts on the documentary for my tumblr later that month, a modified version of which follows below. At the time I wrote the post, Wayne was at the height of his powers. When he described himself as ‘the best rapper alive’, very few (other than the purists) laughed. In the four years that followed, Wayne served some time on a weapons possession charge in New York and released four more studio albums – Rebirth, I Am Not A Human Being I and II and Tha Carter IV. He’s also released an impressive number of mixtapes. Almost every song on each album/mixtape is slightly disappointing – his lyrics are less focused and his delivery has become generic. His forays into other genres (Rebirth was his rock album and he’s done a bit of auto tuned crooning) have been unsuccessful. He’s less relevant but he still moves units. I don’t think anyone outside of Wayne’s crew and family thinks that he’s the best rapper on Cash Money/Young Money, let alone the ‘best rapper alive’.
The Carter is a brilliant documentary that follows Lil’ Wayne on the road in the months before the release of tha Carter 3 and ends shortly after the album proves to be a monumental success. During a period when some of his contemporaries were struggling to combat irrelevancy and piracy, Wayne was one of the few rappers (along with Jay-Z, 50 and Kanye) who figured out how to thrive in the mid-late aughts. Jones told the audience in the post-screening Q&A that one of the reasons that he pursued documentary film was to expose the general public to the artistic brilliance of hip-hop, and this film embodies that goal in ways that are admirable and slightly unsettling. The admiration that the folks behind the film have for Wayne is apparent from the first scene, but Jones and Lough avoid a hagiographic approach or the standard ‘rise and fall’ narrative to simply observe Wayne in his natural environment. I appreciated that they chose to avoid the direct cinema approach – with a subject like Wayne, it might have come off as too artificial. Wayne frequently addresses the camera directly, and the viewer is constantly reminded that the cameras are only present at Wayne’s pleasure. Everyone portrayed in the film is, from his nameless entourage to his manager, his daughter, hell, even to Bryan ‘Baby’ Williams (Wayne’s ‘father’/mentor/future nemesis/co-founder of Cash Money) is expendable. Because if there is one message that this movie sends the audience, it’s this: Wayne doesn’t need anyone. As a result, Lough’s fly on the wall approach – one that we typically associate with a sense of intimacy – creates distance between the viewer and the artist.
Here are some things that we do learn about Wayne from this documentary:
1. Wayne may have a substance use disorder.
The movie begins with the humorous revelation that Wayne enjoys marijuana. Throughout the rest of the movie, we are treated to a number of scenes featuring Wayne with a blunt, and a lot of frank discussions about drug addiction and substance use. Wayne’s troubling abuse of “syrup” (a concoction made of soda and cough syrup (which contains codeine and promethazine) that contributed to the deaths of DJ Screw and UGK’s Pimp C) is directly addressed a number of times, most poignantly by his childhood friend and manager Cortez Bryant. There are very few scenes of the movie that don’t feature Wayne and a Styrofoam cup filled with syrup, and we are treated to his preparation of the drink on several occasions. The Wayne/syrup controversy is well-known in the rap community, but there’s a real difference between knowing and witnessing. 1 Wayne’s substance use haunts the film. It informs everything that we see and subverts the story that Jones and Lough intend to tell.
The films forthright depiction of substance use has its limits. We hear Bryant’s perspective on Wayne’s syrup use, but we don’t see the larger context. A number of mcs from the first generation of artists signed to Cash Money – Wayne’s earliest colleagues and mentors – have struggled with addictions to heroin, cocaine and/or syrup. There have been persistent rumors that the label’s founders (Baby and his older brother Ronald “Slim” Wiliams) were involved in drug trafficking – some suggest that the label was started with illicit funds as a money laundering scheme and others suggest that the label was a front for ongoing activity. There are darker rumors suggesting that Baby and Slim supplied their artists with drugs and encouraged their habits in order to financially exploit them (an impaired artist is less likely to notice if they’re being shorted on a royalty payment or a check for a live performance). I’m not sure if there were any moments in the film in which Wayne was not intoxicated and the audience is left to speculate how his substance use influenced his behavior.
2. Wayne is alone.
Wayne is surrounded by people for much of the film, from journalists to label-mates to the aforementioned anonymous entourage. It evoked the feeling of being alone in a crowd of people. In one scene, Bryant confidently tells the viewer that Wayne is alone on his tour bus, quickly followed by a cut to Wayne surrounded by his entourage on the bus. We’re meant to think that Bryant is hilariously out of touch, but his statement felt true. Wayne is in a room filled with people, but he is completely alone. He ignores the flunkies and friends surrounding him to focus on meticulously mixing his drinks or displaying exaggerated bravado. I was struck by the quietness of a scene where Wayne and his crew were half-watching ESPN. There’s none of the raucous cross-talk that you might expect from friends watching sports highlights. Wayne does talk, but mostly to himself. This may have been a deliberate choice by the filmmaker, but there are a number of scenes with a similar tone.
3. Wayne is a musical genius.
“Repetition is the father of invention.” – Lil’ Wayne.
It’s difficult for a filmmaker to capture the ineffable process of making music, especially if one’s trying to do so for a rapper. Watching someone’s brow furrow as they think of a clever line is not anyone’s idea of compelling viewing. Filmmakers grapple with this in a number of ways – by having the artist explain the meaning behind his lyrics, or demonstrate rhythmic patterns/wordplay (think Jay-Z on 60 Minutes). The Carter solves this problem by showing how hip-hop has consumed Wayne’s life. We watch him record almost constantly – in studios, in hotel rooms, and on his tour bus. We listen to Wayne’s charming (but sometimes painful) efforts to play instruments and sing. Most importantly, we listen to Wayne rhyme.
In the world outside The Carter, there are a lot of distractions that impede a full appreciation of Wayne as a lyricist, ranging from personal controversies (see above and his impending incarceration for a gun charge) to his style of rhyming (he raps briskly, with verses that tend to overlap, and punchlines that follow one another in quick succession). The Carter helps those unfamiliar with Wayne’s music understand him by displaying verses on the screen, and showing Wayne rhyme without accompaniment. The former is occasionally distracting (and detracts from the verite vibe of the doc), but listening to Wayne perfect a part of his verse, repeating it at different speeds, alternating cadences, adding/removing words … is amazing.
Wayne is a perfectionist and a workaholic, and the film does a great job of portraying that, particularly in the scenes at the Hit Factory. I’ve heard a lot of Wayne’s songs, and have always appreciated their spontaneous, almost rushed quality. Wayne usually sounds as if he’s in some kind of fugue – he’s not quite freestyling, but he’s in some quasi-ecstatic state, blending the profound and the profane. The Carter taught me that this is entirely (or mostly) a calculated effect. Although Wayne alternates between boredom and provocation in the junket interviews, he becomes animated when explaining what he does – he may spontaneously dream up fragments of verses, but continually refine them until they achieve his goal. It’s craftsmanship masquerading as inspiration. Wayne tells the camera that constantly recording relieves mental pressure, that his mind is so filled with ideas that he needs this outlet for release. That may be partially true, but it shouldn’t distract from appreciating the craft behind his music.
In the Q&A, someone compared this movie to the famous Bob Dylan documentary, Don’t Look Back. I think that argument holds merit in more ways than one. Dylan was always an artist that confounded audiences and critics by appearing to be whatever they imagined, whether hippie, genius, or prophet. Wayne carries on with this tradition – at the end of the film, you don’t know very much more about the man than you did when you came in.
1. In a perfect world, every movie would end with a Q&A. A few years ago, the woman to whom I am related by marriage and I saw Good Dick, which featured a great Q&A with Jason Ritter and Marianna Palka. Since then, I’ve really developed an appreciation for them. In a really perfect world, Elvis Mitchell and Terry Gross would magically appear to do these panel discussions.
↩2. Just as an aside, I really think that the movie highlights the pitfalls of treating substance abuse/addiction as a moral failing, character flaw, or a crime instead of a problem that needs to be solved. Even though Wayne’s emotional issues (and the addictive qualities of syrup) are probably the main reason he can’t stop using, I think that popular conceptions about addiction in the black community contribute to the problem. We associate drug use with failure, with an inability to function as workers/family members in society. We don’t condemn drug use because it’s harmful to your health, or because addiction tends to be an indicator of deeper emotional/psychological issues, but because it hampers productivity. So if you’re a successful, highly productive person, you don’t associate yourself with the homeless crack-addicted person on the corner, even if you exhibit the same addictive behavior. There’s a point in the doc when Wayne bellows (paraphrasing) “Could a junkie do this?” Probably not. But it’s hard to imagine Wayne at 40, or 50. How long can he live like this? For a fascinating discussion about uncoupling crime from morality, listen to this interesting diavlog between Mark Kleiman and Reihan Salam (crime, punishment and incentives), and between Kleiman and Megan McCardle (substance abuse and addiction). Check out Kleiman’s intriguing book, When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment here.↩