Lil Wayne's black Cadillac Escalade glided to a halt opposite the Manhattan courthouse at Centre Street last month. Wearing a fur-lined parka with the hood pulled over his face, Wayne waited in the car until his lawyer arrived, then, with his fellow rapper Birdman along for moral support, the group made their way into the court house. Up on the 13th-floor courtroom of the State Supreme Court, the heavily tattooed hip-hop star pleaded guilty to attempted possession of a weapon in the second degree. The rapper will head to prison for a year, probably to Riker's Island.
It's a sad end to an otherwise banner year for the man Time magazine has agreed is the "greatest rapper alive". His album, Tha Carter III, won four Grammys in February, including Best Rap Song and Best Rap Album, while his 2008/9 tour has grossed more than $42 million (Dh154m), dwarfing similar outings by Taylor Swift anf the Kings of Leon. This year, his name has become one of the most searched terms on Wikipedia - beating Abraham Lincoln and William Shakespeare.
The question observers are asking now is will the court case prove to be a terminal blow for Lil Wayne's career, or just another dizzying reversal of fortune for the 27-year-old whose life has already been full of paradoxes? Born Dwayne Michael Carter Jr and raised in Hollygrove, a New Orleans neighbourhood famous for producing soul singers, Lil Wayne's childhood was eventful. He attended an elementary school for gifted children, but took to school every day a Glock pistol given to him by his drug-dealing mother.
He signed his first record deal at the age of 11 by rapping into a record executive's answering machine. At 12 he accidentally shot himself in the chest while pretending to be Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. By 15 he had dropped out of school and fathered his first child. Around this time he decided to ditch the "D" from his first name because Dwayne was his father's name, a man who, he said, had "never been in my life".
Lil Wayne enjoyed some success as a teenager, performing in a gangster rap hip-hop act, the Hot Boys, that Time described as "N' Sync with shivs". But then came the first astonishing turnaround in his life. During four years spent recording rhymes for mix tapes given away for free or over the internet, Lil Wayne morphed into a wildly creative rapper capable of breathtaking, free-associative dispatches from a dimension where the typical rules of hip-hop no longer applied.
"With the mixtapes, he was not under pressure to deliver something that sounded safe and commercially viable to his label," says Matt Mason, senior editor at Q magazine. "He could go into the studio, be as ambitious as he liked and have the track on the street the next day. It's made him refreshingly different." His psychedelic rhymes revelled in word play ( "My picture should be in the dictionary next to the definition of definition"), and withering self-analysis ("Don't believe in me, don't believe me/I graduated from hungry and made it to greedy").
With his cult status assured, he released two successful albums until in June last year, Tha Carter III sold a million copies in its first week, making Lil Wayne the first artist in popular music do this in 39 months. It also made him the undisputed champion of hip-hop. Since then, he's shown himself to be a restless and complicated star. He's a workaholic: in 2007 alone he released more than 150 tracks and told Q: "This isn't my job, this is my life. I don't hang out. I hang at the studio. I don't chill. Chillin's for dead folk."
Until recently he was taking a correspondence course from Houston University as well as writing a column for the sports magazine ESPN. A fan of the rock band Nirvana, he was planning a December 15 release for Rebirth, his long-delayed rock debut, as well as discussing the possibility of Tha Carter IV. But since New York city police raided his tour bus after a Beacon Theatre concert on July 22, 2007, and discovered a hand gun in his Louis Vuitton bag - a very hip-hop touch, that - all plans are on ice. Currently out on $30,000 bail, Lil Wayne is to be sentenced in February. (He is also facing unrelated drugs charges in Arizona.) Despite being street-hardened, this will be his first serious jail time. Can he turn this situation around?
Mason is in no doubt. "Tupac Shakur released Me Against the World while he was in jail and it spent five weeks on top of the Billboard 200 album chart," he said, "and Lil Wayne's probably already got the material to do something similar. "