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Saturday, 18 April 2009

Lil Wayne in Rolling Stone

Much has already been said, especially in the US, about Lil Wayne's forthcoming rock album. The man who had the biggest selling album in 2008 is switching his game up and following up his multi-platinum Tha Carter III with a rock album. It's a bold move, no doubt, and rightly gets him on the cover of Rolling Stone, bible of American music.

I try to get through a lot of music press, so don't always have time to sit down and read all the main features, but this one caught my eye and I read every line of it. And I'm glad I did because there were a few sentences in there that took me right back to my record company days. I worked in the press office of a major label and handled the UK PR for some of the biggest rappers of the time (I left the label in 2006), so I read the Wayne/RS feature by contributing editor Mark Binelli with a combination of personal interest in the article and professional scrutiny of what was actually being said. I also know how some lines that might seem innocuous to a casual reader can in fact cause enormous stress and drama for the professionals involved in the piece, be they in the artist, magazine or record company camp.

So here's some selections and the thoughts that went through my head when I read them...

RS writes: It's not clear whether this latest artistic transformation will go down as a disastrous act of hubris or another brilliant career move that broadens the definition of what's allowed in hip-hop. The first single, Prom Queen, with a video featuring members of Korn, unfortunately points to the former path.
What I thought: This was the first of a few negative comments about Wayne, and specifically his change of direction. Of course, there's no rule that says just because you put someone on the cover of your magazine you have to blow smoke up their ass, but as an artist it's rare to hear many negative words about Wayne, and I thought it very telling that they'd put him on the cover when that comments strongly suggests that they have artistic reservations about what he's doing. From a PR perspective, it's also the sort of thing that management will swoop on, probably justifiably questioning why the hell their knocking the record before it's even out. Of course, it could simply be a dig at Korn, but I doubt that.

RS writes: When I tell Wayne the rock album makes me think of Michael Jordan deciding he wanted to play baseball, he ignores the negative connotation of the comment - the fact that Jordan was thoroughly mediocre at baseball and transformed himself, overnight, from dignified retired sports icon to national punch line - and instead chooses to focus on the fact that he's just been compared to Michael Jordan.
What I thought: Another dig at the rock album, comparing it to a famously ill-judged career move, but done in a way that really stood out as great writing for me - very clever. What did make me uncomfortable though was this paragraph smacking a bit of superiority complex - the writer came across to me as smug that he'd made a reference that was too smart for Wayne to see the true intent of. The fact that elsewhere the piece makes several mentions of Wayne's passion for sports only serves to enforce this feeling. That aside, it was a cleverly made point and a good illustration of what the writer was trying to say. If I was his PR though, I'd have taken that as an insult and probably felt it unnecessary.

RS writes: "E.I. (Wayne's road manager)...says of Wayne, with a mixture of admiration and amusement, "He got people doing everything for him. Driving his cars. Getting him drinks. Getting him bitches. He's a step away from people breathing for him. I cut that nigga's steak!"
What I thought: Okay, from a PR point of view this isn't really a problem - rappers are well known for their financial extravagance (think Diddy's butler) and they don't try to hide that - but it crossed my mind that E.I. might not be in a job for too much longer. First rule of being around a journalist - nothing's off the record. Would Wayne really be okay with this? Depends on what kind of guy he is I suppose, but that kind of loose talk isn't really an asset for anyone in the artist's camp. E.I. does bring it back round in the next paragraph by explaining that when Wayne's in the studio he only has eyes and energy for his music, so in that context maybe this isn't such a bad thing to have let slip. Again, from a PR perspective, it's often the PR who will get it in the neck for letting this slip through the net, whether they could have reasonably prevented it or not, so my stomach dropped when I read this, remembering a couple of all-too-recent times when similar things happened on my watch.

But those are just three examples - there were other references to Wayne's entourage and apparent army of assistants, as well as a second mention of the Michael Jordan analogy where the writer takes it a step further and says that the quality of Wayne's rock tracks is such that it's more like Jordan "deciding he always wanted to be a baseball mascot". Ouch.

So there it is. None of that's a dig at RS - the writing in it is always excellent, and I like it when magazines have opinions and don't just restate facts, and this was a fascinating example of them having opinions to the point of being quite explicitly critical of their cover star. What's above is just a little insight for anyone who's never worked in music PR. It is, as they say, a funny old game.

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