Lil Wayne for Nylon Guys (January 2014)

It's only a few minutes past the time that Lil Wayne is scheduled to arrive at the shop of Parisian streetwear brand wize&ope, and already the crowd of fans amassed outside of its entrance is restless. Inside, a small group of journalists, generally more accustomed to tardiness, mill about, inspecting the various offerings—watches, hats, sunglasses, headphones—and the shop itself, which is designed to look like the inside of a spaceship. Wayne, who is in Paris for the fifth stop of his 14-city European tour, will be making an appearance to celebrate his recent investment in the company: Wayne has now become a major shareholder, and will help usher wize&ope into the American market. Every couple of minutes, there is an isolated squeal from the mostly teenaged crowd—false alarms—but still no sign of Wayne. On the other side of the narrow cobblestone street, some branches begin to shake erratically. A girl sitting next to me whispers: “Oh my God, they’re trying to climb the tree.” 

After another 20 minutes or so, someone starts blasting Wayne’s hit “A Milli,” in what might be a halfhearted attempt to summon him. Someone else presses a button on the wall that cues a spaceship noise over the speakers. I briefly talk to Victor Louzon, the founder of wize&ope and creator of its characters. “He’s very curious,” says Louzon of Wayne. “He understood the brand right away.” It does seem a little perfect that a brand whose mascot is an alien “who visited Earth to experience pop culture and enjoy Earthly music” (Wize) managed to link up with a Grammy Award-winning, multiplatinum-selling, world-famous rapper whose shtick also just so happens to be claiming that he “is a Martian” in his lyrics or, at the very least, Not a Human Being, in an album title (twice). 

Suddenly, the fans surrounding the store’s entrance erupt into a he-is-definitely-here-we-can-see-him noise level, and, moments later, he enters, everyone making way, though not forgetting to capture the moment—cameras snap, snap, snap—and then, just as quickly as he came, he’s gone again. He seems to be in the stockroom, though it’s not clear when he’s coming back out. Now that Wayne is on the premises, the energy in the store shifts from optimistically frenzied to tense: There are a lot of people here with recorders and cameras and video equipment, and not a lot of Wayne. 

When the rapper reemerges from the back of the store, Wayne’s publicist pushes me forward for an interview. Talking to Wayne—who has a hat covering his recently shortened dreads, a hoodie pulled up over the hat, and sunglasses pulled down, resting under his chin—is somewhat difficult. This is mostly because the timbre of his speaking voice, comparable to the sound of a Weedwacker getting started, is being drowned out by the similarly pitched din of conversation around us. I ask him why, of all the streetwear brands that would like to collaborate with him, he chose wize&ope, and lean in closely to catch the answer. He responds that he likes, in particular, that the brand is French and has never been sold in the U.S. before. “It’s pure to America,” he says coolly, “so I get to break its virginity.” 

He says this and smiles—his bedazzled grill glistening—in a way that feels at that moment like the rapper version of batting his eyelashes. I ask what new things he hopes to do with wize&ope in the coming year. “What they haven’t done yet is had me rock it,” he responds. “Me just coming out of my house with it on my wrist is enough for right now.” OK, gotta start somewhere. Then talk turns to the skate park near the venue he’ll be performing at the following night. His eyes widen happily. “It’s actually a pretty historical skate park,” he says. “It’s been skated in a lot of video parts.” Then he looks a little sad. “But given the fact that it’s right next to the venue, we might not be able to skate it.”

Skateboarding has become central to Lil Wayne’s identity since being released from prison in 2010, where he served eight months of a one-year sentence for possessing a loaded gun on his tour bus. In a separate drug possession case, Wayne agreed to remain sober for 36 months after his release, so, naturally, a hobby was in order. He hired Adam Ziegler, from Uptown Skate School in New York, as an on-call instructor, to tour with him for pre- or post-show sessions. Ziegler eventually relocated to Miami, where Wayne lives, to continue coaching him. While skaters are often wary of the sport being used as a cultural prop, the rate at which Wayne excelled quieted the critics. 

“IF YOU’VE BEEN WITH AVEC MOI FOR A LONG, LONG TIME MAKE SOME NOISE!” shouts Lil Wayne the next evening, at his sold-out concert at the Palais Omnisports de Paris Bercy, doing his best to incorporate a little français for his audience. Evidently, there are many True Fans in the house, and they respond accordingly, jumping and clapping and hollering with abandon. The stage is furnished with a few ramps, and while Wayne raps, the skaters on tour with him—two of them ride on the team for Wayne’s first fashion company Trukfit—travel back and forth, up and down, each guy patiently waiting for his turn to push off and go again.

“I see a lot of you out there with your Trukfit on,” he says to the audience. “Mur-cee bo-coop.” His French fans seem enthusiastic not just about his fashion venture, but American culture in general. A girl standing to my left shimmies around in an L.A. Lakers jersey worn as a dress; on the train ride departing from the venue that night, I share a seat with a fellow concert attendee wearing a flat brim with the word DETROIT embroidered on it and a T-shirt that proclaims REAL RECOGNIZE REAL. As the show comes to an end, Wayne grabs one of the skateboards on stage and hoists it into the air Simba-style. The audience, some of whom must have been at the store the night before, eats it up. Getting up close and personal with Wayne? Not always easy. The view from the crowd? Still quite a sight to see.