Lil Wayne: Sippin On Syrup At Sundance

In the shockingly intimate documentary about him that premiered Saturday night, superstar rapper Lil Wayne is laid bare in several different ways.

He’s shown as a guy with a protean work ethic and a creative process unlike any other hip-hop performer. A child prodigy turned relentless showman whose only solace comes from creating music — Wayne is thought to have recorded over 1,000 songs and has contributed guest verses on dozens of others. He doesn’t bother to write down any of his lyrics but nonetheless retains total recall.

But the primary talking point of “Tha Carter” is certain to be none of those things. In the film, Lil Wayne’s biggest professional liability gets thrown into stark relief. It’s something that has managed to hide in plain sight throughout the rapper’s rise from underground mix-tape phenom to the biggest selling act of 2008 and this year’s leading Grammy nominee: his addiction to perscription cough syrup.

You see scenes of Weezy chugging the stuff mixed with soda out of giant styrofoam cups throughout the documentary. He raps about it more than a few times — the lyrics of one song spelling out his devotion to the drug are emblazoned across the screen. And in another scene, the New Orleans-born rapper opens a Louis Vuitton travel case and there, next to a pile of rubber-band-bound money as thick as a brick, he points to a bottle of Glaceau Mineral Water that is filled with the viscous purple syrup.

That drug of choice might seem random — or totally ridiculous, depending on your point of view — for anyone unfamiliar with Southern hip-hop culture. But there, it is as commonplace as smoking copious weed (something else Lil Wayne is caught in the act of doing in “Tha Carter”). The high you get from syrup — also commonly known as “purp,” “drank” and “sizzurp” a la the Three 6 Mafia banger “Sippin’ on Some Sizzurp” — is woozy, spacey and all-encompassing. It spawned a sub-genre of Texan rap called Chopped and Screwed in which a song’s tempo and a rapper’s vocal pitch are slowed way down — to sonically replicate the state of a person who has imbibed a lot of perscription cough syrup fortified with codeine, hydrocodone and/or promethazine.

Which wouldn’t be so much of a problem if so many other hip-hop people hadn’t died as a result of complications from sippin’ on sizzurp. Among them: the guy who started the Chopped and Screwed genre, DJ Screw, Pimp C of the rap group UGK and Houston rapper Big Moe.

In “Tha Carter,” Lil Wayne’s childhood friend/DJ/manager Cortez Bryant is so upset by the rapper’s syrup addiction, he refuses to set foot in Weezy’s tour bus. “He knows it’s a sickness,” Bryant says in one scene. “But what it is, deep down, I don’t think he wants to be dead. But it got to that point. It escalated.”

In the documentary Lil Wayne (shown in a YouTube clip from a concert last January) denies any addiction. “A junkie can’t do what the [bleep] I do,” he says. “I am the ultimate high. I am my drug. Understand me?”

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