The following is an excerpt from “Worth Writing About:” Lil Wayne’s Jail Journal Gone ‘Til November, from Diary As Literature. Another version of this essay was first published in the Ploughshares blog as Boredom in Lil Wayne’s Gone ‘Til November.
Lil Wayne is best known for not writing. He committed to freestyling all his raps around 2002, a couple years after his New Orleans rap group, The Hot Boys, broke up. Though not writing was a conscious decision made during the onset of his solo career, the habit itself grew out of necessity. He has said that his mother didn’t want him to rap and took away his notebooks, so he had to start just remembering everything.[i] Some of his later songs boast that he simply doesn’t have time to write his raps.[ii] Either way, not writing evolved his rap style. From mixtapes to features to albums, there seems to be no limit to his wordplay. He weaves together back to back metaphors (“Simon says: ‘shoot a nigga in his thigh and leg’ / and tell him catch up like mayonnaise”[iii]) and quick narratives (“my nigga T-Street know a girl name Dutchess / and every time he see her in the street she be cussin / I told him he should wave the black flag cuz she buggin / he said the pussy good he said ‘ya dig?’ so I dug em” [iv]). That sound isn’t about transcription—it’s about linguistic manipulation.[v][vi][vii]
But Lil Wayne would write again in 2010. That year, he was sentenced to do eight-months at Rikers Island in New York City for a gun charge. There, he wrote some raps that would later become parts of songs and also recorded a few verses over the phone (though this is where many people mark his decline as a musical artist[viii][ix][x]). But he wasn’t just writing raps during his sentence. He was also keeping a journal, which was later published as Gone ‘Til November: A Journal of Rikers Island. Gone is a collection of journal entries covering his daily routines alongside stories about other imprisoned people or his feelings about his artistic calling. Lil Wayne goes from situation to situation, routine to routine, jotting things down as he thinks them, which is a lot like his stream-of-consciousness rap style. Unlike his usual genre, however, turning to the journal validates Lil Wayne’s humanity, as finding his rhythm becomes a daily task of curating his life despite imprisonment.
It is well known that journal writing is an exercise in dignity. More specifically, journals kept in prison or jail become a means of inserting one’s own routines into the ones imposed on them—one that is about writing about the routine.[xi][xii][xiii] Michel Foucault’s analysis of imprisonment and power structures identifies certain patterns found in this literary trend.[xiv] Foucault explains that just as people are trained to be students, soldiers, patients, and people, routine is a vital part of conforming imprisoned people. Limiting what, when, and how they do things helps enforce their compliance: “the time table is an old inheritance… its three great methods—establish rhythms, impose particular occupations, regulate the cycles of repetition.”[xv] Wayne’s presentation of rhythm and repetition in Gone—the same foods, the same people, the same shows on television—are evidence of his boredom with the monotony of day-to-day life. Journaling about those conditions, then, both legitimizes and disrupts the power of the prison industrial complex. Foucault also highlights that, “hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.”[xvi] If constant self-censorship is a means of disempowerment, then writing about jail while in jail becomes a way of both watching and being watched—and more so for someone who is famous.
[ii] Lil Wayne, “A Milli,” Tha Carter III, 2008, album.
[iii] Lil Wayne, “Cannon,” Dedication 2, 2006, mixtape.
[iv] Lil Wayne, “Live from the 504,” Da Drought 3, 2007, mixtape.
[v] Bradley, Adam. Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip-Hop. (New York City: Basic Civitas, 2009)
[vi] Bradley, Adam. Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip-Hop. (New York City: Basic Civitas, 2009)
[vii] Perry, Imani. Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 83.
[viii] Dodson, Aaron. “Jail Changed Lil Wayne.” The Undefeated. https://theundefeated.com/features/jail-changed-lil-wayne/
[ix] Dodson, Aaron. “Jail Changed Lil Wayne.” The Undefeated. https://theundefeated.com/features/jail-changed-lil-wayne/
[x] Richards, Chris. “Rappers like T.I. and Lil Wayne can’t go to Jail without missing a beat.” Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/02/AR2010110205786.html?noredirect=on&sid=ST2010110205938
[xi] Archer, Jeffrey. A Prison Diary. (New York City: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2004)
[xii] Kesey, Ken, and Ed McClanahan. Kesey’s Jail Journal. (New York City: Viking/Penguin Group, 2003).
[xiii] Metcalf, Jerry. “A Day in the Life of a Prisoner.” The Marshall Project. https://www.themarshallproject.org/2018/07/12/a-day-in-the-life-of-a-prisoner
[xiv] Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. (New York City: Vintage Books, 1979)
[xv] Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. (New York City: Vintage Books, 1979), 149.
[xvi] Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. (New York City: Vintage Books, 1979), 201.