Listen Up: My Night With Lil Wayne
The notices went up early in the week, printed out on tabloid-sized school letterhead, taped to dorm doors and tacked up in the student center: A crew would be on campus over the weekend, filming a music video on the academic quad. It was the same way we were told about planned water outages and class registration dates, a mode of communication that I'm pretty sure only works at colleges with less than eight hundred students living on campus—or maybe just at my strange little alma mater, Oglethorpe University, a tiny liberal arts school that was built in 1915 on what were then the outskirts of Atlanta but was then gradually consumed on all sides by semi-suburban subdivisions, shopping centers, train tracks.
The neo-Gothic architecture of our academic buildings, so clearly visible from the bustling north end of Peachtree Road, made the campus a point of interest for passersby and a destination for couples shooting engagement photos (and, I suspected, for Harry Potter LARP-ers—though I never knew for sure). And apparently, in September 2005, it was deemed an ideal locale for filming a Lil Wayne music video.
I don't remember if his name was mentioned in the notes posted up around campus, but it doesn't really matter—I don't think any of my friends had a clue who this guy was at the time. It was months before he released Tha Carter II, which would be his mainstream breakthrough, and years before Tha Carter III would enable a nation of seventeen-year-old suburbanites to blast “A Milli” from the their parents' Honda Acuras while idling in Chili's parking-lots on Friday nights. It's surreal to think that there was a time in my life when I was unfamiliar with the concept of infant facial tattoos.
Alas, back in the dark years of 2005, the only Lil I knew of was Bow Wow, and even he had dropped the diminutive salutation years before. But that association was enough to suggest that this Wayne guy was some goofy, baby-voiced youngster, most likely at Oglethorpe to film a video for his song about dreaming of moving out of his parents' house for the wild world of dorm life. I liked this! It sounded kinda cute. But then I saw the fire trucks.
On Saturday night, returning to campus after some trip out into the city with my boyfriend, we were greeted by the frantic pulse of red and white lights blaring from trucks parked in the cul-de-sac between Oglethorpe's two main classroom buildings. A few weeks before, a student's pickup truck had spontaneously combusted in one of the parking lots, spewing a fireball into the air and inviting a swarm of DeKalb County firetrucks onto campus—that scene looked a lot like this one, actually, only with more flames and smoke and less... spotlights? And women in super-tight track-shorts?
We crept by the setup—wary, bemused.
Later, we got hungry. We called Pizza Hut.
“Oh, you're at Oglethorpe,” the guy on the phone said when I gave him my address. “You with Lil Wayne's people?”
“Lil Wayne's people just called and ordered a whole bunch of pizza.”
“Oh, uh, no. I'm not with Lil Wayne's people.”
The video they were shooting wound up being for "Fireman," Tha Carter II's lead single, and when it came out a few months later my roommates and I scoured the scenes for anything or anyone we might recognize. Most of the extras were guys from Lil Wayne's crew or strange girls with very round butts and very tight shorts, but there were a few faces we knew.
The girl on the far-left here, in the pink halter top, was a year behind me:
And this guy in the red t-shirt was the freshman-year roommate of my freshman-year roommate's freshman-year boyfriend:
And this trash can! I threw so much trash in this trash can!
And how many times did my butt go numb sitting in these auditorium seats during extra-credit art-film screenings and prospective-student panels (not class meetings because it wasn't a classroom but whatever)? Too many to count, truly.
And that tree! That tree was great.
Wikipedia says that the first scene of the video was filmed at the Josephine Louise Residence Hall at Tulane University, but that's not true, because this is most definitely the first floor of Oglethorpe's Hearst Hall. It's a classroom building—I used to do the learning there, y'all!
Also, this wood-paneled dorm-room? Totally the Hearst lobby. The crew, I'm sure, had to move aside all sorts of old lumpy couches and probably a portrait or two of James Edward Oglethorpe to set up this scene. This place is called the Great Hall—it's not all that big, but it was always nice for between-class studying. Or napping. Or making out with Weezy.
I missed all the filming that night, partly because I was too busy eating the pizza that I probably should have just charged to Lil Wayne's tab, and partly because—well. One look at this picture, taken for an “around campus” profile of me on the Oglethorpe website later that semester—and more recently dug up by these fine folks—will prove that, had I thought to saunter across campus and offer myself up as an extra of some sort, I likely would have been laughed straight back to the nerd-cave out of which I'd clearly just crawled.
But thank God for MTV2, which taped all the proceedings for Making the Video, and for YouTube, where you can watch the whole episode in two parts:
They get to Oglethorpe in the second section (nudged out of Houston by Hurricane Rita, apparently) but there are a few telling moments in the first half. "Travel with us on a journey with the young man who might possibly be the heir to the hip-hop throne," the voice-over instructs. The whole video seems like some kind of attempt to legitimize Wayne's own collegiate experience—he'd enrolled at the University of Houston earlier that year as a political science major—but it's feeble. He'd have probably been better off just setting shit on fire and riding around in a big red truck for three minutes instead of indulging in this strangely lame dorm-room fantasy, which looks nothing like life at Oglethorpe or any other college, anywhere, that I know of.
You can tell he's just stalling, dragging his feet, biding his time. In Making the Video, when Wayne is sitting in his trailer in Houston—still a student, at least ostensibly—waiting to film, talking to the cameras, he'd already released four albums (that's four more than Drake had under his belt when he was all but crowned the new prince of hip-hop last year) but he still feels like a guy on the edge of something. He makes some comment about the Cash Money guys wanting to make him big, to blow him up, and it's one of those things that seems so sure in hindsight, so absolutely inevitable, that it's hard not to nod at his prescience. Even the very first line of the song ("Shh, the fireman comin'") feels like a promise, or a threat—one of the kind that's so easy to forget when it doesn't come true, so easy to push under the rug with all the other would've-beens, but when it does happen, it takes on so much glittering import that it changes everything that came before.
And there's always that moment, that final brief spark in which someone is, for the last time, the person they were before became who they are. I spent nearly every moment of my own time in college, every second of my life on the Oglethorpe campus, hoping that moment would be my next one, and I think everyone I knew there did the same. I don't know if it's happened for any of us yet. It has for Lil Wayne, that's for sure. Two years later, my friends and I were all graduated and he'd kicked Houston to the curb. But I'll always remember that September night we shared under Oglethorpe's stoic gray-stone eaves, all of us eating Pizza Hut delivery, all of us alone together and on the verge.