If rapping is that which he was born to do, skateboarding is what Lil Wayne has worked damn hard to get good at.
Since he first began touting a board five years ago at the age of 29, Lil Wayne has purchased a skate park of his own and ramps that he can fit with him in the recording booth, launched a skateware line called Trukfit, inked the logos of other elite brands onto his face, taken spills, and improved immensely. But perhaps most impressively, he's stuck with it.
Now he's preparing to rededicated himself to the sport with the initiation of a sort of unofficial Young Money skate team, which he announced with the release of a smartphone game, eponymously titled SQVAD Up, earlier this summer. The squad's starting lineup (all represented via unlockable characters in the game) includes Tyreek "TJ" Morrison, Yosef "YoYo" Ratleff, Andre Colbert, Jereme Knibbs, and Edgar Benitez—none yet household names, but skaters all carefully considered by Lil Wayne himself.
"I think he tested us all out and he feels comfortable around us," explained Jeremy Knibbs over the phone while enjoying a moment of downtime during a skate trip he was attending for Nike SB in Chicago.
Now 24-years-old, Knibbs first met Lil Wayne in 2013. He was working at The Boardr in Tampa when the well-known skate shop got a call seeking someone to skate back-up (like a dancer ) for Wayne on his worldwide America's Most Wanted Tour. "I had the time to go and do that," he recalled. "The next day I was on a flight to Alabama, and then I didn't go home for about four months."
For Knibbs, who still skates with Boardr and counts Bones Wheels, Santa Cruz Skateboards, Nike SB, and Rockstar Energy Drink among his sponsors, the benefits of being part of SQVAD Up extend beyond the board. "Being around Wayne is a plus because Wayne and his whole crew are very, very smart people, so I get to learn a lot about life and business and how to handle everything," he said, noting that Wayne recently sent him home with a reading list after hearing he had an interest in psychology. (He's since checked off one title, Thinking Fast and Slow.) "I think he sees something in us that he wants to bring out. He wants to further our skateboarding and also just help us with whatever we want to do in our life, build us up to be bigger than what we are."
Being a fan of high fashion, Tyreek "TJ" Morrison, a 22-year-old who learned how to skate while growing up across the street from Lil Wayne's baby momma Toya Wright's house in Atlanta and now describes himself as being "just around the corner" from going pro, also appreciates SQVAD Up's investment in individuality. "I don't really see eye-to-eye with a lot of skate brands, because a lot of it is cliche as hell to me—same graphics, same politics. I like different stuff, and I feel like this SQVAD Up stuff is super different," he said, speaking from the Atlanta home he recently purchased for himself and his brother. "It's cool if you go cash out on some sneakers. It's cool if you wear Raf Simmons when you're not skating. Sometimes I get looked at by other skaters, like, 'Why are you wearing them shits? Those aren't Vans.' This is a lifestyle, I like living off the board as well."
Which is also to say: the payday that comes with being on a major label rapper's team ain't bad either. Even though he first got into skating after watching a dude in a fresh outfit fall off his board and still "look fleek," Morrison isn't too humble to admit that "flying in private jets is fly as hell too."
"I'm super core at skating, but like, I want to experience that type of stuff also."
When we're at the skatepark, we're all little kids again. We're all falling together, we're all learning tricks together; it probably feels more normal [for Wayne].
For now, the SQVAD Up skaters are paid by Young Money for the time they spend on tour and otherwise bankrolled by the companies behind collaborations like the smartphone game. However, both Knibbs and Morrison confirmed with VICE that Wayne's management team is currently at work ironing out a more formal deal to keep the skaters around. "[They are like,] 'What the fuck? He's really taking this shit seriously and now we got all y'all little niggas,'" laughed Morrison.
Logistically, "we're a liability," he added, ticking off just a few of the ways: "Us skating on the tour. Us dipping from the hotel to skate and almost getting locked up. Us bringing chicks back to hotels and shit."
But for Lil Wayne himself, it seems that the SQVAD is less a nuisance than a sort of sanctuary from the rap game, which he's teetered at the top of since he was a Hot Boy.
"He's probably used to being around rappers, people trying to do songs and stuff," Knibbs offered. "But when we're at the skatepark, we're all little kids again. We're all falling together, we're all learning tricks together; it probably feels more normal. It's something he can learn, and it's probably a new type of reward feeling when he lands a new trick compared to when he figures out a new verse for a song."
And there is a lot for Wayne to learn if he wants to be able to keep up with his new teammates—but he's getting there. "He had some tricks [when I first met him], but he's definitely gotten better over the years," Morrison said. "He definitely could already ollie and drop in, he had a few tricks when I first met him, but now he has a variety of tricks where he can go to any skate park and find something to skate."
The young skater added, "He try to be cocky, but he got to understand: we all good as hell. He's like the bottom of the totem pole when he's skating with us. [But,] he's the kind of person who will go to a session and be like, 'I'm going to try this.' And it will be the hardest shit where it's like, 'Dog, you sure you want to try that?' He will not stop until he gets that."
Which is not to suggest that skating is a replacement—or distraction, even—from music for Wayne. He may join the SQVAD for sessions before and after shows, but all combined, Morrison assured me that Wayne still spends more time behind the mic than he does on a board.
"He's a libra, their thing is balance, and he's nice with it," he said. "People need to understand that Lil Wayne is also a skateboarder now. This is something that he does. He likes skating, but he's still Lil Wayne—Tha Carter V is coming, he has some heat."
Follow Zara on Twitter.