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Lil Wayne goes to prison: Why his career will survive

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Image Credit: Carlo Allergri/Reuters/LandovLil Wayne will sleep in a cell tonight, now that a judge has formally handed down the one-year sentence the rapper agreed to when pleading guilty last fall to a July 2007 weapons crime. (His original sentencing date last month, pictured, was postponed so he could undergo dental surgery; it was delayed a second time last week due to a courthouse fire.) If he’s lucky, Wayne could get out after eight months for good behavior; if not, fans won’t be seeing him again ’til March 2011. Either way, that’s a long time in today’s 24/7 pop culture news cycle. How will his career weather the time-out?

It would be easier to brush off that question if Lil Wayne’s new album were selling faster. His tepidly reviewed Rebirth debuted with 176,000 copies sold in February, and its totals haven’t exactly surged since then. (On last week’s chart, Rebirth moved 37,000 units, a 36 percent drop from the previous week‘s 58,000, which was itself a 35 percent decline from the week before that, and so on.) To be clear, those aren’t egregiously awful results at all, just middling compared to what he’s done in the past — and right now, this is an artist who could really use an unqualified smash hit to keep his profile raised. If Lil Wayne were putting up Tha Carter III-style million-in-a-week numbers as he headed to prison, his camp would surely be breathing easier.

That said, Lil Wayne and his team have been doing everything they can to keep him on fans’ minds while he’s away. He told MTV News he’d shot seven new music videos the weekend before his second scheduled sentencing hearing, on top of the nine new clips he made immediately before the first one, and untold stores of new songs he’s rumored to have in a vault somewhere. That’s a lot of material to strategically ladle out over the next eight to twelve months.

And the fact remains that Lil Wayne is still a major cultural phenomenon by any measure. Hundreds of thousands of people followed him when he joined Twitter two weeks ago, no doubt eagerly awaiting his stockpiled music and video content. Many of Lil Wayne’s fans have cared about him for years, and seeing him spend the rest of 2010 behind bars probably won’t change that. It might even make some of those fans more determined to stick with Lil Wayne and welcome him back as enthusiastically as possible when he returns — just imagine how quickly those first post-prison concert tickets are going to be snapped up. While going to Rikers Island obviously isn’t an entirely good career move in itself, it does set the stage nicely for a 2011 comeback narrative that could be absolutely huge.

How do you think Lil Wayne’s prison term will affect his career? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

(Follow the Music Mix on Twitter: @EWMusicMix.)

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