Something is Rotten in the State of Cash Money

David Drake

By David Drake

on 12.05.14 in Features

The internecine intrigue and conflicts of Cash Money Records typically play out as furtive rumor and myth to the outside world, as if YMCMB were hip-hop’s own version of papacy. There were disquieting rumors of tremors in the façade, and there have long been darker
issues beneath the surface
. But externally, at least, they were an unconquerable, united force. That fragile illusion was finally shattered yesterday as Lil Wayne took to Twitter to announce his frustrations with Baby and Cash Money, who he claims have refused to release his album over his own wishes. He also stated that he wants to leave his label but is trapped. His concerns were retweeted in the area of 50,000 times:

These announcements managed to be both shocking and predictable. Shocking not just because they broke the seal of silence that surrounds YMCMB, but because the label seemed so often to defy gravity where others fell. But that’s why it’s ultimately unsurprising: All great empires crumble. Lil Wayne’s fissure with Cash Money took so long only because of how much weight and momentum they once had.

The edifice Slim and Baby created two decades ago had humble beginnings, it’s become hip-hop’s most enduring and massive success story through old-fashioned means: Identifying and pushing true star talent (and, perhaps, supporting them through questionable business practices). Though they’ve propelled everyone from Juvenile to Drake to the realm of superstardom, Lil Wayne was the biggest of all, one of the most popular rappers in hip-hop history and a manifestation of the outer reaches of the genre’s popular potential. In 2011, even Jay Z and Kanye‘s Watch the Throne was dwarfed in sales of Wayne’s Tha Carter IV  — and that came in the waning days of Wayne’s domination.

But there’s been a path of broken dreams along the way; in retrospect, it was silly to expect Wayne wouldn’t end up among them. (An “RT if you were signed to Cash Money at one point” tweet was retweeted more than 1,000 times, although this is probably — probably — not a scientific measurement.) Throughout its history, the label’s been known for signing artists (and signing them again) only to leave them in the wilderness. The rumors speak for themselves: Stars perform while Baby and Slim run the show; from Mikkey Halsted to Curren$y to Bangladesh, other artists write hit records for off-the-books cash and a chance at stardom, maybe, someday down the line. Mannie Fresh spent years walled off from the wider industry, unable to cash in on his true value as an artist. Older artists would trash the label and its short-term money, only to walk it back for a shot at continued relevance. (Even now, Juvenile has a record with a surefire Drake hook.) And for every Nicki, there were fourteen Mack Maines, talented artists stuck somewhere within the label hierarchy.

The one-sided contracts (or handshakes) apparently weren’t limited to the help, if Wayne’s tweets are any indication. (Pusha T gleefully took to Twitter to reignite his long-running feud with Wayne, posting a snapshot of the lyrics to his record “Exodus 23:1,” where he claimed Wayne’s label took half of his earnings.)

This is the dirty secret at the heart of the old monoculture industry, the loss of which is so frequently lamented now. It was entrepreneurs like Baby — and Master P and Puffy — who were behind some of the most successful popular hip-hop movements in history. True crossover commercial success came at a cost for many artists who either signed away a significant portion of their livelihoods, or, without the resources to start careers of their own, ended up ghostwriting, producing, or working on the sidelines for bigger artists. As Lil Wayne enters his twilight era, Baby’s attention is focused elsewhere: On the next generation of artists, particularly Wayne’s spiritual son Young Thug.

The situation must be poignant for Young Thug, who has repeatedly told anyone who would listen that Lil Wayne is his idol, the reason he raps. His earliest mixtapes were open displays of Weezy-worship in which the distinct persona he would evolve into was barely distinguishable. Now, he is being groomed by Birdman as Wayne’s successor: “He looks to me like an animal locked in a cage, ready to eat the world up,” Birdman told Rolling Stone earlier this week. “Without a doubt, he’s going to be a superstar. He’s special.” The sense of being replaced by a newer model might have something to do with the personal nature of Wayne’s tweets earlier this week. The rapper who once said, “Who’ll be there when I see the money? Just my daddy,” is now ready to break from him entirely. Wayne doesn’t just want off his label, he wants, “Nothing to do with these people.” For outside observers, it’s both the moment we always expected and the one we never saw coming.