It looks like Lil Wayne is finally off of Cash Money Records. Yesterday, news broke from The Blast — a somewhat dubious source — that the iconic rapper had been granted a release from the label and settled his $51 million dollar lawsuit with Universal Music Group and his father figure Birdman for an undisclosed amount. The settlement opens the door for Weezy’s long-awaited Carter V album, but it also officially closes the door on an era.
Lil Wayne, Drake, and Nicki Minaj were arguably the biggest trifecta in rap history at one point. Sure, Death Row had the classic picture of Snoop, Dr. Dre, and Tupac, but retrospect reveals that Dre had one foot out the door by the time Tupac had signed with the label in 1995. The three artists never actually made any music together. YMCMB consisted of three platinum-selling artists all jumping on each other’s songs, wanting to see each other win, and respecting the hierarchy with Wayne and Birdman at the top. Unfortunately, Birdman didn’t reciprocate the respect.
The New Orleans native is renowned for his status as a pioneer of southern rap, but he’s also become infamous for not paying his artists, or basically anyone else. He’s been sued for nonpayment by producers Bangladesh, T-Mix, and David Banner. He didn’t pay Pharell and Clipse for their appearance on 2002’s “What Happened To That Boy,” which is the genesis of the feud between Clipse and Wayne that evolved into the Pusha T and Drake beef.
Birdman and Cash Money burst onto the mainstream scene in 1998, but there is a first generation of Cash Money artists like Mr. Ivan, Lil Slim, Lil Ya, and Tec 9 who sued the label over not being paid in the early ‘90s. Birdman settled with many of them and found a new crew of hungry teen artists called the Hot Boyz. One by one, that second wave of artists also began to gripe with Birdman about not being paid their fair share of music profits.
B.G. of the Hot Boyz left Cash Money in 2001, and his groupmate Turk left in 2002. Cash Money soundscaper Mannie Fresh left in 2005, saying “I left Cash Money because of money, scratch, moolah.” Juvenile left in 2001 — and again in 2005, noting in 2012 that “my reason [to leave Cash Money] is the same reason most artists leave their label — money.” Wayne was the last man standing from The Hot Boyz and took it upon himself to will the label to new heights in the mid-2000s. A torrential stream of riveting mixtapes and high-profile features led up The Carter III, an album that sold a million in its first week and officially crowned Wayne as a hip-hop superstar. Birdman rapped on “Always Strapped” that he “bet the house on the young ‘un and we got paid.”
Wayne was probably thinking the same thing about his signing of Drake and Nicki Minaj. As he was ascending the charts, he began to formulate his Young Money crew, a Cash Money subsidiary, with Nicki and Drake as his flagship artists. Jas Prince, son of Houston rap pioneer J Prince, discovered Drake. Jas’ involvement is why J Prince has called Drake “a friend” and used his considerable influence to protect the Toronto rapper, most notably in his recent lyrical dustup with Pusha T. By the time Wayne had released Carter IV in 2011, Drake and Nicki Minaj were stars in their own right, with Drake arguably being the biggest. Wayne wasn’t the jealous type, however, as he was positioned to eat well off of their sales in perpetuity — or so he thought.
In 2014, Lil Wayne began to get the ball rolling on Carter V. He released his “Believe Me” single with Drake — even though he hadn’t yet received his album advance from Cash Money, which his manager Cortez Bryant contends that they were always issued. Wayne decided to push forward with a nationwide Drake vs. Wayne tour to stir anticipation for the album. By the time the tour had ended, Cash Money told Wayne that they still didn’t have his advance. Bryant says that Wayne was annoyed but nevertheless pushed forward in the name of family. Birdman was Wayne’s solitary mentor since the rapper was 14, which gave them a deeper bond than most artist-CEO relationships.
Their relationship became untenable when Wayne had allegedly reached a lucrative, then-revolutionary agreement with Google to release the Carter V as a free streaming album, but Birdman and Universal nixed the deal — even though they still didn’t have Wayne’s advance.
Backed into a corner, Wayne took to Twitter in December of 2014 and told his fans that he “want off this label and nothing to do with these people but unfortunately it ain’t that easy.” That’s an understatement. A month later, Wayne sued Cash Money for $51 million, not just for his share of the $100 million advance the label had received, but for allegedly unpaid proceeds from Young Money albums. Additionally, he asked to be released from his Cash Money contract. For the last four years, Wayne and Birdman have been embroiled in a contentious cold war over the lawsuit. Birdman maintained publicly that everything was fine, but Wayne’s conduct, such as yelling “f*ck Cash Money” at shows, showed otherwise.
Their fractured relationship made things awkward for Nicki and Drake, entities in their own right who were caught in between the squabbling, onetime father-and-son-like duo. By 2014 however, Drake began to feel Wayne’s pain. Jas Prince, who discovered Drake and essentially gave him to Young Money, sued Cash Money in 2014 for unpaid royalties. In 2017, he sued Cash Money again, asking for another $10 million in unpaid royalties. The last lawsuit is still unresolved, which made the steely J Prince call Birdman out in February for “bad business.”
The term might as well be tattooed on Birdman. In 2016, Wayne alleged that Birdman had spent over $70 million of the $100 million advance with no actual records of where the money went. Birdman is so averse to recompense that at alleged gunpoint, he told industry veteran Wendy Day — who negotiated his $100 million dollar deal with Universal — to sue him in order to get paid instead of just paying her. Even the prospect of a bullet couldn’t get Birdman to just pay someone what they’re owed. Day joins a long line of people who helped set up Birdman for life, but haven’t received their just due — if anything — from the flashy figure. It looks like on the 20 year anniversary of the Cash Money deal, that mindset is finally coming back to bite Birdman in the ass.
The Blast, an outlet similar to TMZ in their desire to get in-depth details, wrote in their report that Universal will be recouping what they paid Wayne largely from Drake and Nicki Minaj’s future projects — implying that Birdman may be frozen out from receiving proceeds. That circumstance may serve as poetic justice in the last act of an executive more known to millennials for taking advantage of artists than building them up.
As much as the stereotypical face of musical exploitation is perceived as a white executive, there are also Black executives whose greed renders them just as uninterested in looking out for their own people. His career arc is a classic tale of a music executive exploiting gifted artists who saw him as a savior. B.G. and Turk both recall using heroin as teenagers under Birdman, who may have seen it as advantageous to look the other way on their usage — in the same manner as Wayne’s syrup and Xanax demons kept him off his entrepreneurial game. It’s an old ploy that harkens back to shady managers enabling the heroin usage of Black jazz musicians like Billie Holliday.
There’s a video clip from Lil Wayne’s documentary where he happily poses atop a vehicle Birdman bought him, not unlike the scene in which Birdman gifted him a million dollar watch. Wayne expressed joy in both videos, not knowing that the gifts would prove to be in lieu of much more lucrative payouts the chart-topper was owed.
It looks like Birdman may once again get his wish of not having to pay someone, as Universal is paying Wayne themselves — but he’s made an epic long-term blunder by losing out on a crew that had the work ethic, talent, and fanbase to run the 2010s and beyond. Birdman failed his “son” Lil Wayne, but karma hasn’t failed to come back around for him.
Correction: A Previous version of the article stated that Cash Money signed a 50/50 deal with Universal Records. The deal was actually 80/20.