Breaking up is hard to do.
We’ve seen some pretty ugly public splits throughout the years: Burt and Loni, Alec and Kim, Nas and Kelis—complete with acrimony and scandal and settlements in the millions. But it looks like the divorce between hip-hop superstar Lil Wayne and his longtime label home Cash Money Records will go down as one of the ugliest splits in pop culture history. Wayne and his mentor, Cash Money co-founder Bryan “Baby” Williams, have been estranged for several months following Wayne’s Twitter tantrum last December, during which he slammed the only record label he’s ever known. “I am a prisoner and so is my creativity,” he tweeted. “To all my fans, I want you to know my album won’t and hasn’t been released because Baby and Cash Money Records refuse to release it. I want off this label and nothing to do with these people, but unfortunately it ain’t that easy.” In January, Weezy filed a $51 million lawsuit against Cash Money, alleging that the label owes him $8 million for the as-yet-unreleased Tha Carter V and that they also withheld accounting documents.
And this weekend, the bad blood between Wayne and Birdman took another bizarre turn. While the rapper was performing in Miami at Club LIV for Jim Jones’s birthday, Baby, who was seated in the balcony with his entourage, apparently threw a drink at his former protégé and cash cow. An Instagram video shows Wayne onstage having suddenly stopped his set; the camera then pans up to show Birdman staring down from a section above the stage.
Your ex throwing a drink at you isn’t anything that the average Love and Hip-Hop cast member can’t relate to, but the hostility between Wayne and Baby is especially significant because of their history and the uncertainty this represents for Cash Money going forward. Wayne has been with Cash Money since he was a pre-teen, releasing his debut at the age of 16 in 1999. As late ’90s Cash Money stars like Juvenile and B.G. departed the label, Wayne famously emerged as the wunderkind ready to not only hold Cash Money down in the new millennium, but a force that would push the label forward. Beginning in 2005, Weezy became the most famous of the all-new, all-different Cash Money Records and with the emergence of Nicki Minaj, Drake, and Wayne’s Young Money subsidiary, the label became hip-hop’s biggest hitmakers.
Through all of those transitions, the focal point of Cash Money’s public image was the relationship between Birdman and Wayne. Williams had been a father figure to a very young Wayne, who was just 9 years old when he joined the label; there was a level of trust there that was very different from previous label head-and-star relationships. Wayne called Birdman his “daddy,” and Baby likewise referred to Weezy as his “son.” They kissed Mafioso-style to show togetherness, they recorded a duets album called Like Father, Like Son, and their daughters even wrote a book together, 2013’s Paparazzi Princesses by Bria Williams and Reginae Carter. Wayne owes Birdman his career, but Birdman’s label thrived on the back of Wayne’s success—at this point, who owes more to whom?
And regarding the father-son dynamic at play here, the fallout between Wayne and Baby reveals just how wrongheaded it is for anyone to assume that there is any validity to the “family” dynamic often espoused by hip-hop imprints. The ceremonial chains, the fraternal vibe of rap videos—it’s all window dressing. This is always business. And it appears that while he was grooming his “son” and turning him into a star, Birdman and Cash Money Records were also exploiting a naïve kid who’d grown to trust in Baby’s paternal posturing. And as things get ugly and drinks get tossed, it’s obvious that Baby and Wayne are not above turning this split into the petty feud everyone expects it to be.
Birdman has already positioned Young Thug as Wayne’s successor and the biggest star on the label—and Wayne has fired verbal shots at the new kid. When it was expected that Thug’s album would be titled Tha Carter 6 (a dig at Wayne’s Tha Carter series), Weezy famously dissed Thugger back in March while performing on his Release Partiez tour in Mississippi. “I want y’all to do me a favor and quit listening to songs of niggas that pose naked on they motherfuckin' album cover,” Wayne told the audience. In response, Thug took the high road. “I understand that Lil Wayne is frustrated about his career, and I feel him on that, but this is my idol,” he said in a video posted on his Instagram account. “I wouldn’t ever in my life swap words with him or beef with him about nothin’. This is a person that I look up to. Ha ha!” Nonetheless, Wayne fired more barbs at Baby and Cash Money on his Sorry 4 the Wait 2 mixtape.
“Who kept this shit together? Nigga, me, that's who Who was there when niggas left? Nigga, me, that's who Cash Money is an army, I’m a one-man army And if them niggas comin’ for me, I’m goin’ out like Tony Now I don’t want no problems, I just want my money Ain’t gotta hold no conversation or my luggage Tell whoever’s countin' that I’m on a hundred Birdman Jr., more like Ugly Duckling.”
Many observers assume that Wayne’s Young Money fam—the Cash Money subsidiary that includes label mainstays Drake and Nicki Minaj—would be leaving with Wayne if and when he gets from under Birdman’s thumb. Drake’s early 2015 mixtape (album?) was seen by many as a contract filler as he speeds toward Views From the 6, his fourth official studio album and the final album under his current label contract.
As for Nicki, she told BBC Radio 1Xtra’s Charlie Sloth back in March that she believes things between Wayne and the label can be resolved “like family.”
“People know that I love Wayne and I have loyalty towards him, but I love Baby too. I’m very close to Baby, and I don’t think people know that,” she said. “I am banking on the fact that they’re gonna work this out like family. They’ve gone through things before just like family does and it is what it is. They gonna get through it. I’m not even gonna think that way.”It remains to be seen how all of this will play out. We’ve been here before. Snoop Dogg was the biggest star on Death Row Records for most of its tenure (don’t forget—Tupac was only a Death Row artist for about nine months), but in 1997, he had a nasty split from the house that Suge Knight built following the label’s fall from grace and some legal wrangling. He reemerged with a shortened name (since Death Row owns the “Snoop Doggy Dogg” moniker) and kick-started the second act of his career with the label that was Cash Money’s biggest rival in the late ’90s: Master P’s No Limit Records.LL Cool J was the name that built Def Jam—after all, he’d signed with Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin when he was only 15 and released his debut at 16. LL was a Def Jam mainstay from 1984 to 2009, before lackluster album sales and bad feelings (he was allegedly bitter that the president position was given to Jay Z instead of being offered his way) led to him departing hip-hop’s most famous brand. There is no crying in baseball and there is no love when it comes to the music industry. When all is said and done, we don’t know if Wayne will re-emerge unscathed. He’s long in the tooth in rapper years and there’s obviously a new generation of superstars already staking their claim to the game. But one can’t help but feel that he’s earned his freedom from a label that doesn’t seem to appreciate what he’s meant to it; and he’s earned the right to see who he is without the Svengali that’s steered his journey up to this point. Lil Wayne ain’t so lil anymore, and if Cash Money is still trying to play him like a kid, he should do all he can to sway public opinion while also fighting for what’s his. The guy has a right to that much.