Last weekend Lil Wayne released a new track called "Grateful" as a Tidal exclusive. The credits read "Young Money Entertainment," but it doesn't seem to refer to the Young Money joint venture with Cash Money. Instead, in the thick of his legal battle with Cash Money, even as he insists his hands are tied from doing so, Wayne appears to be releasing music on his own, free from the Cash Money chains. "I won't see Stunna write checks to me / They can't put no more Weezy Baby out / That's that Cash Money vasectomy," he raps on the song. Yet just a few days earlier, Wayne unleashed a wave of retirement rumors as he tweeted, in reaction to his legal proceedings, "I AM NOW DEFENSELESS AND mentally DEFEATED & I leave gracefully and thankful I luh my fanz but I'm dun." So what, exactly, is going on in the courts, and where is all of Lil Wayne's music?
In 1991, at the age of 9, Lil Wayne became the youngest member of Cash Money Records. In the years which followed, Brian "Baby" Williams, a.k.a. Birdman, the owner and founder of Cash Money, would mentor Wayne and develop both his musical pursuits and flourishing A&R career. Wayne would carry Cash Money into the next century, releasing four RIAA certified platinum albums (in addition to seven gold albums) and entering into a joint venture with Cash Money to create a remarkably successful imprint, Young Money. Wayne held a 49 percent stake in the imprint, and it was his efforts that would advance the label's success, signing and developing some of the most popular artists of our time, like Drake and Nicki Minaj.
But in the midst of his come up, his relationship with Birdman deteriorated. During the early 2000s, a series of disputes led to a web of settlement agreements and amendments to Wayne's previous agreements with Cash Money. In 2014, Wayne famously declared on Twitter that he was a prisoner of Cash Money and that he wanted "off this label and nothing to do with these people." Shortly after, he filed a lawsuit, claiming that Cash Money owed him upwards of $51 million in failed royalty payments and advances and should be penalized further for other contractual breaches. His complaint outlined how Cash Money had wronged him, not only in the role of his record label, but also as a business partner in the Young Money joint venture. In April 2015, he voluntarily withdrew the complaint from federal court in New York, but he refiled virtually the same complaint in state court in Louisiana. In late 2016, this case is ongoing, without a clear end in sight.
Although the case pertains to various breaches of contract and money owed to Wayne, an issue at the heart of the Louisiana case today is whether or not Wayne is still under contract with Cash Money. In the summer of 2015, by Wayne's interpretation of his contract, the Young Money joint venture came to a close. Cash Money would contend that Wayne's failure to fulfill his contractual obligation to deliver 21 albums during the contract period (2008-2015), at the rate of no more than three albums per year, meant that Wayne was still under contract.
A dispute over whether the Young Money joint venture endures not only makes Wayne's status unclear, but it puts a cloud over royalties for a number of releases, including Drake's wildly successful Views. In the lawsuit, Wayne claims that Cash Money has, since at least 2012 "failed to pay Young Money its share of net receipts with regard to the solo recordings of Drake released by the Young Money Label." Wayne also points to Cash Money's constant failure to pay artists and other parties such as "producers, engineers and other third parties with relation to the operation of Young Money," noting that this "has had a significant negative impact on both Young Money and [Wayne]."
In July 2015, Wayne released the Free Weezy album exclusively on Tidal. The record's copyright credits read "2015 Young Money Entertainment"; it was the first release by Wayne in which he owned his own copyright. As he echoed in his lawsuit, Cash Money had previously filed and retained copyright over all prior Lil Wayne, Drake, and Nicki Minaj records exclusively in Cash Money's name, despite the fact that the terms of the Young Money joint venture instructed otherwise. Young Money Entertainment, although similar in name to the Young Money joint venture, is a separate entity fully owned by Wayne. In 2014, Wayne transferred his interest in the Young Money joint venture to a newly formed entity under the same name, "Young Money Entertainment," and, since then, it has provided the platform for his self-released projects.
Although the lawsuit hasn't stopped Wayne from (perhaps prematurely) declaring his own freedom, Cash Money's response to his independent projects has been inconsistent. In 2015, after Wayne self-released the Free Weezy album, there were reports that they would file suit against Lil Wayne for breaching his recording contract. A suit, however, never materialized. In fact, instead of going after Wayne on terms consistent with what they contend his contractual obligations are, Cash Money has opted instead to pursue a different strategy in the ongoing Louisiana case: namely, to refuse to produce certain key witnesses and documents in what Wayne calls an "attempt to confuse the issues before the court and to further delay the adjudication" of the matter.
As is typical for complex litigation, Wayne's legal team has sent a series of document requests and interrogatories to Cash Money. These requests include questions regarding Universal Music Group's agreement with Cash Money, evidence supporting Cash Money's alleged $70 million spent in advances, recording, and marketing costs for Wayne and other Young Money artists—which were counted against Wayne's profit margins—and documents surrounding Wayne's attempted delivery of Tha Carter V.
Cash Money has responded to these requests in the scarcest way, offering a heavily redacted version of their distribution agreement with UMG and a large volume of other, largely unhelpful, documents. To speak on the label's behalf, Cash Money brought in one of their outside lawyers for a deposition. Unsurprisingly, he had little personal knowledge about the label's inner workings, but spouted off a few figures regarding Cash Money's expenses and argued that Wayne was still under contract by the plain language of the terms. Not only does his testimony vaguely resemble that of an expert witness, which he does not claim to be, but by Wayne's contention it constituted a failure to comply with accepted norms. In short, Birdman and Cash Money are dragging their feet and drawing the case out as much as they can, a tactic that can be used to drain the plaintiff of legal funds or otherwise discourage them to the point that they drop the suit or settle.
Wayne responded to Cash Money's limited disclosure with a motion to compel Cash Money to provide certain documents and present the Williams brothers for depositions. A motion to compel means that the court would force specific documents to be released and in this case, specific parties to be questioned. If the motion is granted, the next disclosure would answer most of the outstanding questions in this case, potentially absolving Wayne. The court will decide on this motion later this month.
Despite intermittent reports that everything is "cool" between Lil Wayne and Birdman, it is clear that this is not the case and hasn't been for a long time. It is no surprise that Wayne's legal struggles are exceptionally frustrating, and as a result, many of his new rhymes take aim at Cash Money and Birdman. When asked in an interview this week with Shannon Sharpe and Skip Bayless whether he would work with Birdman again if he paid Wayne the money he was owed, Wayne soberly responded "No sir." As he continues to rack up legal fees, he is stonewalled each time he attempts to get to the bottom of what appears to be years of withheld information and royalties.
Wayne's filing suggests that he attempted to deliver the masters to Tha Carter V, but the delivery, for some reason, failed. He may have the music in his possession, but even as he tests the waters by releasing music under the Young Money Entertainment name, he remains limited in what he can do with it by the lawsuit. One would hope that the Williams brothers would be a little more transparent in their approach, particularly given the risk of losing someone as talented and prolific as Lil Wayne. The rumors of Wayne's retirement a few weeks ago were met with an outpouring of support from fellow artists; hopefully the prospect of long-winded litigation doesn't snuff out Wayne's creativity.
Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images
Jessica Meiselman is a lawyer based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.