Photo by Ryan Muir
Last week, Lil Wayne—who is, lest we forget, the flagship of the mighty, mighty Cash Money Records empire, which is a record label/fictional empire ruled by a grown man who chooses to call himself “Baby,”—issued a string of tweets that shocked and confused hip-hop fans. “To all my fans,” Wayne tweeted, “I want you to know that my album won’t and hasn’t been released because Baby and Cash Money Records refuse to release it. This is not my fault. I am truly and deeply sorry to all my fans but most of all to myself and my family for putting us in this situation. I want off this label and nothing to do with these people but unfortunately it ain’t that easy. I am a prisoner and so is my creativity. Again, I am truly sorry and I don’t blame you if you’re fed up with waiting for me and this album. But thank you.”
He reiterated these comments at his performance at (shameless plug) the VICE 20th anniversary party the next day, saying to the crowd, “I was supposed to drop my album December 9th but due to technical difficulties I’m fucked up and in a bad situation. But I will be out of this soon.”
The news that Wayne wanted out of his label situation came on the heels of a similar statement given by Wayne’s fellow Cash Money artist Tyga, whose upcoming The Gold Album seems to be stuck in the same limbo that Wayne’s Tha Carter V is. In October, the rapper tweeted, “Gold Album been done. My label holding me hostage so I can’t release nothing. Might just leak it for my fans.” After Wayne voiced his dissent with the label, Tyga complimented him, calling him a “legend” before adding that The Gold Album was to be released independently. Cash Money has a reputation for delaying albums indefinitely. By turning albums in only to realize the label has no plays to release them, Tyga and Wayne join such esteemed company as Gudda Gudda, Jae Millz, Kevin Rudolf, Limp Bizkit, and Mack Maine, all of whom have been languishing in Cash Money’s gilded holding cage awaiting an album release.
No matter who you were, 2014 was a tough year to release a rap album on a major label. In the summer of 2012 Chief Keef inked a deal with Interscope that awarded him six million dollars for recording three albums as well as options for a special line of Beats by Dre headphones and a biopic about his life. Already a local legend in his hometown of Chicago, Keef was riding hot off of the success of his mixtape Back from the Dead, whose single “I Don’t Like” had gone viral and been remixed by Kanye West. Though his Interscope debut Finally Rich was well-received, it sold a relatively modest 150,000 copies, and Keef spent the period following the album in and out of jail on various petty charges. On October 21 of this year, it was announced Keef had been dropped by his label. When Keef commented on Twitter, he seemed elated. “Laughing because to me I been dropped. Motherfuckers ain’t help me pay no motherfucking bills,” he tweeted. "Ain't shit gone stop, just keeps getting bigger and better!"
No matter who you were, 2014 was a tough year to release a rap album on a major label. In 2014, a grand total of 18 rap albums were released on major labels. When, next week, Nicki Minaj officially releases her album The Pinkprint, the number will be 19. That means, on average, one major label rap record was released every three weeks (for reference, in both 2013 and 2012 there were 23 major label rap records released). So far, the best-selling album of the year has been Iggy Azalea’s The New Classic with around 430,000 albums sold. Then, there’s Rick Ross’s Mastermind with around 360,000 sold, and Schoolboy Q’s Oxymoron at around 330,000 sold. If there is hope that a rapper will sell 500,000 copies and go Gold in 2014, it lies with J. Cole, whose album Forest Hills Drive was released this week and is projected to sell between 320,000 and 350,000 albums in its first week, and Nicki Minaj, whose The Pinkprint is easily the most, and perhaps only, hotly anticipated rap album of the year.
Read the full list of 2014 major label releases, ranked by approximate sales (via Wikipedia), below.
Iggy Azalea - The New Classic (Universal; approx. 423k sold)
Rick Ross - Mastermind (Def Jam/Slip-n-Slide; approx. 362k sold)
Schoolboy Q - Oxymoron (TDE/Interscope; approx. 332k sold)
Jeezy - Seen It All (Def Jam; approx. 247k sold)
Wiz Khalifa - Blacc Hollywood (Atlantic; approx. 204k sold)
Various Artists - Shady XV (Interscope; approx. 150k sold)
T.I. - Paperwork (Columbia; approx. 162k sold
YG - My Krazy Life (Def Jam; approx. 141k sold)
Kid Ink - My Own Lane (RCA; approx. 119k copies sold)
Future - Honest (Sony; approx. 111k sold
50 Cent - Animal Ambition (Capitol; approx. 110k sold)
Kid Cudi - Satellite Flight: The Journey to Mother Moon (Republic; approx. 95k sold)
Rick Ross - Hood Billionaire (Def Jam; approx. 80k sold)
Big K.R.I.T. - Cadillactica (Def Jam; approx. 53k sold
Pitbull - Globalization (RCA; approx. 49k sold
The Roots - …And then You Shoot Your Cousin (Def Jam; approx. 26k sold)
Wu-Tang Clan - A Better Tomorrow (Warner; approx. 24k sold)
J. Cole - Forest Hills Drive (Columbia/Roc Nation/Dreamville; approx. sales unknown)
Nicki Minaj - The Pinkprint (Cash Money; approx sales unknown)
The reason so few rap albums got released, and how even fewer of them actually sold well, has less to do with the quality of music released in 2014 and more to do with the economics of releasing a rap album.
In a bearish record buying climate, large labels tend to be conservative with their money and only release albums that have a reasonable chance of recouping—i.e., making the label their money back. This means labels tend to bet on “sure things.” But what makes for a sure thing, and why wouldn’t Wayne, one of the most popular rappers in the world, not be one to his label?
First, rap albums are expensive. While a band may only need two weeks in the studio with a single producer in order to compose their entire album, rap albums tend to be produced by committee, with each track being composed by an individual entity who must be paid out before an album is released. Beats by “name” producers tend to run in the tens of thousands of dollars (Mike Will charges $75,000-$100,000 per beat, according to Billboard), as do many guest verses by famous rappers (a Kendrick Lamar verse will set you back $250,000, claims Complex). Pile those costs onto the costs of printing and distributing CDs as well as servicing the singles to radio, and it’s a wonder any major label rap album makes money. If a rapper has an established track record of success and can keep the costs of recording down by self-producing and keeping their guests to a minimum, as Kid Cudi did with Satellite Flight and J. Cole did with Forest Hills Drive, the less their records cost, and the more they’re likely to see a release date. Though a Cole album might not gross as much as a new Lil Wayne album, he keeps costs low, which gives his label a better chance of turning a profit.
Lil Wayne, meanwhile, relies on outside producers and often collaborates with other high-profile artists. His last album featured big-name production from Mike Will, Juicy J, Detail, Soulja Boy, and Cool & Dre, and had guest appearances from the not inexpensive 2 Chainz and Future (only four songs on the record did not feature a credited guest). It’s reasonable to assume releasing his upcoming album might cost his label hundreds of thousands of dollars that they aren’t necessarily guaranteed to make back, even if it sells well. As it is now, Cash Money is most certainly turning a profit off of Wayne. By pairing him with Drake for the Drake vs. Wayne tour, they found an excuse to send them on tour while neither had an album to promote. The tour positioned Wayne as the established legend who had “classics,” with Drake as the rambunctious upstart who had “hits.” The message was evident: Wayne might be the Jedi Master, but Drake was the one Cash Money had anointed to bring balance to The Force.
Still, Wayne is perhaps the closest thing hip-hop has had to a sure thing since Jay Z. His franchise records Carter III and Carter IV are two of only platinum albums hip-hop has had in the past decade, and the two volumes of his I Am Not a Human Being series have combined to sell nearly 1.5 million copies. Hell, his much-maligned, actually-not-that-bad rock album Rebirth ended up selling half a million albums, despite being a punchline since the world heard the first note of the damn thing. But the music industry has a short memory. There was a time when Lil Wayne was hip-hop radio. Overwhelming demand for more Lil Wayne created the climate in which Wayne songs were propelled to radio, and it is that demand that led to Weezy's Tha Carter III selling a million copies its first week out. Though Cash Money may not be able to see that demand enough to financially justifying giving Tha Carter V a release date, it still exists—though perhaps it manifests itself in an entirely different form than radio play these days.
Cash Money's attempts at getting Wayne songs on the radio this year ("Krazy," "Grindin'" featuring Drake, "Gotti" featuring The Lox, and "Start a Fire" featuring Christina Milian) have failed, save for “Believe Me,” a song by Wayne, featuring Drake, upon which he sounds like Drake’s guest, and not the other way around, the lead-off verse on Chris Brown's "Loyal," and “Only,” a Nicki Minaj song so powerful that guests Drake, Wayne, and Chris Brown feel like afterthoughts. Servicing a song to radio also costs money—labels funnel money to third party independent radio promoters, who then pay radio stations to play a song a given number of times on air. However, if the song performs poorly with listeners, it will quickly disappear from playlists, living out the remainder of its required spins on late night mixshows to little fanfare. Four bricked singles is a mighty deep hole for anyone to climb out of, even Wayne.
And make no mistake: pop radio is entirely different than what it was when Lil Wayne first made his ascent. It’s slowly given way to an odd hybrid of EDM and hip-hop with its own stars—Iggy Azalea is one, as is Macklemore, as is Jason DeRulo—that has no use for rappers that actual rap fans care about as anything other than window dressing, as Juicy J’s turn on Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” and 2 Chainz’s verse on Jason DeRulo’s “Talk Dirty” proved. These songs are driven by hooks, melody, and sonic association (DeRulo’s “Talk Dirty” had a similar saxophone loop as Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea’s “Problem”; John Legend’s “All of Me” was a redux Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me”; Pharrell’s “Happy” was Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk,” etc.). These tracks, which borrow signifiers and sonics from hip-hop and R&B while remaining sterile and safe, are more appealing to labels because their inoffensiveness lends them to more ad syncs and TV placements. No one is looking to use a song like Wayne's hyper-profane "Beat the Shit" in a Honda ad. Clearly, this is not an environment in which Wayne, who favors wordplay and is at his best when sounding completely out of this world, is likely to thrive on his own.
So how can Weezy F. right the ship in 2015? Assuming he leaves Cash Money relatively unscathed, his first step should be to seek an independent label, or perhaps form his own, one that allows him control over his output. If he’s no longer able to be a singles artist, maybe his newfound freedom could allow him to swing the other way and perfect the art of album-crafting. Wayne spent the middle period of the 2000s using the recording booth as a place to register nearly every single one of his thoughts, be they productive or not, creating a massive, deep body of work that showcased a magical, deranged creativity. Songs like “I Feel Like Dying,” "Prostitute Flange," and "Sportscenter" are perfect in part because they could never be on the radio, pushing our conventions of both wordplay and hip-hop. Since so much of Wayne’s best work is freewheeling and not reliant on hooks, perhaps he should emulate Freddie Gibbs and Killer Mike and align himself with an equally idiosyncratic, well-respected leftfield producer (Flying Lotus? Rustie? Evian Christ? Mouse on the Track? Sporting Life of Ratking? Diplo? Anyone but Diplo, actually.) for a project whose inherent worth as a cohesive body of work would pique the public’s interest. Maybe he should abandon the concept of releasing albums altogether, and return to mixtapes. Whatever Wayne chooses to do, he needs to restore his value in the music industry. Through poor judgment, regrettable decisions, and mismanagement of Wayne's talents, Cash Money managed to turn Lil Wayne into just another rapper when he's much, much more than that. He still a great artist and a commercial force, even as the music industry as we know it ceases to comprehend that. It might be time for the mixtape Weezy again.
Drew Millard is the Features Editor of Noisey. He's on Twitter.