Fifth Lil Wayne Album Marks Artist’s Victory over Label Clout

By Matthew Mallary

Lil Wayne and Birdman perform at the 2009 BET Awards. Photo courtesy of Flickr.

New Orleans rapper and Young Money label head Dwayne Michael Carter Jr., a.k.a. Lil Wayne dropped “The Carter V” on Sept. 28, 2018. The fifth installment of the Carter series matters because it represents the end of a tumultuous legal battle between two titans of the hip-hop world, Wayne and label head Bryan Christopher Williams, or Birdman (a.k.a. Baby). The album had languished in production for four years. Now, after an incredibly fiery public beef between the two and an equally bitter legal battle, Wayne has emerged victorious, debuting at number 1 on the overall Billboard charts. 

The conflict goes back to 1991 when 9-year-old Wayne was already writing and recording verses. This intrigued Birdman, who started a record label, the now eponymous Cash Money Records, the same year. While Wayne progressed through several rap groups, eventually carving out a solo career as Cash Money’s marquee artist, Birdman was building the infrastructure. By 2008, Wayne was synonymous with hip-hop success, and crossovers with pop artists. That year, his album “Tha Carter III,” was named the top selling rap album of the year, and won a Grammy for Best Rap Album. 

This might seem like a happy ending to a tale of two people who struggled with poverty, crime, and the lure of gang culture. However, their very success led to the dissolution of their partnership and a new beginning for Lil Wayne. 

Their conflict stemmed from the fact that Wayne also founded his own label, Young Money Records, credited with discovering major artists like Drake and Nicki Minaj, two of the highest charting and selling artists of the last decade. Though he created it with Birdman’s blessing, the question of who owned the rights to both Drake and Nicki’s catalogue of high-charting songs eventually became a main point of controversy. In 2015, Wayne sued Birdman for these rights along with unpaid contract advances promised to Wayne and his Young Money artists. 

This suit delayed “Tha Carter V” which was originally slated to be released in 2014. With Birdman unwilling to release “Tha Carter V,” Wayne began to voice his displeasure with his boss in the media. Wayne told Rolling Stone magazine in 2014 that he “and his creativity were being held ‘prisoner…’” by Birdman and Cash Money Records. In 2015, Wayne took his grievances to the studio and the courtroom, suing Birdman and Cash Money Records for $51 million in damages. He also released the single, “Sorry 4 Tha Wait 2,” referring to his delayed album, both to hold over fans clamoring for more music and to send some shots Birdman’s way. 

In January of 2017, Birdman made a first push to reconcile with Wayne. He told hip-hip hop magazine XXL that “Tha Carter V” was “definitely coming out” and that “Wayne is one of the best artists ever to do the game, and I want to see him continue to do what he been doing, and I’m going to support whatever he’s doing.” 

Finally, in June of 2018, Wayne was released from his contract with Cash Money Records. According to Lil Wayne’s attorney Ron Sweeney in a statement given to Billboard, Wayne received a purported lump sum of $10 million, as well as the rights to his music. His lawyer said, “My client is happy. He is his own man, a man that owns his assets, his music and himself.”

Wayne references his dominance over the rap game on the third song, “Dedicate” where he raps, “I started this shit, they borrowed this shit/I thought of this shit, they thought it was it.” Wayne also brings along a cast of characters from the current rap game to provide guest verses on “Tha Carter V,” with heavy hitters Travis Scott, Kendrick Lamar, Nicki Minaj, and the late XXXTentacion, who made waves in hip-hop in 2017-2018. 

Birdman and Wayne seem to have reconciled. They appeared together at Lil Wayne’s Lil Weezyana Fest in New Orleans, where Birdman gave an earnest apology.  This is victory for artists over their labels, who possess far more money and lawyers. This was also a personal victory for Wayne and his fans, who have waited 4 years an album release. Lil Wayne fans -- the drought is over, and Wheezy is going nowhere.