Comfort & Loyalty: Lil Wayne Is Trapped in More Than One Birdcage

Courtrooms and labels aren't the only shackles hindering Lil Wayne's growth in 2018.
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Courtrooms and labels aren't the only shackles hindering Lil Wayne's growth in 2018.

“Um. What’s the name of the word for things not being the same always? You know? I’m sure there is one. Isn’t there? There must be a word for it… the thing that lets you know time is happening.” - Delirium ("Sandman #43")

Lil Wayne once said receiving a business card from Birdman was like getting the direct number to the president. "Baby and Cash Money was bigger than rap itself to me," he told XXL in 2006. He saw idols, not sharks. This is likely why impressionable artists continue to align with Cash Money or fall under Birdman's wings; the dream of what could be is always more promising than the reality of what will be.

But the dream always ends.

To consider Cash Money Records a record label constructed upon the unfulfilled dreams of boys and the unpaid royalties of men would be a severe, yet veracious claim. Cash Money can also be regarded as an innovative hip-hop company who found immense success grooming homegrown talent from the soils of New Orleans that blossomed into pop consciousness by displaying their regional selfhood unapologetically. As they near their 30th anniversary active in the music business, what was started by brothers Ronald "Slim" Williams and Bryan "Birdman" Williams will eventually end with a controversial legacy―likely to be remembered both as a kingdom and a prison. Both are accurate depending on who you ask and who you believe.

The Lil Wayne of 2018 would lean toward the latter. The home he signed to at age 12 is the cage he’s currently confined within at age 35. Sadly, the revered martian who was once notorious for being artistically free of all conventional practices is yet another mouse trapped by a familiar Cash Money operation. The feud between Wayne and the label has been ongoing for years now, with Wayne still seeking $51 million in unpaid earnings and, most importantly, freedom.

So why didn’t Wayne leave the label back in the early 2000s, when the Hot Boys broke up and Mannie Fresh made his exit? Even the artist Lil Slim, who introduced Wayne to the man then known as Baby, had severed ties after being screwed. The holes were visible, the ship was beginning to sink. Wayne watched everyone come and go for the same reason, fighting for what they believed they were owed. It was like deciding to stay on a battlefield expecting to groom a garden.

Everything changes in hip-hop if Wayne had left when the opportunity presented itself to part company or resign. Former Hot Boy Juvenile told AllHipHop in 2012 that Wayne was afraid and that he stayed out of fear. Cash Money has always been a label that carried itself with the rugged machismo of an outfit bred from the school of hard knocks. Still, on a much deeper level, I wonder how much of Wayne’s decisions to re-sign in 2005 after Tha Carter and again in 2012 after Tha Carter IV was based on loyalty and the reluctance to seek change.

In an unpublished 2008 interview with Benjamin M. Ingram for Vibe Magazine, Lil Wayne said that what he learned from watching Cash Money evolve is that loyalty is the closest thing to make-believe. “As you grow older you start to realize that all that shit is dead, it’s like magic. There’s no such thing,” he said. Though it wasn't intended to be a shot at Birdman then, the profound quote is alarmingly fitting now. Loyalty was what Cash Money taught Wayne. A quote from Wayne's 2006 XXL interview with Birdman speaks an even louder volume:

"Baby and Slim was the first people I met in Cash Money, and that’s what they showed me. It didn’t matter who came to the circle. You eat with that man, you die with that man. Once he leaves that table and he ain’t eating with you, then fuck him. He not family no more. That chair is at the table, empty."

Despite calling loyalty magic, by definition, you can deem Weezy a loyalist. As a rap artist, he has spent a lifetime on the same label as if he intended to retire his jersey there. The artists Wayne signed to Young Money haven’t been dropped or discarded, even after their solo careers didn’t ascend to a quarter of Drake and Nicki’s stature. He has reconciled with Curren$y and every Hot Boy, never allowing a grudge to overshadow respect and admiration. Wayne has continued to be dedicated to the Carter series, to the No Ceilings series, to the Sorry 4 The Wait series, to the Dedication series with DJ Drama, and to free mixtapes in general, even when the mixtape format that brought him acclaim is now a relic from a bygone era. Wayne has displayed an unwavering commitment throughout his career. It's a quality that is to be respected, but also a prison within itself, to become a creative creature of unvarying routine.

The best example of Wayne’s tenacity to preserve comfort is in his rap style, the meticulous stream-of-consciousness he began to wield during the Sqad Up mixtapes. This period was the early beginning of his rebirth from Hot Boy to Best Rapper Alive when pushing the limits of his lyricism was his sole focus as an artist. He stopped writing and followed the footsteps of JAY-Z’s paperless approach, creating a free-form technique that toed the line between insanity and genius. 

Electricity surged through every line. Wayne's mind was capable of coming up with bizarre and astounding ways of outdoing what was previously said, inserting pop culture, sports, and any subject into a chain of endless quotables. It can be argued that Wayne was at his best when he was able to let loose and simply rhyme words―no direction or concept, just a machine set to annihilate popular production. The rapper eater reached his final form on his acclaimed Da Drought 3 mixtape, the peak form of this approach, after the years of practice had finally allowed him to reach perfection.  

Along the way, there were subtle adjustments and a revamped vision, but Wayne’s approach never radically changed. Every project since Tha Carter III has been another slice of familiar pie. There's no discrediting his success or influence—Wayne reshaped a generation in his image—but now as an aging goat, it is apparent that he isn’t just trapped in a birdcage but by repetition. While occasionally impressive, the tricks aren’t as awing. Once you experience the peak, everything else lacks in luster. How many times can you watch a magician cut a body in half before you question whether or not he has another trick up his sleeve? The rapper you hear on Dedication 6 wants to prove he hasn’t lost it but instead of entering the ring is simply shadowboxing.

I still have high hopes for Wayne's future. The artist who appeared on Solange’s “Mad” cannot be labeled as the old Wayne. No, the Weezy F. Baby who poured his heart out on A Seat at the Table was a rare change in what has long been a predictable pattern. Instead of waxing poetic, Wayne spoke earnestly. Without a fury of punchlines or any attempts to flex lyrical dexterity, he touches on everything from Birdman to a failed suicide attempt with the pureness of an untainted heart and a chilling sincerity in his voice. Change doesn’t have to be complex.

Courtrooms and labels aren't the only shackles hindering Lil Wayne's growth in 2018, though. He is also battling his loyalty to Birdman and the comfort that his style of rapping brings. Birdman was his father figure, Cash Money was his home, and his rap style was the proud armor of his artistry. Now they are all just relics of his past. His impact on rap is cemented, but unlike the legacy of Cash Money, Wayne still has time to shed his old ways. Only the Phoenix rises and does not descend. If Wayne wants ThaCarter V to be special, and for his career to move in a new direction, it's time to find a new approach.

In business and in art, anything not serving progress should be left behind. Comfort zones will only stunt your growth, and a mind with Lil Wayne’s creative imagination shouldn’t be a prisoner of stagnancy. When the Hot Boys left he knew something had to change. If 2018 allows his freedom from the birdcage, it is time to change again. Even Martians must be aware of time.

By Yoh, aka Upgrade Yoh, aka @Yoh31

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