Radio Hits One: Lil Wayne, Drake, Nicki Minaj, And Young Money Bring Crew Love Back To Rap Radio

Nicki Minaj feat. 2 Chainz, "Beez In The Trap"

When Lil Wayne began talking up Young Money in earnest back around 2005, it seemed almost inevitable that his imprint would meet a similar fate as those other faltering labels. After all, he'd kept Cash Money afloat for years as virtually its only star after the mass exodus of all of his Hot Boyz compatriots and in-house producer Mannie Fresh. Young Money's most promising early signing, Curren$y, left the label in frustration after having his debut album repeatedly delayed, and has since enjoyed a healthy career as a cult favorite. Another, Cory Gunz, was featured on the initial leak of Wayne's single "A Milli" but taken off of the version on Weezy's 2008 blockbuster Tha Carter III. (He was welcomed back for full participation on the Carter IV retread "6 Foot 7 Foot.")

Even when Wayne began to prominently feature Young Money artists, including Drake and Minaj, on his first post-Carter III mixtape, Dedication 3, he seemed reticent about the idea of even releasing albums by them, noting that they'd probably ultimately end up at another label: "I wanna make it clear that every artist you hear on Young Money is most likely to be doing their own thing somewhere else," he explained on an interlude. "Don't just listen to them over here, actually get into them and see what they're doing everywhere, cause if they're good over here most likely they're great there." Coming a few months after the first release from a Young Money signing, Tyga's flop debut No Introduction, those couldn't have been encouraging words for the label's artists.

And yet here we are, less than four years later, and Young Money is one of the most effective star factories in hip-hop history. Even Tyga's career has gotten a reboot, with the huge single "Rack City" and the moderately successful album Careless World: Rise of the Last King. To Wayne's credit, his less active role in guiding his signings may have been one of the keys to Young Money's dominance; although he's consistently collaborated on songs with Drake and Minaj, both scored hits early in their careers without his help. Compared to the way other rap moguls accompany their protégés on all of their initial single offerings like training wheels for a first bike ride (i.e. 50 Cent on nearly every G-Unit member's solo hits), Wayne let his artists build their own buzz with their own songs and mixtapes. Minaj's profile rose fastest, after all, during the chunk of 2010 that Wayne spent in jail.

Drake and Minaj joining hip-hop's A-list is noteworthy not just because they did so under the hands-off tutelage of a still reigning star, but because they were the first new rap stars to join the platinum club in years. Around the middle of the last decade, the drop in album sales started to hit hip-hop even harder than other genres, but even with that in mind, there was something of a shortage of major new stars for a while there. In 2005, Young Jeezy and The Game enjoyed multi-platinum first albums, and a wave of Houston rappers—Mike Jones, Chamillionaire and Paul Wall—released major-label debuts that each sold a million copies. But until Drake's Thank Me Later arrived in 2010, there was nearly a half-decade in which no new rappers shifted units at that level, with platinum plaques going only to established superstars: Jay-Z, T.I., Kanye West, 50 Cent, and of course Wayne. Even Rick Ross has only gone gold, despite his albums often debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. It's possible that in a world where hip-hop albums continued to sell as much as they had in 2003, Lupe Fiasco or Gucci Mane or Yung Joc would have enjoyed million-selling albums, but it's not a given. Meanwhile, artists like Soulja Boy and Flo Rida sold millions upon millions of singles on iTunes while scarcely making a dent on the album charts. (One wonders if MC Hammer would've suffered a similar fate if consumers had been able to buy "U Can't Touch This" on iTunes instead of purchasing Please Hammer, Don't Hurt 'Em in full.)

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