Radio Hits One: Birdman Is Rap's Richest Second Banana

A few weeks ago, Forbes published The Forbes Five, which estimated the net worth of hip hop's wealthiest moguls, and put Cash Money Records boss Bryan "Birdman" Williams in fourth place with $125 million. Just two weeks later, Williams announced that his label's most successful artist, Lil Wayne, had signed "probably the biggest deal ever in urban music" to deliver four more albums for the label, a deal that's been estimated as high as $150 million.

For all I know the timing is coincidental, and all is well in the very successful Cash Money/Young Money family. But the confluence of those two events made me wonder if perhaps it occurred to anyone, inside or outside the situation, that Lil Wayne, one of the biggest stars in the world, was not on the Forbes list, but his label boss and "father figure" mentor was. Over the years, many artists have left Cash Money amid accusations of inadequate financial compensation; several producers have sued the label for unpaid royalties. But through it all, Wayne has stayed loyal and presumably well paid, if apparently not necessarily moreso than the execs at his label (in the 2011 edition of the Forbes Cash Kings list, which estimates yearly earnings rather than net worth, Wayne and Birdman were tied for fourth place with equal amounts of income).

Bryan Williams isn't a total outlier in the Forbes Five; he's one of four members of the group that's over the age of 40 (the relative spring chicken of the list is 50 Cent, who's 36), and all of them are multimedia moguls who have run their own labels, as well as other business ventures. But Birdman is not a star in the way the others are or have been: 50 and Jay-Z both have been arguably the biggest rappers in the world at one point or another, while producers-turned-rappers Dr. Dre and Sean "Diddy" Combs are music industry icons who have headlined era-defining multi-platinum solo albums. Though Dre nurtured the career of a whole host of superstars, from Snoop to Eminem, and Combs rose to fame as a sidekick to the late Notorious B.I.G., both are hugely famous in their own right. Williams, on the other hand, has never been a brand in and of itself, apart from or bigger than Cash Money or Lil Wayne. And yet, he's had an oddly persistent career as a rapper, appearing on dozens of hit songs without ever giving a standout performance.

Williams began his music career in 1992, releasing a solo album titled I Need A Bag of Dope under the name B-32 (short for Baby With The 32 Golds). By the time Cash Money Records started living up to its name—in 1998, it struck a $30 million distribution deal with Universal Records—Williams had shortened his MC name to just Baby, and formed the group Big Tymers with the label's in-house producer, Mannie Fresh. During Cash Money's initial explosion of mainstream exposure in the late '90s, the Big Tymers didn't score any major singles, and Williams only guested on one, getting lost in the maze of verses on B.G.'s dictionary-altering hit "Bling Bling" (No. 14 on Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart).

In 2000, the Big Tymers began scoring hits of their own with "Get Your Roll On" (No. 24 R&B), on which Baby was handily outshined by Fresh, and "Number One Stunna" (also No. 24 R&B) which, despite the presence of Juvenile and Lil Wayne, is the closest thing Williams has had to a star vehicle, a song in which he performs most of the chorus and introduces yet another alias: The No. 1 Stunna. Two years later, as stars like Juvenile and B.G. began leaving the label and Wayne was at a low point of popularity, the Big Tymers briefly became the biggest act on Cash Money, scoring the Billboard 200-topping album Hood Rich and the smash single "Still Fly," which peaked at No. 11 and became the biggest Hot 100 song to feature Williams (it also peaked at No. 4 peak on the R&B chart). But it, and the several other minor hits the Big Tymers scored in 2002 and 2003, pretty much all featured Mannie Fresh more prominently, with Baby playing the stoic straight man to the goofy, charismatic producer.

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