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If you’ve listened to much urban radio lately, or even a little, you may have noticed that Lil Wayne and his Young Money Entertainment labelmates, particularly Drake and Nicki MInaj, are quite popular. You may have also noticed the same thing in 2011. And in 2010. And 2009. But perhaps nothing underscores the staggering extent of their domination of the airwaves quite like their presence on the top 100 songs of Billboard’s 2011 year-end R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. No fewer than 25 songs, a full quarter of the list, feature at least one of those three Young Money stars. Wayne has the most, with 13, with Drake coming in with 11, and Minaj boasts 5. Add labelmate Tyga’s appearance on Chris Brown’s 2010 holdover “Deuces,” and you’ve got 26. (I’m also counting Ace Hood’s supposed solo hit “Hustle Hard,” which was only ever played on the radio in the form of its remix that features Wayne, in those figures.)
The 25% Young Money market share on urban radio in 2011 is only a slight uptick from 2010, when the label held strong with 20%. And with Drake rising to prominence in early 2009 and Minaj following soon after, we’ve now had three consecutive years of Young Money domination, which had already been preceded by Lil Wayne’s decade-long climb to becoming arguably the biggest star in hip-hop. In a way, the Young Money triad’s success is nothing new; hip-hop has long thrived on crews and labels in which several popular acts stand shoulder to shoulder, from the Juice Crew to the Native Tongues. And in the modern era of corporate-minded rap, every star has his own label imprint with a roster full of loyal friends and collaborators. Mainstream hip-hop can almost be divided into eras defined by the biggest labels of the moment, the ’90s cycling from Death Row to Bad Boy to No Limit. By the end of the decade, Lil Wayne had gotten his first taste of fame as part of the Cash Money Records hit factory, from which of course he later spun off Young Money as his star rose.
It’s possible, however, that no label has ever lorded over urban airwaves the way Young Money has the last couple years, with three of the genre’s biggest rappers all on the same label and churning out back-to-back hits together and apart. Earlier in the 2000s, Dr. Dre headed up a trio of rap icons with his Aftermath roster including Eminem and 50 Cent (who each spawned their own respective vanity labels, Shady and G-Unit). But they never released albums in close proximity to each other; Dre’s last album, 2001, preceded 50 Cent’s debut by over three years, so all three Aftermath superstars were never had big releases in the same timeframe. By comparison, Nicki Minaj’s new Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, Drake’s Take Care and Wayne’s Tha Carter IV have all dropped in the last 8 months.
In fact, after the twin titans of the New Orleans hip-hop explosion, No Limit and Cash Money, began to wane in the early 21st century, it’s fair to say that few rap labels have thrived with multiple stars enjoying lengthy, simultaneous reigns. For much of his early career, Jay-Z made Roc-A-Fella a household name without any other acts on the roster coming remotely close to matching his success; Cam’ron’s brief platinum success on the label was tumultuous and short-lived. By the time Kanye West finally gave the Roc a second multi-platinum star, Jay was retired, albeit temporarily, and eventually left the Def Jam imprint to start the new Live Nation venture Roc Nation. 50 Cent enjoyed a couple years of massive success with his group G-Unit and its members’ own solo ventures, but his most successful groupmate, The Game, was soon kicked off the label in a cloud of beef and controversy. Similarly, Ludacris’s Disturbing Tha Peace spawned one other multi-platinum star, Chingy, who left the label in a huff after two albums. Meanwhile superstars like Eminem, Nelly and Nas treaded water with proteges and groups who would consistently fail to capture the public’s imagination like they had. And many labels moved toward R&B, with Ja Rule remaining Murder Inc.’s only rapper of note even while successfully launching Ashanti.
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.)
In many ways, mainstream hip-hop’s boom years of financial prosperity, which reached their peak around the turn of the century, represented a bubble that was destined to pop just like many other industries have in recent years. Mixtapes perhaps more than MP3s helped crater rap album sales around 2006, slightly ahead of other genres experiencing a sales dip. With the rap industry hitting their own recession early, vanity labels were one of the first places that belts started to tighten. Stars who had been steadily cranking out albums by their lesser known proteges began focusing more on just making sure their own albums didn’t disappear from the release schedule. Less established artists who thought their superstar patrons would give them an easy pathway to fame and fortune found themselves indefinitely shelved (Young Dro, still attempting to release a second album for six years and counting) while others went independent to grind on their own (Killer Mike, Freeway, Curren$y). Atlanta rapper Tity Boi plugged away as a second-stringer on Ludacris’s Disturbing Tha Peace imprint for a decade before finally leaving the label, changing his name to 2 Chainz and rebooting his career to become one of the most buzzed-about rappers of 2012.
After a vacuum of new superstars persisted in hip-hop for years, how were Young Money able to so quickly fill it with both Drake and Nicki Minaj? At some point in the last few years, both the mainstream hip-hop media and the blogosphere turned the age-old drive to find the next major rap star into some kind of American Idol-like horse race. XXL‘s annual Freshmen Issue, featuring ten or so young up-and-comers, became a more hotly debated topic once the magazine moved away from featuring rappers who’d already signed deals and maybe had a hit single or two, and toward making the issue a mainstream coming-out party for artists who’d been quietly building cult followings online. Some, like Charles Hamilton, crashed and burned without ever releasing a major label album, while others, like Asher Roth, got an album in stores and a single or two on the charts before disappearing back into the ether.
A couple years ago, the vanity-label protégé system got up and running again, with major stars plucking new artists from the blog rap mills and/or XXL‘s Freshman 10. The first significant success stories were Kid Cudi, signed to Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music, and B.o.B, signed to T.I.’s Grand Hustle, who each released top 10 pop hits and gold-selling albums in 2009 and 2010, shortly before Drake and Nicki Minaj broke the platinum rookie drought. Since then, there’s been a flurry of new artists boasting gold plaques and/or multiple radio hits: Big Sean with G.O.O.D. Music, J. Cole with Jay-Z’s RocNation, Wale and Meek Mill with Rick Ross’s Maybach Music Group. Over the past year, those squads have started to encroach on Young Money’s radio dominance, and at some points recently the entire top 10 of the R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart has featured at least one artist from those four labels. They’ve inspired other moguls to get back in the starmaking business: Young Jeezy has taken Freddie Gibbs under his wing, and Bad Boy Records has snapped up prospects like French Montana and Machine Gun Kelly.
Out of all the new MCs on the airwaves, only Wiz Khalifa has thrived without the supervision of a superstar mentor, and it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that he’s by far the most successful non-Young Money rapper to emerge in the last couple years (though his 2011 album Rolling Papers is still shy of platinum sales). Just as Memphis Bleek was never able to score a hit without the assistance of Jay-Z, many of the new stars need help. Big Sean’s 2011 debut Finally Famous has yielded three massive urban radio hits, but each of them featured a much bigger star (Chris Brown, Kanye West and Nicki Minaj); Wale has scored a string of hits in which his verses are overshadowed by catchy hooks from R&B singers Jeremih, Miguel and Lloyd. For a budding mogul like Rick Ross, it’s helpful to have artists on his label that increase Maybach Music Group’s radio playlist market share, but no one expects those protégés to ever equal his popularity the same way Kanye eventually caught up to Jay-Z.
There are some signs that Young Money’s steely grip on the airwaves is beginning to slip, if slightly. As much as half of the R&B/Hip-Hop Songs top 10 has been taken up by YMCMB artists in recent years, but the current chart only features one, Drake and Lil Wayne’s “The Motto”; Minaj’s new album has so far been slow to yield the kind of urban radio hits her debut spun off effortlessly. “Rack City” blew up without Tyga needing any training-wheels guest appearances from his more famous labelmates, but he’s unlikely to join the platinum club anytime soon, nor will Lil Twist or Gudda Gudda if they ever actually release albums. Every seemingly unstoppable dynasty in the history of rap has grinded to a halt sooner or later, and Young Money probably won’t be an exception. But when that reign will stop is anyone’s guess, and it almost definitely won’t be in 2012.