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.
In the midst of the Big Tymers’ peak of popularity, Williams properly launched his own bid for stardom in late 2002 with his first solo album since in a decade. The album was still credited to the name Baby, although the cover noted one of his nicknames with the text “AKA The #1 Stunna,” and the album itself was titled Birdman, the name he would end up releasing music under from then on. But he consistently yielded the spotlight on all three of the album’s singles: “Do That… ” (No. 21 R&B) featured both Fresh and Baby’s future Forbes Five contemporary then known as P. Diddy, and “Baby You Can Do It” (No. 73 R&B) was anchored by a Toni Braxton hook. Even though the album’s biggest and most enduring hit, “What Happened To That Boy” (No. 14 R&B), had a hook was built upon Birdman’s distinctive birdcall ad-lib, it was essentially part of the run of hits that guests Clipse and their production team The Neptunes were in the midst of at the time. Williams did have enough name recognition to get featured credits on moderate hits by two non-Cash Money artists: Ginuwine’s “Hell Yeah” (No. 16 R&B) and Bow Wow’s “Let’s Get Down” (No. 12 R&B).
Cash Money had essentially become the Lil Wayne show by the time Birdman released his second solo album, Fast Money, in 2005 and it was clear that he was ready to hitch his wagon to the label’s only remaining meal ticket, whose biological father was dead and who had called Birdman his true father figure. Both of the album’s singles featured Wayne, the most successful being “Get Your Shine On” (No. 65 R&B). Around that time, a photo from the 2002 video shoot for “Do That… ” surfaced on the internet in which Wayne and Birdman appeared to be kissing, which the two rappers had nonchalantly explained as a behavior learned from mafia movies. Despite the squeamishly homophobic reaction among rap fans, the duo’s 2006 joint album Like Father, Like Son was a success, spawning the single “Stuntin’ Like My Daddy” (No. 7 R&B). The father/son tandem continued during Wayne’s meteoric rise over the next few years; Birdman tagged along on some of Weezy’s many scene-stealing collaborative singles, providing a memorable eight-bar introduction to Wayne’s classic 16 on DJ Khaled’s “We Takin’ Over” (No. 26 R&B). On the rare occasion Birdman guests on a track without his ‘son,’ it often feels like an awkward obligatory gesture or even a joke; on the recent remix of French Montana’s “Everything’s A Go,” his verse pops up directly following Montana’s wisecrack about “Baby’s bald head.” But when Jay-Z sneered last year about rappers claiming to have “Baby money,” it was Wayne who angrily threw lyrical darts back at Hova, suggesting that it’s Weezy who stands to be embarrassed by the observation that he doesn’t rake in the money like his boss/father figure.
Birdman continued his solo career while remaining ever reliant on bigger stars to bring attention to his records. All six of the singles from 2007’s Five * Stunna and 2009’s Priceless featured Wayne, with two from the latter also featuring the breakout star of Wayne’s Young Money imprint, Drake, who helped make “Money To Blow” (No. 2 R&B) Birdman’s biggest urban radio hit to date. For two years, Birdman has been promising a new album called Bigga Than Life, releasing four singles that all feature one Young Money star or another (Wayne, Tyga, Nicki Minaj). It hasn’t been released yet, but since the rapper is the boss of his own label, it’s likely that he’s simply waiting to drop the album whenever there’s a hole in the release schedule. And with Young Money’s four biggest stars all dropping albums in the past year, there hasn’t been any hole to fill in a while.
As Birdman’s net worth rockets past $100 million, he remains a perennial sidekick and second banana. In addition to a planned sequel to Like Father, Like Son, there’s a long-delayed duo album with Rick Ross titled The H still in the offing. The only mixtape Birdman has ever released, last year’s Billionaire Minds, was a co-venture with one of his moguls-in-training, Young Money president Mack Maine. His career has included appearances on ten Top 40 hits on the Hot 100, and nearly twice as many songs that have cracked the top 40 of the R&B chart, and I can only charitably say he gave a standout performance on one or two of the songs. There are many extremely wealthy celebrities who came to fame as rappers before moving on to acting who are not featured on the Forbes 5. And I have to wonder if Birdman’s present-day fortune has any more to do with his rapping than, say, Will Smith.