There’s a lot to be said about Dwayne Michael Carter Jr. Some love him, some hate him, and others are fascinated by him. As an artist he had his share of controversies, but he also wears a lot of hats. He’s a rapper, a skater, a fashion designer, but most importantly he’s a businessman. There was a period in time when he was unstoppable. He sold over a million copies of Tha Carter 3 in one week, broke Elvis Presley’s record for appearances on the Hot 100, and even got a shout out from Barack Obama.
Lil Wayne’s achievements were a result of some smart moves and adapting to a changing music climate. Even if you’re not a fan of his music, there’s no denying that he did something right. When the music industry was struggling make legitimate sales, Lil Wayne found a hole in the market and used this to multiply his recognition in the music business.
He rose to fame while other people struggled, and then he passed the success on to his team. To find this type of success in the music industry he had to treat it like a business. In this way, he is one of the the savviest businessmen to ever be in the rap game.
The Early Days
If you look at Wayne’s early career, it was not remarkable. I remember watching MTV as a kid and hearing his verse in Juvenile’s Back That Azz Up. During the early 00’s he was establishing his name and releasing some of his early projects. These projects are generally viewed positively and helped him to gain a following. Tha Block is Hot has fans and 500 Degreez ties him to his southern roots. If the numbers are any indication, these projects were not exceptional. Certainly not failures, but they also weren’t the mainstream successes that his later projects would become.
This level of success is not the level we’ve come to associate with Wayne. It wasn’t until 2004’s Tha Carter that we’d see the framework for his dominance begin to take formation. He followed that up with Tha Carter II in 2005. It was also in 2005 that we’d see a trend of Wayne’s begin. He appeared on Destiny Child’s song Soldier, beginning a trend of collaborations. In 2006 you’ll see an uptick in his number of collaborations with a couple of them becoming top 10 singles on the Billboard Hot 100.
Soldier was not the first song to feature Lil Wayne. Like I said, I was first exposed to him through a feature on Back That Azz Up. However, it was his highest charting song to date. Of course, being featured on a song with the powerhouse known as Beyonce is not going to hurt, but there’s a reason this move was smart of his career. Destiny’s Child was an act that rides a fine line between Top 40 and Urban radio stations. In the US, the song hit #3 on the Hot 100, #3 on the Hot R&B & Hip-Hop songs chart, #4 on Mainstream 40, and #4 on Rhythmic. If you look at his prior charting singles, features included, nothing came close to this success as a Mainstream Top 40 artist. This move amassed him exposure in a market where his music was less recognized.
In 2004–2006 Wayne also released projects in different areas. He released a collaboration album with his then-mentor Birdman as well as a number of mixtapes. When it comes to Lil Wayne, there’s no shortage of music. He releases many projects, and each project has been an important component of his career growth.
Lil Wayne’s growth came at a transformative time in the music industry. He began in the late 90’s and early 00’s when record sales were at an all time high. His exposure increased during a time when record sales were declining. This forced him to take new approaches to marketing his name and acquiring success within the music and entertainment businesses.
Selling a Million
As 2007 approached, Wayne had massive buzz behind his name. Fans were anticipating the next installment in Tha Carter series, and Wayne was busy at work. He would feature in more songs this year and released a mixtape called Da Drought 3. The tape received praise and even featured a young Nicki Minaj. The internet was bringing Wayne’s music to more ears than ever, but the internet would also jeopardize his future success.
In mid 2007 an unauthorized mixtape featuring new music from Lil Wayne found its way online. Under the name Da Drought is Over 2, the tape clearly featured songs intended for Tha Carter 3. When you hear him say “C3,” there’s no denying that he recorded the track a real album. This is a devastating blow to an artist when their music leaks, but it was something all too common in the mid-to-late 00’s.
This is when the rubber hit the road. Rather than release an album of music fans already heard, Wayne hit the recording studio. Yes, this meant postponing the album, but it was also an opportunity for him to show his potential. If he could rerecord the album and include great tracks then he would solidify his position in the rap game.
2007 turned to 2008. Lil Wayne released an EP containing some of his songs intended for Tha Carter 3. In March, Lil Wayne released his single Lollipop which would become his first #1 single. This song would have likely not existed if the original Tha Carter 3 never leaked. The song received mass airplay and was certified multi-platinum by the end of 2008. Clearly, no leak was going to stop Lil Wayne at this point in time.
To further prove this point, the finalized version of Tha Carter 3 did leak, but only a few days prior to its official release. By this point anticipation for the album was at an all time high. The 2007 leaks received praise, Lollipop was a #1 song, and now the official album was receiving praise. First week sales proved Tha Carter 3 was a certified blockbuster album. It sold just over a million copies in one week. This feat has always been a huge accomplishment, but achieving it in 2008 seemed nearly impossible. Somehow, leaking music to the internet wasn’t the death of Lil Wayne’ career. In fact, it a catalyst for his success.
After the Peak
Most people have to chose between quality and quantity. At this point in time, Wayne didn’t have to choose. After Tha Carter 3 he was in high demand. Some people feel his quality has declined, but the quantity certainly did not. After his success Lil Wayne became the king of collaborations. Songs with his name populated the Billboard Hot 100 and it seemed like everyone was trying to get a piece of his success. I doubt many people remember the name Kevin Rudolph, but he had a #5 song on the Hot 100 with Let it Rock thanks to a Lil Wayne feature. Wayne also found himself back at the top of the Hot 100 in 2009 thanks to his collaboration with Jay Sean is Down.
The history books may not give as much respect to artist who sold million of digital singles. The focus usually lies on people who have sold millions of albums. In the late 00’s and early 10’s, digital singles were outselling albums and this was the market Lil Wayne was in. So, he featured on many singles and sold millions of copies. Many of the artists were relatively unknown until Lil Wayne featured on the track, but this is often how hip hop artists begin their careers. They get a big name on their first single and hope for success. With this in mind, Lil Wayne featured on singles with both new and established artists.
In the digital age, when single sales ruled the music industry, collaborating with artists made sense. This is how artists would use a digital platform to promote their name. Consumers no longer had to rely on radio or MTV to discover new music. Instead, social networks like Myspace and YouTube could be used as a discovery platform. If an artist like Jay Sean had Lil Wayne on his track people were doing to pay attention. For Lil Wayne, he was able to increase his visibility by putting his verses on as many songs as possible. Perhaps he wouldn’t get the biggest paycheck working with a new artist like Jay Sean, but it beat the alternative of people leaking his music and illegally downloading it.
This focus on collaboration made Lil Wayne’s music unavoidable after Tha Carter 3 was released. It also gave him the freedom to do more experimentation with his music. During this time he released a couple of mixtapes and two albums: the rock-inspired Rebirth and the collaboration-heavy I Am Not a Human Being. This period in time also saw Lil Wayne’s music label Young Money begin to become a major focus. In 2009 he released the album We Are Young Money to showcase the talent on his label.
Even in his early days, Wayne has remained very close to his mentors and teammates. We saw this with Birdman when he released Like Father Like Son, but now it was time for Wayne to produce his own talent. Young Money has signed an array of artists, two of the biggest names were Drake and Nicki Minaj. Wayne would frequently feature these two on his singles and he’d find himself collaborating with his label mates when they released projects.
This period in time begins to see a major shift in Lil Wayne’s priorities. Not only had a built an empire for himself, he used that template to build success for other artists. In 2010 we started to see Lil Wayne feature in fewer songs, but his proteges Nicki Minaj and Drake are featured in dozens of songs. Based on their formula for success, it’s hard to deny Lil Wayne’s influence on Nicki and Drake’s careers.
The Later Years
After the massive success of Tha Carter 3 in 2008, Tha Carter 4 almost hit the one million mark in sales during its first week. For 2011, this is still an incredible feat. While his prior experimental albums weren’t quite as successful, Lil Wayne seems to reserve his best efforts for his “Tha Carter” series.
He would continue to release mixtapes and some experimental albums in the early 10’s after Tha Carter 4. These albums would receive mixed reviews, and personal issues would begin to creep into Wayne’s life. He had some health scares, run ins with the law, and a falling out with his mentor Birdman. Many artists would crumble during challenge times, but Lil Wayne had built an empire. Perhaps his music was getting less attention, but Drake was on top of the world. His legacy was living on through his label mates.
2018 would see a return of Lil Wayne with Tha Carter 5. The album received critical acclaim and opened with 480,000 album-equivalent units sold in its first week. While this is not as high as the previous Carter albums, it was a big success in the streaming age. This became the second highest streaming week ever, proving Lil Wayne still has some influence ten years after Tha Carter 3.
Lil Wayne the Businessman
Why is Lil Wayne so great when there are so many other rappers in the game? I’ll be honest, he has some great songs and some duds, but his perseverance allowed him to overcome the challenges that faced him. He found a way to take a sinking music industry and turn it into a platform where he could thrive.
He adapted. When his music leaked, his seized the opportunity to prove his abilities. Tha Carter 3 became a massive success, and this is because he was able to produce new material after having his track leak.
He took chances. By shifting his focus off traditional album sales and using digital singles he amplified his visibility. He helped new artists establish a presence in the music industry while allowing himself to gain popularity.
He built his brand. He has a lot of music, bit it all has a place in his persona. The singles and collaborations are for the radio. The mixtapes are for the eager and hardcore fans. He has his experimental albums to try new sounds. Of course, there are the Carter albums. These are the pillars of his success. If you want to see Wayne at his best, list to any “Tha Carter.”
He built his team. Once Lil Wayne became a household name he used that momentum to establish other names. Nicki Minaj and Drake would be different artists without the influence of Lil Wayne, but after a decade the three rappers are still on Young Money. Lil Wayne keeps his team close and respects their decisions. In this way, even when Wayne stays silent, his influence is felt on the music industry.
This is how Lil Wayne stayed successful. Only time will tell what his next move will be. Until then, I will be waiting to see how he fills the time between now and Tha Carter 6.