Though the favored narrative has since painted Birdman as a nefarious figure, he deserves credit nevertheless. In 1991, the Cash Money mogul crossed paths with an eleven-year-old Lil Wayne, who was in the process of cultivating hip-hop aspirations. As Baby tells it, Wayne’s technical prowess was undeniable even then. “He eleven years old when he first rapped at me,” he reflects, no doubt marveling at the untapped potential. “He was able to change his flow.” Lil Wayne was signed to Cash Money shortly thereafter, joining a roster of Juvenile, B.G, and Turk.

Under Birdman’s tutelage, Lil Wayne found himself growing into a marketable young artist. Labelmate B.G. was a few years older, and together, the boys recorded a collaborative album titled True Story. At the time, Weezy went by the name of Baby D, referencing his birth name “Dwayne.” While the archetypal child rapper has raised a fair share of eyebrows, Wayne and B.G’s instincts remained sharp, informed by their environment and Birdman’s watchful guidance. Take “From Tha 13th To Tha 17th,” which finds the pair of emcees trading bars over a smooth, jazz-flute driven instrumental; despite his inexperience, Wayne’s musical sensibilities rivaled that of rappers twice his age.

B.G & Baby D - "From Tha 13th To Tha 17th"

Despite the ostensible success, his childhood was fraught with turmoil. His stepfather, Reginald "Rabbit" McDonald, was murdered before Wayne’s musical career started bubbling. His mother also took issue with her son pursuing a hip-hop career, citing the violent and profane lyrics. Her intervention prompted Weezy to deliberately shoot himself in the chest, in what he would later describe as a “suicide attempt.” Eventually, the gravitational pull of Weezy’s upward trajectory proved undeniable; at fourteen, he forswore convention in favor of pursuing a still-budding musical career. 

After leaving the “Baby D” moniker behind, Lil Wayne linked up with Juvenile, B.G, and Turk to form the Hot Boys collective. With visionary producer Mannie Fresh manning the boards, their debut Get It How U Live laid the foundation for a game-changing sonic aesthetic. His distinct sound would soon become synonymous with the Cash Money Brand, and Fresh’s symbiosis with each member would yield a bountiful harvest for all parties. Call it healthy competition or merely adaptivity, but Wayne held his own against his peers, including Juvenile, eight years his senior. Yet it would be unfair to neglect Juve’s influence on young Weezy; judging from the heartfelt lamentations of “I Miss My Dawgs,” the friendship ultimately grew beyond music. 

Early footage reveals Birdman and his roster at the onset of their takeover. Citing fallout from The Block Is Hot, excitement surrounding Weezy’s imminent solo project was buzzing throughout the game. “In the year two thousand it’s going to be all about Wayne,” says Juvenile, with a possibly inebriated sense of pride. “Ya’ll peep it after four million. Ya’ll respect it after four million.” Weezy’s sophomore album Lights Out went on to move a respectable 116,000 first week units, securing gold status the following year.

While not quite aligned with Juve’s lofty projections, Weezy had certainly solidified his impact as a key player in the Cash Money roster. For some context, B.G’s Checkmate and Juve’s Tha G-Code both sold more with their recent drops, with 130,000 and 290,000 first-week sales respectively. Given the fact that Lil Wayne’s upcoming Carter V will likely stand alongside the year’s most commercially viable projects, one can’t help but marvel at the shifting tides.


Hot Boys - "Get It How U Live"

In 2001, the once familial Cash Money Records found themselves facing a variety of internal tests. After Juvenile went on to found his own label, UTP records, he opened up about the dynamic to XXL Magazine. “My dogs ain't getting treated right," he vents. "Turk's not getting treated right. B.G.'s not getting treated right. Wayne, on the other hand, I don't know his situation 'cause Wayne is always over there and Wayne listen to 'em like they his father.” Whether or not Juve’s parting words prompted Lil Wayne to dub his 2002 album 500 Degreez is certainly up for debate. It should be noted that Weezy took offense when Young Thug pulled a similar move in naming his album Tha Barter 6. We can discern enough, however, by a simple examination of the guest appearances: no Turk, no B.G, and no Juvenile.

Weezy remained an appreciated name in a dynamic and eclectic pantheon of hip-hop characters, but he never quite carried the commercial weight of peers like Dr. Dre, Eminem, Ja Rule, or Nelly. Consider that this was a different era, where 50 Cent “In Da Club” and OutKast’s “Hey Ya” ruled the charts, titan-esque. Despite Wayne’s undeniable talents, long-honed since the days of Birdman auditions, it seemed as if he lacked the focus to craft a truly definitive project. Yet the man’s standing was about to change. Responding to skeptics with a musicalbiopic of sorts, Weezy shifted the conversation with Tha Carter. 

Lil Wayne - "I Miss My Dawgs"

Released on June 29th, 2004, Lil Wayne and Mannie Fresh teamed up another go-around, hoisting the Cash Money banner for the world to see. Like previous efforts, Tha Carter went on to move 116,000 in first-week sales, underwhelming given the generous nature of the platinum era. Yet it didn’t take long for the hype to spread, and Tha Carter hit platinum status three months later. Though the presence of Turk, B.G., and Juvenile had long dissipated, Lil Wayne surprised fans with a trip down memory lane, delivered via “I Miss My Dawgs.” It’s hard to listen to that track without getting nostalgic for a simpler time, especially given the betrayal-fuelled nature of Cash Money’s epic saga.

In the wake of Tha Carter, Lil Wayne’s career trajectory experienced an upswing. Long-winded tales of Weezy’s subsequent run will be inevitably passed to grandchildren sitting bored on laps, by those gray-haired and wistful. Today, hearing Wayne’s name as a viable contender for greatest of all time feels standard. Even safe. Yet such conclusions weren’t always foregone. They were earned, developed and honed through over a decade in the game. Through the influence of B.G, Turk, Juvenile, Mannie Fresh, and yes, even Birdman. Tha Carter seriesis on the verge of becoming a pentalogy, and with the fifth chapter en route, there has never been a more fitting time to lay fresh eyes upon the prologue.