Don't be fooled by the billowing cloud of fragrant smoke: Curren$y is a shrewd businessman. Despite five record deals in less than 10 years, including one with No Limit and another with Cash Money Records, and still no "official" solo debut, the New Orleans rapper has carved out a career with a unique, indie approach. Late last year, Curren$y, 30, joined Warner Bros. Records, and now, as he readies "Weekend at Burnies," a "commercial mixtape" (due June 28 through Warner under his Jet Life Recordings), he's getting attention not just for his music, but also for his industrious blueprint.
"In hip-hop right now, if you don't have the entrepreneurial mind at some point, it's hard to succeed," Warner executive VP Joie Manda says. "The kids are so savvy -- and they watch your moves. They're not just listening to your verses: They're watching your deals."
Most of Curren$y's projects blur the line between mixtape and proper album. In 2009, he released a pair of collections ("This Ain't No Mixtape" and "Jet Files") through Amalgam Digital. A year later, he took a similar approach, pushing out "Pilot Talk" and "Pilot Talk II" through a production/distribution deal with Damon Dash's DD172 Records and Def Jam. The latter project drew the attention of the hip-hop blogosphere when Curren$y's first-week sales (18,500, according to Nielsen SoundScan) outpaced those of Soulja Boy's heavily promoted Interscope Records album, "The DeAndre Way LP" (13,400), released the same week.
Curren$y calls "Burnies" "an update for people to find out what's going on, like a CliffsNotes for people who don't really know about me." The 10-track set features lead single "#JetsGo," and preorders for the Web-exclusive bundle, which includes a "Burnies" herb grinder, are already sold out on Curren$y's online store through Warner. Fans visiting the store can separately order a commemorative T-shirt, and Curren$y's Warner contract includes a merchandising deal. He and the label split the costs and profits from his clothing line.
By leading with a lifestyle -- his rhymes, which often include lyrics about girls, sneakers and cars, have drawn a following who call themselves "Jets" -- Curren$y paved the way for artists like Wiz Khalifa, Big K.R.I.T. and newcomer Stalley to profit from combining mixtapes tied to merch and touring without having radio hits.
"A lot of artists, they get a little success and they start worrying about getting to step five too fast," Manda says. "Curren$y is loving taking his tour across the country, without a big hit on the radio, and putting out these hybrid projects, because he feels he's speaking to his fans in a way that no other artist is speaking to them."
"Curren$y acts as a big brother to Wiz, being that he's a bit older than him, and has been in the game for a while," Wiz Khalifa's manager Benjy Grinberg says. "He's definitely been able to give Wiz advice over the last few years."
Being a label priority for the first time in his career hasn't changed Curren$y's approach. Earlier this year, he partnered with producer Alchemist for the mixtape "Covert Coup," a project made available for "free" with the purchase of two limited-edition $40 T-shirts designed by the pair. The shirts quickly sold out online and at Allstar, a boutique clothing store in New Orleans. And even as "Burnies" hits, he's putting the finishing touches on two more projects for release later this year -- a Gangsta Grillz mixtape with Atlanta mainstay DJ Drama and his long-awaited debut that's still untitled but set to feature production by the Neptunes.
"It took a minute. You've got to put that time in for [a major label] to trust going out on a limb," Curren$y says of his long path. "You have to be proven, and... not be a gamble. The best thing to do is to build yourself up as a brand, build your team up around you, so you're not just one thing."