Lil Wayne vs. Cash Money: Can the Rapper Leave the Label He's Been With Since He Was 13?

Album delays are ­nothing new for Lil Wayne. But the MC sent shockwaves through the hip-hop world on Dec. 4 when he publicly blamed his label for the ever-shifting release date of his new album, Tha Carter V. Calling himself a "prisoner," he tweeted, "I want off this label and nothing to do with these people." [Ed note: Wayne tweeted yesterday (Dec. 11): "YM! That's it."] The barb was aimed at Cash Money's co-founders Bryan "Baby" and Ronald "Slim" Williams -- who signed a prepubescent Wayne in the early 1990s -- but particularly Bryan, whom Wayne, 32, has described as a surrogate father. Baby has a giant image of Wayne tattooed on his left pectoral, and the pair released an album together in 2006 called Like Father, Like Son.

While the full nature of Wayne's dissatisfaction with the label is unclear, some speculate that he feels he's underpaid, like several '90s-era Cash Money artists before him. Juvenile, B.G. and Mannie Fresh departed amid financial disputes, with Fresh telling Hip Hop Weekly that his time on Cash Money was like "slavery." (He did reunite with Wayne for V, however, and Juvenile has since rejoined the label.) Similarly, a host of producers has accused the label of nonpayment, including "Lollipop" co-producers Jim Jonsin and Deezle, and Bangladesh, who made Wayne hits including "A Milli" and "6 Foot 7 Foot." (All three have since settled with the label.)

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"I'm shocked by this," says DJ Peter Rosenberg of WQHT (Hot 97) New York. "Wayne and Baby have one of the most storied CEO-artist relationships ever, and I never thought it would end."

Long Cash Money's marquee artist and steadfastly loyal until now, Wayne has been gradually eclipsed by Drake -- a friction playfully discussed in the pair's recent joint tour -- who, along with Nicki Minaj, is also signed to Wayne's sublabel Young Money. Drake's Nothing Was the Same was the seventh best seller of 2013, with 1.3 million units sold in that year alone, according to Nielsen Music, followed by a string of hits this year (see story).

Wayne, the Williamses and Wayne's managers, Cortez Bryant and Gee Roberson at Blueprint Group, declined Billboard's requests for comment, though Bryant did give a brief interview to TMZ on Dec. 5 in which he said, "We good, I'm ­smiling. I wouldn't be out at the club right now." (He later issued a ­statement to the site, noting that his tone was intended as "sarcastic" and that the situation with Cash Money was "serious.")

It's unclear when V will arrive, and while Wayne's albums are usually delayed, the new work has yet to produce a monster advance single like "Lollipop," the Hot 100-topping hit that preceded 2008's Tha Carter III. Wayne's best-performing 2014 single, "Believe Me," peaked at No. 26 on the Hot 100 (No. 7 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs) and has sold 678,000 copies, but is anchored by a verse and hook from Drake.

Although Wayne claims the situation will quickly be resolved in his favor -- "We'll be out of this soon," he said cryptically at a show in Brooklyn on Dec. 5 -- that seems unlikely, considering he has released just one album from a four-album deal that he signed with the label for an undisclosed amount in 2012.

The controversy comes at a difficult time in Wayne's career, which peaked with the triple-platinum Tha Carter III, the best-selling album of 2008. (He has since been to jail, hospitalized due to serious seizures and ordered to give up his prescription cough syrup.) 2011's critically panned Tha Carter IV sold 2.4 million copies, but recent releases have faltered.

Some feel a fresh start could be the best thing for Wayne's musical career. "When you have artists unhappy with their label homes, their creativity suffers," says Deezle, adding that he and Wayne have made unreleased music that was deemed too experimental for Cash Money. "I'm sure once he's happy, he would have another creative spike."

This article first appeared in the Dec. 20 issue of Billboard.