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The debate surrounding who the best rapper alive is an ever-changing one and is sure to yield many answers. But in 2009, there was no question that Lil Wayne was the hottest. Once the runt of the Cash Money family litter, Weezy had ascended to heights unforeseen. Carrying the label on his back following the departure Hot Boys members Juvenile, B.G., and Turk, the Hollygrove rep put the rap world on notice with his 2004 release, Tha Carter, which was powered by the Mannie Fresh-produced hit “Go D.J.,” and showcased Wayne’s evolved flow and heightened lyrical ability. It was also around this period that he started anointing himself as “The Best Rapper Alive,” a mantra he would bark on various occasions over the subsequent years, particularly the first two installments of his Dedication mixtape series.
And with chief in-house producer Mannie defecting after the release of Tha Carter, Wayne was left as the last man standing on what many had predicted would be a sinking ship just years prior. However, he became the anchor the label needed with Tha Carter II, which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and would sell over two million units within a year of its release. Having gained the respect and adulation of the streets and the mainstream, Wayne’s stock skyrocketed with his relentless succession of freestyles, guest appearances and leaked records causing many to champion him as the most captivating lyricist in all of rap. This groundswell of popularity and acclaim would reach a fever pitch in 2008 with Tha Carter III, which debuted atop the charts with first week sales upwards of one million copies.
Producing seismic singles like “Lollipop,” “A Milli,” “Got Money,” and “Mrs. Officer,” Tha Carter III was lauded as Wayne’s best body of work at the time. Earning a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year, as well as wins for Best Rap Album, Best Rap Song, and Best Rap Solo Performance, Weezy had reached the summit of rap stardom only enjoyed by a handful of names. And if the commercial and critical success was not enough, JAY-Z’s torch-passing moment on Tha Carter III cut “Mr. Carter” all but stamped the New Orleans native as the undisputed new king of rap. But every king needs his royal court to help protect the throne, and Wayne had one set in place with his rap crew and imprint, Young Money.
Founded in 2005 and introduced via Young Money: The Mixtape Vol. 1, the label was initially headlined by Wayne’s longtime friend Mack Maine, No Limit castaway and New Orleans native Curren$y, and Lil Boo formerly of the Chicago-based Cash Money duo Boo & Gotti. However, with Wayne’s epic solo run putting his plans for Young Money on the back-burner, both Curren$y and Lil Boo would decide to branch out on their own, leaving him to retool the label’s roster with a crop of new talent. With Mack Maine and former Sqad Up member Gudda Gudda already on the roster, the next key addition to YM would be Jae Millz, a seasoned spitter and battle rapper from Harlem, New York. Scoring a minor hit with his 2003 debut single “No, No, No,” Millz languished on the bench during stints with Warner Bros. Records and Universal Records before being recruited to join Weezy and company.
Next up was Cali native Tyga, who had caught a buzz with his debut album, No Introduction, and its lead single “Coconut Juice,” in 2008. After an encounter with Tyga after his performance alongside Fall Out Boy at the 2008 MTV Video Music Awards, Weezy was so impressed that he offered him a spot on the Young Money team, which the budding upstart accepted. Later that year, while embarking on his “I Am Music Tour” in support of Tha Carter III, Wayne discovered singer-songwriter Shanell and Canadian rapper Drake, the latter of whom proved to be a particularly key addition to the lineup. Gaining fame as a cast member on the Canadian television show “Degrassi,” Drake, who was coming off the heels of two acclaimed mixtape releases, was introduced to Wayne by Jas Prince, son of Rap-A-Lot Records founder and southern rap legend J. Prince.
Impressed by what he heard, Weezy invited Drake to travel with him on the road and the two quickly sparked a working relationship. Collaborations like “Ransom” and various appearances on Drake’s So Far Gone mixtape helped shine a major light on the relatively unknown, sparking a bidding war that culminated in the Toronto sensation inking a deal with his newfound partner-in-rhyme. The final piece to complete the Young Money nucleus was Nicki Minaj, a female rhymer who had caught Wayne’s attention after he watched her rap on an underground DVD. A native of Jamaica, Queens, Minaj and Weezy first collaborated on her 2008 mixtape, Sucka Free, but her affiliation with Young Money would become even more apparent with Wayne’s appearance on the hit single “I Get Crazy” from Nicki’s breakout 2009 project, Beam Me Up Scotty.
With all of the chess pieces in order, and Lil Wayne’s quest for domination of the rap world a priority, he decided to close out the decade by unveiling the compilation album, We Are Young Money. Boasting contributions from nearly one dozen artists on the label, the compilation was intended to introduce Young Money as the next powerhouse movement in hip hop and showcase its plethora of talent. Headlined by Drake, who had emerged as the hottest young star in rap; Minaj, who was being hailed as the next female rapper with the potential for mainstream success; and Lil Wayne, the hype surrounding We Are Young Money may have been manufactured in large part by its big three, but is largely carried by its role players, starting with the opening track, “Gooder.”
Military-style drums and piano keys create the ambiance, as Jae Millz quickly attacks the backdrop with a flurry of couplets, while Gudda Gudda and Mack Maine provide reinforcement on the subsequent stanzas with charged-up performances. Wayne plays the background and assumes hook-man duties on the track, while his underlings shine. But, his presence is felt in a big way on “EveryGirl In The World,” a syrupy jam on which a few of the crew members voice their desires for the opposite sex. Led by Weezy and featuring Drake; Jae Millz, Gudda Gudda, and Mack Maine; Tha Bizness-produced single peaked at No. 10 on the Hot 100 and was a testament to the crew’s ability to craft viable hits as a unit. Co-starring alongside Weezy on “New Shit” and additional album cuts, Millz, Gudda, and Maine all turn in impressive showings that proved they were more than mere placeholders.
Shanell lends her vocals to “Play in My Band,” a gnarly salvo by Wayne that sounds like a holdover from his rock-inspired album, I Am Not A Human Being, while Minaj makes her first appearance on the album on the jittery heater “Fuck da Bullshit.” Produced by Chase N. Cashe and Andrew “Pop” Wansel — with additional commentary from Birdman — Minaj puts her animated delivery on full display by reeling off a quick-strike stanza that coaxes impassioned rhyme spills on the part of Wayne and her other Young Money cohorts. In addition to the deep cuts, she, as well as Drake, Tyga, and Wayne, shine on the album’s singles — with “Bed Rock” being the most glowing example of their chemistry. Featuring R&B crooner Lloyd, with Gudda Gudda also offering support, “Bed Rock” finds the quarter bouncing off of one another’s energy, resulting in a playful, yet infectious selection that climbed all the way to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100.
This magic is recaptured, sans Drake, on “Roger That,” which finds Minaj besting Tyga and Weezy with a vicious showing that earned the Barb rave reviews and helped further cement her status as rap’s latest femme fatale. For all of its moving parts, the finest moment on We Are Young Money comes courtesy of Wayne, who reminds listeners that he can detonate lyrically with a moment’s notice on the Kane Beatz-produced highlight “Steady Mobbin’.” Featuring a clutch outing on the part of Gucci Mane, the song may not have mirrored the chart success of the compilations other singles, but is regarded as a crown jewel. Bringing things full circle on the monstrous posse-cut “Finale,” — which includes every member of the Young Money team spouting off bars with aggression — We Are Young Money ends its proceedings in grand fashion by proving that beyond the hits lie a stable of rhyme animals with the ability to form like Voltron over any instrumental.
Songs like “Ms. Parker,” “Wife Beater,” and Lil Chuckee and Lil Twist’s teeny-bopper effort “Girl I Got You” stand as blatant missteps that border on cringe-worthy. But as a whole, We Are Young Money was a project that established Young Money as a viable entity within the rap landscape. It helped birth two of the biggest stars in all of music over the next decade in Drake and Minaj, both of whom would go on to release multiple chart-topping solo albums and account for some of the most memorable hits of the aughts. Arguably the leading male and female entertainers in the culture during the last ten years, Drizzy and Minaj’s genesis can be traced, in part, back to their standout performances on We Are Young Money. While his career has had its ebbs and flows, Tyga has also made his mark, finding his lane with a succession of twerk-friendly club bangers and teaming up with Chris Brown for their Fan of a Fan series.
The remaining members of Young Money would all enjoy varying degrees of success. But, none would officially release a full-length album during their tenure on the label. Though Jae Millz, Lil Chuckee, Short Dawg and — more recently — Tyga have all left the label, Young Money remains a major player in the rap game with many of the artists included on We Are Young Money still a part of the family. Arriving during an era where a plethora of crews and imprints were entering the game — many of whom released compilations of their own — We Are Young Money’s commercial success, as the album was certified gold, and the careers that it helped sparked, puts it in a rare class. While other label compilations may have rivaled it, musically, that project remains a noteworthy offering and marked the rise of one of the most dominant factions in rap, not only of the decade, but all-time.