Birdman: A Retrospective

The controversial rapper/record executive just reached a settlement with Lil Wayne leaving Wayne the sole owner of Young Money Records. Take a look back at Birdman’s career

There are few characters in Hip-Hop with more notoriety than Bryan Christopher Williams, better known as the rapper Birdman/Baby. As CEO of Cash Money Records, a subsidiary of Universal Music Group, he has made an empire off the backs of nearly everyone who has crossed his path. He’s also a musician who has been able to remain relevant through three decades with a classic verse in each. His style has somehow both shifted with the times, in part because he’s had many different people penning his lyrics and been surrounded by some of the most game-changing producers, while also remaining uniquely his. His voice is distinct from any other rapper, his flow mimics the swagger of his trademark hand rubbing, and his lyrics are a balanced mix of braggadocio and menace.

The 90s: “How You Luv That” – Big Tymers feat. Juvenile & Lil Wayne

In the 90s, aside from starting Cash Money Records with his older brother Ronald “Slim” Williams, Birdman was one half of the duo Big Tymers with Cash Money’s in-house producer Mannie Fresh. In 1997 the pair released the album How You Luv That, an album that sold over 100,000 copies despite having little to no major radio or video play. The rapper Juvenile’s regional status gave rise to Cash Money’s largest act The Hot Boys, introducing the world to a man who would, for a time, be considered by many the best rapper alive: Lil Wayne. Both rappers appear on this song and both would have very public falling outs with Birdman and Cash Money Records. Juvenile, Mannie Fresh and Lil Wayne have all sought legal remediation with Cash Money Records and settled out of court. But during the 90s things were good, classic albums were made and Cash Money Records were busy introducing the world to the sounds of New Orleans: bounce.

There’s a beauty to Birdman’s slow New Orleans drawl over the light bounce of Mannie Fresh’s beat. It’s so flowery in the background when Birdman, very matter-of-factly, states “fuck these white folks ’til I’m dead.” He’s about as New Orleans as they come, helping you dance while keeping things one hundred percent real with you. “Now tell me how you luv that?”

The 00s: “What Happened To That Boy” – Birdman feat. Clipse

Before Pusha T was helping us keep track of who exactly was signed to who and before he wondered exactly who owned the cars he was out-rapping Birdman on his own track. Pusha T has been in a seemingly never-ending beef with Birdman and Cash Money Records which, rumour has it, began because Pharrell and The Neptunes were never paid for this beat. Lil Wayne and Push went back and forth throughout the aughts and things would later reignite this year between Drake and Push.

Birdman, however, is no slouch on this track either. Things have completely shifted, Cash Money Records is on top and here Birdman is rapping over a classic Neptunes beat. He’s switched from the beats designed to make you shake your ass to the beats designed to make you nod your head. Yet his flow has more fluidity to it than the early Big Tymers’ records. He’s finally comfortable riding a beat and switching up his flows a bit, elongating lines like, “shit one, throw one, n**ga, flood the block,” and rushing to the end of lines like, “new whips, big chips, the Prada Gucci shit.”

 The 10s: “Constantly Hating” – Young Thug feat. Birdman

Birdman once again regained Hip-Hop relevancy in this decade with his massive promotion of Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan, releasing a mixtape with them called Rich Gang: Tha Tour Pt. 1. On top of that, he’s on the opener to Young Thug’s critically acclaimed tape, Barter 6, “Constantly Hating.” With the release of Barter 6, Birdman’s relationship with Wayne reached its boiling point. He’s featured on the opener of an album whose very title is aping Wayne. A week after Barter 6 dropped someone shot up Lil Wayne’s tour bus. Jimmy Carlton Winfrey (better known as Peewee Roscoe) was indicted on June 25, 2015 after pleading guilty to the shooting, a case that had many holes but one of the most damning pieces of evidence being that immediately prior to the shooting Winfrey was “in contact with cell phones associated with” Young Thug and after the shooting Winfrey placed a call to a phone owned by Birdman.

Here Birdman is rapping on quite possibly the strangest beat of his life and he cannonballs, past a surfing Young Thug, into his verse. It’s beautiful and it’s the catchiest Birdman has ever been. The way the beat drops out as Thug finishes the hook, the “Rich Gang” tag comes in, and then the beat just drops back in as Birdman rockets into his verse with, “I’m from that muthafuckin’ Noila, n**ga,” is as stone cold as it gets.

***

One of my favourite Birdman lyrics, from “How You Luv That,””I got a screen TV so big/ Playboy I had to get approval from the city and the muthafuckin’ feds/ I say fuck these white folks ’til I’m dead,” foreshadows a question I’ve been asking myself since deciding to write this piece: why is every single conversation about Birdman, even by people with only a passing familiarity of his work, centred around his unsavoury business practices while the same people would be unable to name a single white record executive who has committed the same crimes?  The same unethical business practices, when committed by white people, are either forgotten or explained away as products of the time and industry and those of people of colour are inseparable from their narrative. To take it a step further, it seems almost like the musical version of the ridiculous “what about black on black crime?” argument. Birdman is vilified even more because he was ripping off his own people on his way to the top, while the men and women who benefited from infrastructure within the industry designed to not only help them to the top but also assist them in ripping off marginalized people are somehow let off the hook because their behaviour is expected.

And yet when I sat down to write this piece I realized I couldn’t write the story without writing about Birdman’s relationships and his business practices because that is the story. He ripped off everyone who ever crossed his path, he shelved the album of a man he called his son for years and is only now making amends in order to keep things out of the courts. His notoriety and the headlines associated have maintained his relevancy for three decades. But there’s the story and there’s also the music.

 

 

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