For a long time now, Lil Wayne's laid credible claim to the title of "best rapper alive." Last week, when Tha Carter III (Cash Money/Universal) moved 423,000 units on the day it hit retail, the New Orleans MC showed he might be the most popular too. With first week sales hovering around a million, Wayne doubled the first week sales for Jay-Z's last release (American Gangster) and put himself in Kanye territory. Get ready for the summer of Weezy.
But Wayne's success has implications beyond himself. The biggest music story over the last year is undoubtedly the way artists are responding to the changes (read: failings) of major labels. Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails have opted out, choosing to release their music independently. Madonna and Jay-Z recently struck so-called 360 deals with concert promotion company Live Nation. Simply put, a lot of artists don't think major labels are that great at selling music anymore. So how do we explain Wayne's success? It's simple, he hedged his bets.
In the three years since Lil Wayne's last major label album, Tha Carter II, the rapper has been ubiquitous. He put out the Dedication and Drought series of mix tapes (a total of five albums!). He dropped guest verses on tracks by everyone and their uncle. He showed up in magazines and videos. And in each case, fans could get their Wayne fix easily and inexpensively. While major labels smile through gritted teeth every time they give something away, Wayne saturated the market and still sold a ton. By constantly releasing new music and keeping a high profile, Wayne created a huge audience for himself. He wouldn't--couldn't--be ignored.
I'd love it if rock bands took a similar approach. Imagine if Coldplay (in terms of popularity, a reasonable rock equivalent to Lil Wayne) put out a Wayne-load of rough mixes, acoustic versions, and live recordings rather than working under the fusty album-every-three-years paradigm. With only the inkling of inspiration, Wayne will show up at a studio, spits some verses, and put the damn thing out. As great as megabands like Coldplay (and U2, and Radiohead) are, they can seem monolithic and remote, descending every few years to release an album, tour, and then disappear again. Wayne's always around. We know what's on his mind. We can hear both his missteps and casual triumphs. Then we buy his album. But maybe that's no surprise. After all, you get what you give, and no one's given more lately than Lil Wayne.
So tell us, would you be excited or exhausted if your favorite act released music at Weezy's rate? Given that the music business is no stranger to copycatting, you just might have a chance to find out.