What Lil Wayne's Prison Release Means For Hip-Hop's Business

By Paul Cantor

In 2008, Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III went platinum during its first week in stores, providing hip-hop with a much needed sales jolt. Mr. Carter’s yet to duplicate that success with his successive releases—Rebirth and I Am Not A Human Being, respectively—but with his release from Rikers last week, one can’t help but wonder what his return means for hip-hop’s bottom line.

“Whatever anyone thinks about record sales these days, they matter,” said Desiree Williams, an independent music retailer who's worked with sales managers and marketing reps from all the major labels for the last 14 years. “There are some artists left that, from a business perspective, understand the opportunities that come along with selling units. I would put Dwayne Carter ‘the business man’ in that category. With Tha Carter IV, there is an expectation for Wayne to do big first week numbers. I also think his fans will support him.”

Clinton Sparks, DJ/television personality-cum-recording artist, doesn’t think the onus is on Wayne to sell records as much as it is to release music.

“Once you become iconic like a Lil Wayne, sales do not matter to the fans,” he said. “Obviously, the label feels differently but people just want to hear from you and what you have to say.”

For Wayne, that might not be a difficult thing to do.

He’s known for his tireless work ethic. Weezy's stash of videos and songs ran so deep before leaving for prison that while he was away he earned the #7 slot on MTV's Hottest MC in the Game list, voted by MTV News’ Hip-Hop Brain Trust.

“Wayne's a great role model for having an incredible work ethic,” said Michelle McDevitt, of Audible Treats, an entertainment marketing and publicity firm which boasts campaigns for acts like Little Brother and David Banner, among others. “Everyone close to his team has always expressed that he is 100% dedicated to his art.”

Wayne’s penchant for churning out an endless stream of high quality material can also stir up competition—and he may already have a lot. The “song a week” buzz model hadn’t really taken hold with major artists when Wayne went to jail in March. Now, Kanye’s dropping songs on G.O.O.D. Fridays, Swizz Beats on Monsta Mondays and Timbaland on Timbo Thursdays. It’s a crowded field, to say the least.

“I think [the weekly music releases are evidence of] an effect Wayne's had on others,” said Sparks, giving credit to Wayne for making artists feel they need to work faster. “His work ethic, abundance of material and [song] releases are so intense, that it was almost unnoticeable that he was in jail.”

Moving forward, Williams thinks Wayne’s only going to increase his output.

“I would suggest fans get ready for Lil Wayne mixtape mania,” she said. “If it’s anything like his run before Tha Carter III, there will be many street singles that never make the Billboard charts. He believes the more music he releases the more music he will sell and he has to do numbers on Tha Carter IV.”

There’s also the added value Wayne gives to other artists with his guest features. One would be hard pressed to find an artist who’s been featured on more songs than him in the past few years.

"The right song featuring Wayne could mean a huge success for an artist or a group," Williams continued. "So far Wayne has been on 63 different songs on the Billboard Hot 100. He was the featured artist on 34 of those songs and not the lead.”

McDevitt sees Wayne being a bit more exploratory moving forward.

“I don't think it'll hurt them,” she said, when asked how a Wayne feature might impact single sales for a specific song. “[But] I think Wayne will start to branch out of hip-hop and do collaborations in other genres.”

Sparks agreed.

“Whether it's on someone else's song or his own, people are not tired of Wayne and the interest is still high,” he said. “There are no signs of his music, or any music he is a part of, not selling or being played in the clubs or on radio.”

What do you think Lil Wayne's impact will be on hip-hop's bottom line? Tweet us at @MTVRapFix or tell us in a comment below!

image courtesy of MTV News' Jayson Rodriguez