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Why we got a Lil Wayne Tidal mixtape in 2015 instead of a Lil Wayne album in 2014

The Free Weezy Album is exclusive, but inessential

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Everyone has their own way of celebrating the Independence Day long weekend. For some people, it’s rooftop cookouts and cut-rate fireworks; for others, it’s just another block of time they can spend blasting through their Netflix queue. Lil Wayne tried to embody the spirit of the holiday this year with the release of The Free Weezy Album (FWA), a new full-length that slipped onto Tidal Saturday and into dustier corners of the internet shortly after.

The music contained within is unspectacular, which shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. (Expecting Lil Wayne to drop a classic album in 2015 is a little like expecting Michael Jordan to dunk from the free throw line every time he steps on the court in 2015: he can still get a little air, but consistent greatness has come and gone.) But the drama surrounding the album’s conception and release is quite compelling, even more than the album itself. Where is Tha Carter V, the long-awaited fifth entry in Wayne’s flagship album series? Is this a game-changing get for Tidal? And why does Weezy need to be freed in the first place?

Tha Carter V had already been delayed several times

We can trace the roots of Wayne’s quest for emancipation back to December 2014. Just a few days before Tha Carter V’s scheduled release — a release that had already been delayed several times — Wayne took to Twitter to announce that the album was being held back, and that it had nothing to do with him. He blamed the delay on his label, Cash Money, and Baby, the rapper / label co-founder / father figure also known as Birdman. He also expressed his desire to leave the label entirely.

Wayne spent January tussling with Cash Money on both musical and legal fronts. He released Sorry 4 the Wait 2, a sequel to 2011’s Sorry 4 the Wait, on January 20th, an apology for Tha Carter V’s delay the same way the latter made up for the delayed release of Tha Carter IV. A few days later, he filed a massive lawsuit against Cash Money, one that demanded both his freedom from the label and $51 million in damages tied to the forced shelving of Tha Carter V. The lawsuit detailed all of the various agreements and settlements Wayne and Cash Money has reached in the 17 years since his signing in 1998, including amendments to his contract that increased in frequency and nebulousness as the release date of Tha Carter V approached. It also asked that Wayne be ruled the joint copyright owner of all records released on Young Money, his Cash Money imprint. This would include releases by artists like Drake, Nicki Minaj, and Tyga.

Wayne and Birdman were no longer speaking

It became clear in February that Wayne wasn’t the only artist with bones to pick regarding Cash Money’s operation. Drake released full-length If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late without notice on February 13th, and made sure to take a few conspicuous shots at the label. The sharpest, from "Star67": "Walk up in my label like, ‘Where the check, though?’ Yeah, I said it / Wouldn’t dap you with the left, ho." He repurposed a track from Sorry 4 the Wait 2, "Used To," just a few tracks later, making his allegiance clear. All of this served as fodder for fan and journalist theories regarding the terms of Drake’s contract with Cash Money, some of which were published just hours after the album was released. Speculation regarding its true purpose has slowed in the months since, but the music itself served to reinforce what Wayne was fighting to make clear on Twitter and in court: Cash Money had serious problems. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Wayne revealed the true depth of his rift with Birdman. They were no longer speaking, Tha Carter V was sitting on a hard drive somewhere ready for release, and he was moving on with work on what was then called The Free Weezy Album.

Things quieted down over the next few months: the lawsuit was moved from New York to Louisiana, and Wayne kept chipping away at FWA. It wasn’t until June that he took his next step towards freedom from Cash Money by purchasing a stake in Tidal, Jay Z’s artist-centric streaming service, and releasing the album’s lead single, "Glory," exclusively through said service. The mutual benefits of the partnership were immediately obvious: Wayne had a new platform for his music that was ostensibly separated from Cash Money — though the album’s publishing is still credited to Young Money, his subsidiary — and Tidal had a dispute they could neatly slot into their us-against-them promotional rhetoric. It’s easy to imagine Wayne on that infamous stage with Jay standing beside him: "You can help to compensate Wayne fairly after years of his label failing to do the same!" "Glory" came and went, but when FWA finally dropped on July 4th, it was exclusively available through the service.

Exclusivity doesn't mean anything when your content is inessential

Wayne and Tidal’s marriage may be natural, but it doesn’t solve the problem that’s looming over the service right now: exclusivity doesn’t mean anything when your content is inessential. When all of those famous musicians got on stage in March to announce their stake in Tidal, listeners weren’t swayed by their argument for direct artist support. If anything, that proposition became the greatest source of Tidal ridicule: if all of these people are already millionaires, why should potential paying subscribers feel compelled to make sure they get an even greater slice of the pie? Tidal’s greatest threat isn’t tied up in label politics or Spotify payouts. It’s the day when Beyoncé or Kanye or Rihanna decides to release their album through Tidal and Tidal alone, forcing their millions of fans interested in listening through legitimate means to hop on board.

FWA is following in the footsteps of curated playlists, short, personal clips, and music videos like the star-studded one for "Bitch I’m Madonna," and it’s the most enticing piece of exclusive content Tidal’s secured to date. It’s also nowhere near enough to render the service a must-subscribe. Wayne has been in creative free-fall for over half a decade at this point. His last vital singles were released two years ago, cut from the otherwise lackluster I Am Not a Human Being II; his last consistently great album turned seven years old a month ago. He’s still a commercial force, but his power in that arena is sapped with every new subpar release, and FWA isn’t doing anything to reverse that trend. If exclusivity is Tidal’s path to sustained relevance — and I don’t know how else they’d achieve it at this point — then it needs to work on two fronts: securing releases that move the needle for more than a night, and maintaining their true exclusivity until fans are too thirsty to ignore subscribing. If the service can’t manage that, it’s destined to fall by the wayside.

We don't know if Tha Carter V will ever see the light of day

At this point, it’s not clear whether or not Wayne will be granted freedom from Cash Money, or if Tha Carter V will ever see the light of day. His lawsuit against the label has yet to be resolved, and it’s the device Wayne will likely use to extricate himself from his contract. The album is now inextricable from those legal proceedings, and so it’s going to be a while before we hear more than the singles cut from it before Wayne and Birdman’s relationship fell apart. In the meantime, FWA is available for your listening pleasure — and it’s proof that Wayne might have to settle for short-term creative freedom in lieu of compensation.