Nigh on ten years ago, in the summer of 1999, Somethun Good went down on the Chef Menteur Bridge in New Orleans, Lousiana. Specifically, the six rappers of Cash Money Records walked out into the Pontchartrain sunlight to shoot a music video, each of them armed and enamored with all the ritziest, glitziest props their outsized budget could rent: Hummers! Diamond-studded Rolexes! Actual helicopters! Boats, candlesticks, briefcases, a Rolls-Royce… cars with multiple TVs inside! Their gleeful, almost childlike stupefaction with such worldly goods washed like a floodlight through the purgatory shadows where, for nearly a decade, rap’s nihilistic older generation had maintained with money the sort of joyless and compulsive relationship that a nymphomaniac maintains with sex. Master “ugggh” P, Tupac “Bury Me a G” Shakur, all the disillusioned soldiers in No Limit’s army, and the hardened convicts on Suge Knight’s label — these jaded existentialists obsessed and hoarded over money with all the sad devotion of a daytrader or a coupon clipper, yet they envied death too much to ever fully appreciate the plethora of features on the dashboard of a C5 Corvette. So when the Cash Money crew arrived on set, entranced, liberated, rejuvenated by such shiny gewgaws, they couldn’t help but launch a bright new era in hip-hop worldliness. You can look it up in the dictionary. The video they filmed that day was called “Bling Bling”, and it has become the defining onomatopoeia of our time.
Outside of a few great essays, including Tim O’Neil’s PopMatters review of Lil Wayne’s The Carter, Cash Money Records may never reap the critical acclaim they surely deserve for making rap cheery, playful, and relatively innocent again. Many critics who pine terminally for the heydays of late ’80s hip-hop may never fully appreciate the obvious parallels between the vivacious materialism of Run DMC’s “My Adidas” and B.G.’s “Bling Bling”. Critics rightly concerned about the moral tone of New Orleans hip-hop might never note what an improvement Cash Money’s mostly-drug-free shopping lists were on Master P’s “Time to Check My Crack House”. But, with a retrospective compilation like the 10 Years of Bling series, there’s only so much we can blame on the chattering classes. Inadvertently, 10 Years of Bling, Vol. 2 sounds more like ten slow years of publishing problems and nitpicking squabbles over songwriting rights, topped off with an end product that poorly reflects what the label has to offer. It reminds us why we go through the trouble of downloading and organizing our own mixtapes, and just leave the legal footwork for the stuffed suits who make Now That’s What I Call Music! possible.
In fact, 10 Years of Bling, Vol. 2 is so bad that it suggests another title for the multi-volume series. How about The Decline and Fall of Cash Money Records — an incremental process of elimination somewhat concealed by the splendiferous success of Lil Wayne, the label’s brightest, youngest, and as of today, only star. In 2001, after putting in six records for the label, B.G. took his hazy, somnambulant flow elsewhere, claiming the CEO Bryan “Baby” Williams was jerking him around on royalties. Months later, Juvenile, the hitmaker who gave us the ubiquitous “Back That Azz Up”, left for the same reason. Young Turk walked off in handcuffs, then ended up on Koch Records, and in 2005, the house producer who made it all possible, the magnificently fun-centric Manny Fresh, moved to Atlantic. By the time Katrina came, Cash Money Records was nothing but the Lil Wayne show, and even the most cursory glance through this record’s tracklist confirms how shallow the label’s bench has become: Six tracks from Baby (“Birdman”), Lil Wayne’s oafish, slow-rappin’ surrogate daddy; three from Big Tymers, his duo with Mannie Fresh; plus some Lil Wayne solo act change, and a few undistinguished newcomers. This isn’t a greatest hits collection. This is a con.
Actually, it’s something worse: A hip-hop crew record. Under the guise of a retrospective comp, the Cash Money bean counters are trying to spring their two latest draft picks on ya, namely Teena Marie and Currency. A word about them both. With his emasculated nasally wheeze, Currency recalls the heyday of Cash Money Records, back when the label was home to some of the most distinctive drawls in late ’90s hip-hop. That was back when South Coast hip-hop was major label flyover country, and with T-Pain’s autotune craze enveloping the nation, it’s refreshing to hear a voice with some unique, natural character. But the praise stops with his vocal instrument: “Where the Cash At”, his one and only single (even his MySpace page doesn’t offer another track), is nothing to write home about, just a synth-heavy, snare-chopping track with a pitch-lowered screw loop for a chorus. You could lose it in a haystack and find the needle first. Teena Marie, the other breaking star, fairs even worse on “I’m Still In Love”. It’s less a single than a qualifying lap, on which she proves she can approximate all the melisma of late ’90s R&B without giving us any reason why. Then there’s “Stuntin Like My Daddy”, a rock remix with chunky guitars, and a completely perfunctory way to close out the album.
The rest is all recycled material you might have missed, but probably haven’t. For every genuine moment in Cash Money history — the sublime Clipse duet “What Happened to That Boy”, or Lil Wayne’s theatrical “Shooter” — there’s a couple or four third-tier hits of the likes of “This is How We Do” (think elevator jazz rap) or “Leather So Soft” (think soap opera interlude rap). Somewhere in the world of Platonic Ideals, there’s a fantastic Cash Money retrospective that the lawyers will never let us hear: something that charts Lil Wayne’s evolution from the junior Hot Boy responsible for the “Bling Bling” hook and the fetching first verse on “Rich Niggas”, to his meteoric rise as the Only Rapper That Matters. Something that reminds us why New Orleans matters, why regional labels would be a terrible thing to lose, and why, say what you will about the woes of materialism, a C5 corvette is a terribly fun car to drive.