With all due respect to Death Row, no rap record label has ever consolidated and celebrated its power the way Cash Money Records did in the final year of the 20th century. All four albums the young crew released that year—B.G.’s Chopper City In The Ghetto, the Hot Boys’ Guerrilla Warfare, Lil Wayne’s Tha Block Is Hot, and Juvenile’s Tha G-Code—would be platinum by January 2000, propelled by outrageous swagger and Mannie Fresh’s electro-swamp beats. Cash Money’s members did everything at a more extreme rate than their competitors for radio and MTV airtime would ever dare. Their pimping was bigger than JAY-Z’s. They were more mambo than Lou Bega, higher than Tal Bachman, and hornier than Sisqó. They stole Len’s sunshine. They forced Master P into the Continental Basketball Association. And in a twist more bonkers than a Mannie Fresh ad-lib, they added a word to the dictionary by the time it was all done. It’s no wonder the Big Tymers were buying platinum football fields in the Y2K.
Money—as a theoretical concept and a promise as much as hard currency—was the gasoline combusting in CMR’s engine as they did doughnuts on the Top 40. The label had been founded in New Orleans in the early 1990s by brothers Brian “Baby” (also “Birdman”) Williams and Ronald “Slim” Williams, who went from releasing bounce records to being players in the region’s hip-hop scene. In March 1998, Baby and Slim brokered an historic deal with Universal Records that netted Cash Money an estimated $30 million, 80% of royalties, and full ownership of masters and publishing, suddenly granting a handful of rappers, one in-house producer, and two bosses hailing from the notoriously rough Magnolia Projects an extraordinary amount of money, power, and freedom for self-determination. Cash Money immediately became one of the most valuable boutique labels on earth, worth more than JAY-Z’s nascent Roc-A-Fella.
Rapping about wealth was nothing new when the video for “Bling Bling” dropped a year later, in the spring of 1999; B.G. was fighting for Billboard space with Warren G’s “I Want It All,” to name but one example. But the Cash Money clique was practically rococo in its boasting. Juvenile’s 400 Degreez had already been conceived when the Universal deal was signed, and its two monster singles concerned life in the projects and the magnetic power of an unnamed woman’s ass, with videos to match. “Bling Bling,” with its outdoor feast, bushels of cash, private island, mysterious briefcase, legion of cars (including, somewhat incongruously, a New Beetle), and helicopter, seemed to come out of nowhere, especially for the huge, mostly white audience encountering them for the first time via MTV. Who were these dudes? How did they get all of this money? Why were they wearing pinkie rings? It was hard to tell how serious they were being.
What was clear was the boundless charisma shared by everyone on the track. Fresh, whose beat punches and twirls like a bounce track duded up for the Met Ball, claims to have bought a private plane, which he then sold in a joint venture to Juvenile and Lil Wayne, who in turn kit the jet out with 30-inch rims. Juvenile, leaning way over the front of a motorcycle, introduces himself as “a 1999 driver,” a lyric that had to have felt dated within a week, and which gets better with every passing year because of it.
But it’s Lil Wayne who steals the show. On the day the group recorded “Bling Bling”’s radio edit, fellow Hot Boy Turk, who was struggling with a drug addiction, was high and ashamed to show his face at the studio. Always at the ready, Weezy punched in a verse that hints at the monster rapper he’d become. He shifts up his flow, running it over every gleaming facet of the beat, pulling back on the throttle to bump through a stuttering “no, nah, no, nah, no-uh, no he didn’t.” In the video, he pulls the front of his shirt back behind his head, shows off a flip phone, and basically looks like a star.