As in Hollywood, there’s a tendency in mainstream hip-hop to squander capital thoughtlessly.
Puffy might have pioneered the modern hip-hop spending spree with No Way Out, an album of faux-filmic production and silly mafioso posturing from 1997’s A-list. Similarly spendy was The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, a Cristal-steeped showcase for Jay-Z and his Roc-A-Fella ilk. Today Miami sloganeer DJ Khaled is his medium’s equivalent to Michael Bay or Jerry Bruckhemier, pouring vast reservoirs of money and talent into albums of little substantive value. These projects assume the worst of their target audience; namely, that glitter and gloss are enough to tide people over.
On paper, Young Money: The Rise of an Empire has all the makings of a cinematic blockbuster. There are cameos from the red carpet-certified likes of Nicki Minaj, Drake and Tyga, as well as bombastic, high-fructose beats from men of the hour like Lex Luger and Sonny Digital. (I quite like “One Time,” which has a dubby, almost IDM feel.) But this piecemeal, disinterested LP is anything but a crowd pleaser.
A couple of tracks get the job done. With its steel drums and well-looped sample of the Mohawks’ “The Champ,” “Lookin’ Ass Nigga” sounds like it was recorded 40 yards from the Jamaican shoreline. Minaj’s solo albums are rarely this intriguing. “Trophies” might flummox people on first listen—Drake adopts a shouty, pause-riddled flow in the style of Future or Young Thug—but Noah “40” Shebib’s horn flip is throwed as fuck.
Elsewhere, The Rise of an Empire can be modestly rewarding in small doses. Euro and Cory Gunz rap in doubles on the heated “Bang,” while Bun B sound-alike Jae Millz redeems “Back It Up” somewhat with the gruff timbre of his voice.
But like 2009’s We Are Young Money, Empire gorges itself on sappy synths and sappier lyrics about making memories with one’s besties; “You Already Know” sounds like a Capri Sun commercial from hell. The beats only occasionally slap, and YM signees like Lil Twist are much too enamored with played-out hashtags. Shanel, who has been an R&B diva-in-waiting for years now, stops the album’s momentum dead in its tracks on “Hittin’ Like.”
Presiding over the Young Money “empire” is, of course, lean-freak gremlin Lil Wayne. Anyone can tell you that Wayne in his prime was one of the coldest rappers out, but the old Weezy has been gone for so long now he has truancy notices dated 2007. Nowadays there is a snide inertia to his delivery, and he grumbles all of his lyrics as if hungover from a night of bean poppin’. His once limber flow has turned stoic, his punchlines skin-deep and surreally elementary (“Have my cake and eat it too/I want a bakery”). “Long money all around me,” observes Euro on “We Alright.” Bored with itself and commercial to a fault, The Rise of an Empire is money poorly spent. —M.T. Richards