Entertainment A-List 2009

Entertainment A-List No. 6: Lil Wayne

Rapper's Lesson: Leaks Can Work as Plugs

By Published on .

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- One of the rare bright spots for the music business of late is a tatted-up, blunt-smoking, cough-syrup-swilling rapper from New Orleans who goes by the name Lil Wayne. His album "Tha Carter III" defied all record-label doctrine when it became 2008's best-seller despite the fact that most of its songs had been leaked and downloaded countless times before the album went on sale. A rare hip-hop crossover success story, he scored major mainstream, if surreal, PR coups in the form of a CBS interview with Katie Couric and an appearance on ABC's "The View." And he lent his gravelly voice to the narration of Gatorade's massive branding campaign around the Super Bowl.

Lil Wayne
Lil Wayne
Last year was Lil Wayne's year thanks to the massive success of the "Tha Carter III," released by Cash Money/Universal Motown. In marketing terms, it was notable for the fact that most of its tracks were distributed on mixtapes that delayed the initial planned release. No matter. Rather than hurt sales, the leaks acted as the best marketing the album could have had, helping it become the first album to sell a million copies in the first week of release since 2005, when 50 Cent's "The Massacre" did it. All in all it was an example of how to build and maintain a community by giving it what it wants: in this case, more and more music. The business followed.

"He stayed connected and nurtured his audience," Sylvia Rhone, president of Universal Motown Records, told The New York Times. "He was always working. And I think the rabid following he's cultivated is reflected in those sales numbers."

That organic buzz and the decision not to try to control the content was without a doubt the biggest lesson of Lil Wayne's marketing. But also backing the release were TV ads from Universal Motown and online partnerships with MySpace, Yahoo and AOL and a promotion on Apple's iTunes. His cultural ubiquity continued with his blogging and Super Bowl-party reportage for ESPN.

As he's gotten bigger, Lil Wayne has pulled no punches, talking frankly with Ms. Couric about his marijuana use and penchant for drinking cough-syrup-laced cocktails of the sort that have been linked with deaths. That consistency has helped form a virtual critical consensus that's taken him from the favorite of hard-core hip-hop aficionados to the mainstream press to indie-rock snobs.

Lil Wayne "Tha Carter III"
Coldplay's "Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends"
Taylor Swift "Fearless"
Mixtape king
"Weezy [became] the biggest brand in hip-hop by spitting fire on countless free internet mixtapes," said Gabe McDonough, senior producer of music and integration at DDB. "By always saying exactly what he wanted to say, with no apologies, Lil Wayne has simultaneously become the voice of hip hop in the streets and for the Pitchfork Media cognoscenti."

Not surprisingly given the subject matter that typically surrounds Lil Wayne, the jury is still out on whether Weezy can do for brands what other top rappers have done. Beyond the recent Gatorade spots, he's been most associated with endorsing little-known brands such as Strapped condoms and Milestone Brands' Halo Champagne, which, though yet to be launched, made an appearance in Lil Wayne's video for his hit "Lollipop."

He'll also have to face inevitable challenges to his credibility that arise simply from getting big. Already, he's gotten some bad PR after his Cash Money label filed a copyright-infringement lawsuit against some mixtape DJs.

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