A team is only as strong as its weakest link. If Michael Jordan played with a bunch of Division III bench warmers, he probably wouldn’t be the champion we all know him to be. Conversely, you can have a team of star players (ahem Dallas Mavericks) and still never bring home that title. The same rules apply to the Rap game. It’s the status-quo for every rapper to have a crew, clique or team that follows him everywhere, appears in videos, features on songs and eventually gets solo projects of their own. However, it is the exception and not the rule that a crew member, soldier or underling eclipse their boss. In over 30 years of Hip Hop, the cases have few and far between and only the truly exceptional talents have had what it takes to do it. Big Daddy Kane was under Marley Marl as part of the legendary Juice Crew and went on to become a superstar. Nas was the product of the collaborative guidance of 3rd Bass’ MC Serch and Large Professor. Lil Wayne started as a member of the Hot Boys and is now more popular than Baby, the co-founder and first national face of Cash Money Records. Lastly, even Jay-Z came into the game under the wing of late ’80s EMI Records emcee Jaz-O and ascended to the highest height of Rap stardom.

The fact is, not even Michael Jordan himself could play for the team he owned, still maintaining untouchable greatness. One would think that having an artist as a boss would make the most sense, since only an artist would truly understand the pitfalls as well as maintain a public profile (This was certainly Def Jam’s thinking in making Jay label president in 2005). But in reality, it can sometimes be just as bad as or worse than a traditional label system. The problem with artists as label heads is that they have to be smart enough to find talent that is capable of meeting or surpassing their own ability to make music and sell records yet humble enough to actually do what’s necessary to make that happen. In the case of Lil Wayne and his own Young Money Enterainment, fate seems to have done that for him.

For the last two years Lil Wayne has been the most dominant player in the league, period. Through mixtapes, features and his triple-platinum-during-a-recession album, Tha Carter III the Young Money boss has made it nearly impossible to have a conversation about music without his name coming up. He’s also wisely surrounded himself with some of the newest, and potentially hottest, talents in Rap. With a well-timed compilation album [We Are Young Money] followed by strategic guest appearances the stage will be perfectly set for the solo projects of the Young Money artists to be released at which point Wayne can just sit back and watch the money roll in. At least that was the plan before it became clear that the team captain would be serving a felony sentence after several legal mishaps since 2007.

Unfortunately for Wayne, today’s Hip Hop fans have a short attention span. All it takes is a couple of mouse clicks for a once devoted fan to move on to that “hot new shit,” which brings us to the dilemma of Young Money. With Wayne gone who, if anyone, can step in and carry the label and where does that leave Wayne if said substitute comes in off the bench and becomes bigger than his/her boss or fails bringing the potential juggernaut to a screeching halt?

Since the struggles within Roc-A-Fella, G-Unit and The Diplomats, there has been a vacancy in the “most dominant crew” category. This vacant lot is prime real estate right there for the taking – if the right moves were made. Each of the Young Money players are talented and could potentially provide the YME label (with backed by both Universal Motown and Universal Republic) with that much-needed momentum to carry them through the loss of their team captain. But who has the best chance of coming in off the bench and leading them to the big dance? While I have my own ideas about who has the best chances, I’ll leave it up to the millions of fans, stans, and haters of the blog-o-sphere to check out the player descriptions along with their major strengths and weaknesses and judge for themselves.
The total roster goes as follows:

Drake

Hands down, Drake is the most obvious choice to come in off the bench and carry Young Money. The unofficial co-captain was 2009’s break out star.  This triple threat from Toronto is a rapper, singer and actor who first came onto the scene in February 2006 with his first mixtape Room for Improvement. Further pursuing his dream, in 2007, he released Comeback Season to much critical acclaim and praise. But it wasn’t until the release of Drake’s So Far Gone in February of 2009 that the tastemakers crowned him the next big thing. So Far Gone brought the backers on board, after Internet praises, and was re-released as a six-figure-selling EP which included two of 2009’s biggest radio singles, “Best I Ever Had” and “Successful.”

With Thank Me Later still in utero, Drake’s lyrical ability and marketable image has allowed him to amass an impressive following, a list of collaborators is a “who’s who” of industry elites such as Jay-Z, Mary J. Blige and Eminem, not to mention a Grammy nod – not bad for a rookie year. However, with all his achievements, Drake has a dragon to slay in his own hype. Having a year this big with only mixtape material sets the bar cosmically high for his debut album. Claiming he’s wanted this forever, Drake’s 2010 will have a lot to say about if post-2005 debut albums can still stand a platinum chance.

Gudda Gudda

Coming from Wayne’s backyard, this Louisiana native is a known and respected N.O. underground artist. Legend has it Gudda was mentored by Wayne while they were both on the come up. Weezy liked his look and wrote him his first rap. Since then Gudda has stepped his game up considerably and developed into a respectable rapper with the potential to be a dope emcee. With the amount of potential superstars in his camp, he has no choice but to keep growing or get left behind. After listening to some tracks from his Guddaville mixtape I can honestly say he has the potential to be next in line to blow. He’s marketably gangsta. The only concern is the rate of his growth as an artist. Will he be able to get strong enough quick enough to take a leading role on the squad?

Jae Millz

Long considered Harlem’s own mixtape monster and battle rap heavyweight, Jae Millz has been a staple in the New York Hip Hop scene for years. He created a buzz for himself by dropping exclusive freestyles and songs for New York mixtape heavyweights like DJ Kay Slay, Big Mike, DJ Whoo Kid and DJ Enuff. His buzz was so great that in 2003 P.Diddy enlisted Jae to appear on MTV’s reality series Making the Band to battle with then-contestant, E. Ness. Though obviously talented, Millz collected dust at both Universal and Warner Brothers Records, both unable to make a marketable album from the underground star. That seemed to have changed in 2008 when Millz announced he had signed a joint-venture deal with Young Money. The same way Lady of Rage and Kurupt were essential lyrical components to The Chronic, Millz offers nice contrast to the swag surfin’, and provides some industry familiarity to his teammates. However, most of the consumers of Hip Hop don’t appear to be be primarily interested in punchlines. Also, if Universal couldn’t get behind Millz a few years ago, will they greenlight him while Wayne’s away?

Lil Chuckee

This young Louisiana native makes up one third of the group Young Hot Boys. Though much hasn’t be heard from the youngster, there hasn’t been a successful pre-teen rapper since Bow Wow was still “Lil.” Like B.G., Wayne signed to Cash Money as a teen, and has some experience on how to be taken seriously by older fans. The gift and the curse in this situation is the association to Wayne. Chuckee is young and has plenty of room to grow – especially given the fact that he had only two appearances on We Are Young Moneyi. Being around the Young Money camp will only help better him as an artist. However, the fact that he’s the protégé of a “gangsta rapper” may keep some parents at bay.

Lil Twist

A teen-aged Dallas native who is a rapper and singer. Another member of the Young Hot Boys, Twist also has a golden opportunity in the vacant teen girl market. Though not a traditional Hip Hop artist, Jutin Bieber is a perfect example. This dude is killing the regional game right now (check “Where’s Wayne” ) because there is no competition for those teen and “tween” fans. As a singer and rapper, he has twice the potential to blow. The only thing that will make or break him is his ability to make good material and maintain his image.

Mack Maine

Mack has a situation that is unique to his fellow Young Money artists in that he is a rapper on the label, as well as the President of Young Money Entertainment. That kind of puts him in the same crucial position as Cam’ron put Jim Jones years ago. He built a buzz around his G-Series, Freestyle 101 and Bitch I’m Mack Maine mixtapes. The momentum kept building for Maine after his appearance on “Got Money” . He capitalized on that momentum with the release of his fourth mixtape presented by Don Cannon called This is Just a Mixtape. The childhood friend of Lil Wayne and fellow Louisiana native, who originally served as Wayne’s co-manager, is supposed to be gearing up for his much anticipated solo debut. But due to his new duties Young Money President, he may have to fall back or be altruistic to the young’ins. Mack’s flow and natural charisma has earned him a strong following and if he can figure out a way to succeed where so many others have failed in walking the line between executive and artist he could be next.

Nicki Minaj

An animated-yet-beguiling female rapper and singer from Queens, New York, Nicki Minaj has the perfect combination of personality, confidence, lyrical strength and sex appeal it’s easy to see why Lil Wayne wanted her for Young Money. Nicki has carved a nice lane for herself with her new and somewhat controversial “Barbie movement.” The combination of her look and sound seem to pull in both the male and female fans. Perhaps akin to Lil Kim’s mid-’90s bypassing of Timberland-wearing female spitters, skeptics say that Nicki’s sex appeal eclipses her perceived talent. Close listeners will notice that this veteran New York street DVD emcee has a unique train-of-thought style and one-of-a-kind delivery. The look, the confidence, the delivery and personality all make her just one hit away from superstardom.  
http://www.hiphopdx.com/index/videos/id.4345/title.nicki-minaj-right-on-magazine-photo-shoot

Shanel (a/k/a SnL)

She’s is an R&B singer, songwriter and choreographer who hopes to be the next generation of female urban/Pop artist has emerging on the scene. Being no stranger to hit-making, she’s written for both Kelis and Danity Kane, and most recently penned and did vocals on Lil Wayne’s “Prom Queen” . Judging by her previous work, her strength is her ability to create catchy music that has mass appeal. However her weakness comes two-fold. First, the female R&B solo artist lane has heavy traffic right now. She has no choice but to successfully develop her signature sound to be able to stand out among the R&B and Pop peers. Second, rappers may listen to R&B and collaborate with R&B artists, but more often than not, labels that are predominantly Rap-based have little to no success when it comes to pushing artist in the R&B/Pop genre. On top of that, 2009 proved that while Cash Money star Jay Sean had a huge R&B/Urban Pop single, but come album time, failed to translate that base.

Short Dawg

The latest artist to sign with Young Money. The former Russell Simmons protege from Houston is mainly known for his verse on Lil Wayne’s “Me And My Drank” . In 2006 and 2007, the Texas youngster ruffled Pimp C’s feathers for choosing a Rap moniker that wasn’t respectful of Too Short’s alias. In the last two years, while Dawg doesn’t have enough material released to make a fair assessment on his potential, he did get points and redemption for his own alias, “Elvis Freshley.”

T-Streets

This rapper from New Orleans and has been down with Lil Wayne since day one and, according to Wayne, is around more on a personal level for than that of a scouted talent. Once a member of the group Sqad Up, along with Lil Wayne, Kidd Kidd and Gudda Gudda, he was first seen as a part of Young Money on Wayne’s “The Only Reason.” He may be what Memphis Bleek is to Jay-Z or what Young Dro is to T.I., but Universal has to agree – and that’s a harder sell in these times.

Tyga

The rapper from Compton, California who signed to Young Money Entertainment in 2007 (shortly after Curren$y). With the single “Coconut Juice” he’s proven his ability to create crossover/radio friendly tunes. Unlike most of the Young Money roster, he’s A) not signed to Universal, and B) on his second album. With that extra experience than his contemporaries, Tyga knows what it takes to be out there working the record and trying to generate sales. With no vested interest in the young rapper there’s a strong chance the would-be money and support from Universal may not be there when he needs it. Tyga is still young and had a lot of time to grow. Perhaps with the exposure he’ll receive as part of the Young Money roster the Cali Coconut kid could make it big.

Who’s gonna take the weight of Young Money Entertainment? Given that the Internet had a lot to do with getting the movement started, the choice may be yours…