I'm A Boss
As Lil Wayne's manager, Chief Operations Officer of Young Money Entertainment and co-CEO of The Blueprint Group, Cortez Bryant is one of the most important figures in hip-hop.
Words Jeff Weiss
Images Jeremy Danger

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the October/November 2014 issue of XXL Magazine.

The line of cars to enter the Drake VS Lil Wayne concert stretches for miles. It’s Labor Day weekend in Atlanta and the entire city is seemingly here—from dread-locked Zone 6 trappers to Georgia Tech sorority girls. Horns are honked, bootleg t-shirts hawked, and Wayne featuring Drake’s “Believe Me” blasts from promo tents assembled by local radio stations. The mood is part religious pilgrimage, part “Players Holiday.”

The commotion only increases backstage. Triceratops-sized bodyguards protect entrances to black tour buses, each a block long. Staffers scurry in and out of the temporary nerve center established at Aaron’s Amphiteatre at Lakewood. All 19,000 tickets are sold out. The show starts in 45 minutes. Guest list passes are being frantically dispatched to everyone’s cousins, best friends, and favorite Southern rap stars.

Amidst the chaos, Cortez Bryant stays calm as a quarterback in the zone. After all, the longtime manager for Lil Wayne and partial mastermind of Drake and Nicki Minaj’s rise has been doing this for a decade. In that time, the co-CEO of The Blueprint Group helped transform the artists on Wayne’s Young Money Entertainment from ascendant stars to global icons and brand ambassadors.

As the Chief Operations Officer of Young Money—the label that Wayne founded in 2005 under the imprimatur of Cash Money Records and Universal Republic—Bryant has spearheaded the strategic roll out of each YMCMB artist. He’s earned their trust through a combination of commercial instincts and devotion to carving out a unique path true to each musician’s persona. But there’s an alternate reality in which it doesn’t happen. “This was never really an option in my head,” Cortez says, acknowledging the hive buzzing around him. Wearing a black five star general t-shirt, black shorts, and lensless black glasses, the 35-year old New Orleans native sits inconspicuously in a backstage garden area.

Before managing the most influential rappers of the modern era, Cortez Bryant was a mass communications major at Jackson State in Mississippi. A childhood interest in filming family functions with a camcorder led him to pursue internships at local news stations, public access TV, and the university’s production studio. He got so good at editing and camera work that CNN offered him a job upon graduation. But it’s more difficult to say no to Lil Wayne.

The two had been tight since Wayne enrolled at Eleanor McMain Secondary School, one of New Orleans’ best public schools. Bryant ran with the cool crowd—a varsity basketball and track letterman, and captain of the school’s marching band. The future Weezy F. Baby was a seventh grader, three years younger, but immediately making a splash on campus. “Wayne came in dressed to the tee: Gucci shoes on, his mom had him clean,” Bryant remembers. “He always had a crazy bandanna hanging out his pocket, pick in his hair. I was like look at this lil’ nigga coming in thinking he gonna take over our school. Like, ‘What you doing, man?’ Always had a chick. So we looked at him like that’s a cool little dude, he was swagged out at a young age.”

The son of a single teenaged mom, Bryant spent his early years in the rougher wards of the Crescent City. After his mother obtained medical assistance degrees, the former hairdresser moved her only child to the middle-class East Side of the N.O, where he enrolled at the prestigious Eleanor McMain Secondary School.

Bryant’s classmates included Mack Maine and Curren$y, but Wayne quickly became known as the best and practically only rapper at the college prep school. Before becoming the youngest member of Cash Money’s rap group, The Hot Boys, Wayne spent most afternoons chilling at Bryant’s house. Offered a band scholarship to Jackson State, Bryant eventually became leader of the drumline. “When all those songs played in my ear, I started understanding melodies and hooks and what sells,” Cortez explains, as a roar of applause erupts for the show’s opener, PARTYNEXTDOOR. “I’m a historian when it comes to looking at other people’s songs and the hits that work and why they’re working.”

While studying communications at Jackson State, Bryant left for several semesters to work as a roadie on Cash Money tours with Nelly and the Ruff Ryders, but always returned to school. Shortly before Bryant’s graduation in 2004, Wayne asked his long-time ally to be his full-time manager. “[Wayne] never had a manager,” Cortez says. “[He] was always Cash Money run. He was like, ‘I’m trying to move my career on and I want someone I can trust around me. Are you willing to be that?’”

After careful deliberation and soul searching, Bryant agreed to help his friend. And almost immediately, the things that they don’t teach you in college were tested. Their first rodeo together found them in Dallas, where Bryant had booked Wayne a show with a local promoter. But when the club didn’t fill up, the janky thief vanished and left Bryant to explain to Wayne why they weren’t getting the back half they’d been promised. “I was damn near about to break down in tears,” Cortez tells. “I was having a nervous breakdown on the floor in my room in the fetal position and he’s laughing. He’s like, 'You got the front half so we got a free trip to Dallas. You’ll learn from this.'”