Lil’ Wayne, the undisputed king of New Orleans hip-hop, should probably be more mindful of the company he keeps. Perhaps as much as politicians, rappers are in the business of perception. Rumors are rampant in the hip-hop world, and an artist can be made or broken on the strength of his friends and guest stars. Currently, he is the single artist on the Cash Money roster who is keeping the company relevant. Certainly, it’s out of loyalty to the founders, brothers Bryan and Ronald Williams, who saw performing potential in an 11-year-old Dwayne Carter back in 1994 when he would leave freestyle raps on their answering machine. The label has lost several of its key artists and producers—Juvenile, B.G., and Manny Fresh amid allegations of fraud and financial disputes. Lil’ Wayne, who as a young teen had been a member of the Hot Boys along with Juvenile and B.G., is the only rapper who has stayed with the NOLA-based Cash Money throughout all of the controversy, the low sales, and, as of last year, an epic natural disaster.

Bryan Williams, who used to go by “Baby” but has now grown into “Birdman,” rewarded Carter’s devotion by naming him the president of the label. Birdman, because of a depleted artist stable, took the opposite path of Jay-Z: He went from CEO to rapper. Carter, whose biological dad left his life when he was an infant, views Birdman as his surrogate father. Ergo, the title of their first collaboration, Like Father, Like Son. Perhaps it was released to sate fans until the third volume of Lil’ Wayne’s “Carter series” of albums, which were named after—paging Dr. Freud—his stepfather, Reginald “Rabbit” Carter. Can a mother get no love?

Luckily for the pair, it’s been such a slow year for hip-hop that even a place holder such as Like Father, Like Son stands out among the other releases. The lead single is an energetic apologia for their close relationship called “Stuntin’ Like My Daddy” (I swear there’s a psych thesis in there somewhere). Producer TMIX, with marching-band-brass samples and skittery synthesized cymbals, does a more-than-fair approximation of Manny Fresh’s signature Cash Money sound. But Weezy is the real draw here. His sneering delivery easily overshadows the rhymes of Birdman, whose voice sounds a bit like a slower, less cartoony Lil’ Flip. Birdman and Lil’ Wayne have taken some heat for their close, platonic relationship. Weezy alludes to it when he raps, “What they doin? Hatin’ on us, but they never cross/Cash Money still the company, and, bitch, I’m the boss.” The two reportedly greet each other with a Scarface-style kiss on the lips, and homophobic posters on hip-hop forums went wild when a photo of one of these smooches surfaced on the Internet. Perhaps in a preemptive defense of his masculinity, Weezy boasts, “I’m still ballin’/A bullet gotta get me/And I’ve never been a pussy cause my ’hood would never let me.”

The gay chatter didn’t hurt sales; Like Father debuted at No. 3. Maybe it’s because Lil’ Wayne has been so successful in managing his public image. Even during the turmoil of Cash Money’s downswing, Lil’ Wayne remained popular—his first volume of Tha Carter went platinum in 2004, and he managed to avoid any big-time beefs. Earlier this year, Juvenile rapped about their estranged relationship, but even then, Juvie seemed more sad than mad. Recently, Lil’ Wayne amicably sang, “B.G. been my nigga since the front door.” Weezy was active in helping victims of Hurricane Katrina and has made some allusions to the aftermath in song—most notably in the well-intentioned, ill-conceived single “Georgia…Bush.” Still, he never came off as a profiteer, and he’s a desirable guest star. Currently, he appears on three singles in the Top 50—“Stuntin’” as well as collaborations with Fat Joe and Lloyd, former crooner for preteen group N-Toon.

Another standout track, “Know What I’m Doin’”—all sunny-day vibe and bouncy horns—features coke-rapper Rick Ross and self-described “Rappa Ternt Sanga,” T-Pain. It’s a textbook example of what guest artists are supposed to do: lend some commercial credibility from a previous hit song without showing up the name on the marquee. T-Pain sings a crooning hook that sounds a lot like his previous chart-topper, “I’m N Luv (Wit a Stripper).” Rick Ross’ lines about the details of brick-slangin’ fit perfectly with the coke-business content that dominates Like Father, Like Son. “1st Key” is a nostalgic song about hustlin’—“I bought my first key from my baby mama.” With its UGK sample, it sounds like an early, funky Geto Boys jam.

At an hour and a half, Like Father, Like Son is certainly overlong. The rock remix of “Stuntin’” and a couple of skits featuring an unintentionally humorous mafioso confusedly pontificating on loyalty could easily have been left out. Strangely, it’s the pure man love between Birdman and Lil’ Wayne that gives the album its uniqueness. If it weren’t for that dynamic, Like Father, Like Son would be just another coke rap album with a handful of bangers. Family is where you find it, as they say.

On “About All That” from Like Father, Lil’ Wayne is aided by Fat Joe, who, it should be noted, has the best Katrina-themed line on the album: “Niggas is broke like the levees.” The track, backed by an piercing organ sample, is actually pretty good. Joey Crack’s softer, jocular style complements Lil’ Wayne’s sharpness. It’s just that Fat Joe ain’t as hot as he used to be. If he were a stock, Martha Stewart would have been exchanging illegal whispers about him earlier this year.

After authoring “Lean Back,” a huge hit with his supergroup Terror Squad a couple of years ago, poor Fat Joe has dropped off a bit. His next solo album, last year’s All or Nothing, fell flat. Then, when Joe was at his lowest, 50 Cent started a beef with him. Atlantic dropped him, and he resorted to touring Europe with pugnacious basketballer-turned-would-be-rapper Ron Artest this past summer. According to SoundScan, Artest’s most recent album, My World, sold 334 copies its first week, so maybe Joe was just happy to be around somebody with more-anemic street cred.

Everyone’s taking shots at Fat Joe. The predictable fat jokes are flying. Sure, he’s a big target, but picking on Fat Joe is like shooting, um, Fat Joe in a barrel. It is unlikely that Me, Myself & I will light up the holiday-sales season, but the album’s not completely a joke. Ostensibly eschewing some of his pop backfires like “Fightin’ Over Me,” this past summer’s collaboration with Paris Hilton, Me, Myself & I is Fat Joe’s attempt at recapturing the gritty vibe of his first couple of records. On “Pandemic,” Fat Joe kicks it off by saying, “I don’t give a fuck, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, too…Fuck the industry.” Well, at least he’s not defensive about his new outsider status. He soon eases the tension with a humorous, genre-wise line that questions what it takes to succeed: “Must I be a backpacker or a Black Eyed Pea?” The backing track is skeletal and gives Fat Joe maybe a little too much room for his wandering thoughts that quickly flit from Katrina to Iraq without offering much that resonates.

Lil’ Wayne’s contribution, the punchy Scott Storch–produced “Make It Rain,” is, deservedly, the first single. It might as well be a Weezy solo joint. He sings the chorus and provides the track’s nervy energy, while Joe is essentially a backup singer. Fat Joe, at least, seems grateful to Weezy when he defends his style and region, singing, “Now why’s everybody so mad at the South for/Change your style up, switch to southpaw.” Though Lil’ Wayne, who just released a track on which he outright denies that he’s gay, might’ve wished Joe had left the switch-hitting references be. “Damn” feels like an early-’90s New York joint with a majestic Bo Hansson flute sample and downbeat pace. “The Profit” isn’t enlivened by Weezy’s other appearance on Me, Myself & I. It’s sluggish, weary, and full of such belabored rhymes as “This year All-Star weekend was off the chain/Literally niggas comin’ off of their chains.” By taking it back to the street level, Fat Joe’s removed the melodic sheen and pop hooks, and all he’s left with is a hollow thug persona that’s hard to take seriously.

It would take a much better album than Me, Myself & I to reverse Fat Joe’s path. At least he’s going his own way on his own terms, but he will go there alone. And that is one thing that Lil’ Wayne could learn from him. CP