In a lot of ways Hip-hop has always been a genre of self-promotion. It has a strong tradition of rappers rhyming about all the women they get, how tough they are, how they dominate the streets in their cities and so on. These hints of narcissism, don’t usually bother me. I often find listening to hip hop feels like a trip into a shady underworld, and it is good to have a tour guide who holds his own in it or at least knows what he is talking about. At the same time it becomes intolerable for me when rap songs focus too heavily on how much money the rapper is making, which big shots they are hanging out with, what ridiculous luxury items they bought or how high their social status is.
I tend to prefer hip-hop songs about crime, poverty, struggle, life on the streets, surrealism, spirituality, self-awareness, the occasional social commentary and I am even cool with depictions of senseless violence. I figure by the time you have nothing left to say, but what a big shot you are and how much money you have, you have lost more than lost your edge. If I want to hear about your latest expensive purchase or your tabloid lifestyle, I’d just assume turn on Life Styles of the Rich and Famous, or whatever equivalent we have nowadays.
It seems, I am one of the few who genuinely feels this way, as songs about wealth have been a major trope in hip-hop for nearly as long as I can remember, and they continue to be rewarded with commercial success. I really do not see why this is, as few things are hardly more annoying than spending time with someone who talks constantly about how much money they have. At the time, it does seem to me that perhaps this sort of glam-rap is an escape. After all, we live in a time when many of the young people (who are the genre’s biggest audience) are dealing with crushing debt, a week job market, a prolonged recession and uncertainty in general. Perhaps for them, hearing songs about wealth and high budget partying is a means of living it and escaping the pressures of everyday life. Perhaps this is also true of working class people who come from rough parts of town, and need an escape or something to aspire to.
I can definitely see why rappers would make such music. If I was from a poor family and lived on the streets (I acknowledge this is a stereotype that does not apply to all rappers, perhaps even most rappers), and suddenly was given immense sums of money from a record company or had high profiles figures suddenly interested in my work, it would be hard to suppress the desire to talk this up. But then again it seems like a lot of rappers (and a lot of up and coming rock musicians for that matter), are only rich and high status by relative standards (far from the 1%) and often end up owing the record companies back for various expenses. I’m guessing this is especially true if it is a rapper I have only recently heard of bragging about all their millions.
Additionally, all this talk about wealth, to me seems to demean people who are not so rich. It this whole 50 Cent mentality of “get Rich or Die Trying”, with the underlying implication that life is not worth living if you are not rich. That to me, is bullshit. Life may certainly be easier and even have more to offer if you are rich, but those of us who are not rolling in wealth still have much to live for. We got the other people in our lives, as well as our own hopes, fears, passions, concerns and aspirations. I see no reason to belittle people who are not rich. We live in a country where too many of us are working our lives away, in mundane settings not so much trying to get rich, but trying to pay our bills. We Americans are a people known for working our lives away to pay off debt accrued from buying products we don’t need to impress people we don’t even like. The last thing I want is music that reflects this mentality.
At the same time, maybe all this talk about wealth gives rap listeners something to aspire to. Unfortunately it seems like the bigger emphasis is placed on outward signs of wealth, rather the living within one’s means. It is as if you can or should simply spend your way out of the mundane. Blowing one’s money on gold chains, fur coats, giant rims and fancy cars is hardly wise when you still have debts to pay off. It seems to be a rather shallow form of materialism that is emphasized here, along ridiculously conspicuous consumption. Often it seems to be done in the name of crafting an image or following a commercially successful formula, which to me feels like complete bullshit. Rather than have songs about wealth and partying maybe a little more emphasis should be placed on how working people can achieve it themselves.
I will say decadence and narcissism are not unique to hip-hop. Rock stars have been pioneering both for decades now, but they (usually) have the decency to keep it out of their lyrics. I definitely like that hip hop has helped some people rise out of poverty and has made them more money then they could imagine, and I am in no way hating on that. I just would rather hear rhymes with a little more substance. Then again, I definitely do not speak for everyone, just me.