"What you want a Bentley? Fur coats, diamond rings, / All you blacks want all the same things."
Jay-Z released another statement on his website Life+Times this past Saturday, declaring his decision to move forward with his holiday promotional deal with Barney's despite the two recent accusations against the company for racial profiling.
The incidents involve two black youths and two luxury items: a $350 Ferragamo belt and a $2,504 Celine handbag. The plain-clothed Barney's cops were operating under the abhorrent assumption that young black kids with serious money must be dealing, stealing, or hustling in some way.
Hip hop's glorification of "trashy" luxury is often cited as fueling this stereotype of black kids as dangerous and unsympathetic materialists. One of the kids admitted that he was inspired to buy the Ferragamo belt because Harlem rapper Juelz Santana rocks one. The meaning of wealth in hip hop has changed over time and is currently undergoing a radical redefinition. Criticisms of hip hop's materialism obscure the empowering message that these luxury items were meant to transmit. Given the sort of stereotyping seen at Barney's, listeners need to take a closer look at this culture.
The original purpose for the abundant luxury brand name-dropping was to provide aspirational objects for those that felt trapped by their poverty. Notorious B.I.G.'s "Juicy" is one of the greatest examples of this message.
The famous closing lines read:
"Birthdays was the worst days
Now we sip champagne when we thirst-ay.
Uh, damn right I like the life I live
Cause I went from negative to positive
And its all good."
All the objects of wealth mentioned in the song: the "Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis," "money green leather sofa" contribute vivid visual referents to keep disillusioned people thinking positive. Jay-Z elaborated on this message in 2003 with "99 Problems":
"Rap critics that say he's 'Money Cash Hoes'
I'm from the hood, stupid, what type of facts are those?
If you grew up with holes in your zapatos
You'd celebrate the minute you was having dough."
Jay-Z's luxury trappings prove that success is possible. Pair the feeling of this quote with Jay's June interview with Rap Radar's Elliot Wilson and we can see how he perceives his cultural responsibility: "[T]his is going to sound arrogant, but my presence is charity. Just who I am. Just like Obama's is. Obama provides hope." This arrogance does sound ridiculous when not flowing over a beat, but the aim it describes is selfless. All of Jay's successes provide hope for those feeling disillusioned by the circumstances of their lives.
Unfortunately, this simple, inspirational message has been flattened by uninspired, boisterous rappers, and by lazy critics. Lately, rap's luxury serves to taunt, rather than offer a helping hand. Take Big Sean on Juicy J's "Show Out": "Well, at least I ain't broke ho / Stackin paper like old folks / And you still stayin with your old folks." Why you gotta shame a man for living with his parents? That's 41% of your 18-24 year-olds these days.
Another example is Migo's "Versache":"You can do Truey, I do it Versace / You copped the Honda, I copped the Mazi ... /I set the trend, you niggas copy." These raps shut the door on those trying to come up. Because rap is contrarian in nature, the critics that wrote off rap for being materialistic — rather than putting pressure on lame rappers like these to keep their symbols tight — helped the genre down this road.
This distortion of the meaning behind the materialism has had some pernicious psychological effects. A writer at Clutch magazine describes some of these, starting with the question: "Is Rap Culture Tainting Our Financial Reality?" She writes:
"Somewhere along the yellow brick rap road, many of us have become addicted and attached to the image of it all. Why do some feel less accomplished because they can't afford the new Yeezy's ... or for still remaining loyal to Target sheets? The 'get rich quick' culture takes away the simple joys of finding a twenty dollar bill in my pocket, or a metro card that has a remaining balance to get us to two stops."
Rappers' illustrations of wealth have gotten so overblown, they are now discouraging, rather than encouraging. Thankfully, the symbols are evolving again, and metaphorical content of luxury is coming back to the forefront. Kanye's "New Slaves" faces the stereotypes head on:
"You see it's broke nigga racism
That's that 'Don't touch anything in the store'
And it's rich nigga racism
That's that 'Come in, please buy more'.
What you want a Bentley? Fur coats, diamond rings,
All you blacks want all the same things."
Kanye describes how black people's obsession with material goods has created terrible stereotypes and a new slave mentality. He foreshadowed the Barney's fiasco perfectly: Barney's intimidates the young black shoppers and manages to keep their deal Jay by sweetening the charity pot from 25% of profits to 100%. Kanye encourages blacks who might be stereotyped to rethink what they want: success or Bentley? Creative control or fur coat? Similar attempts to redefine material wealth in hip hop have been made by Macklemore on "Thrift Shop" and Kendrick Lamar on "Money Trees": "A Louis belt will never ease that pain / But I'mma purchase when that day is jerking." Kendrick's still going to purchase that belt, but the focus of the line is on larger concepts of pain, death, and success.
There is power in luxury brand metaphors and rappers are not going to stop using them. Albums like Kanye's Yeezus and Kendrick's good kid m.A.A.d. city. will have staying power because they make appropriate use of the symbolic nature of luxury. Cultural criticism helped flatten rap's materialism in the first place, and can now help it back into shape. The more people recognize that materialism in rap can be a positive force that promotes introspection and movement, the more likely it is that rappers will respond and write rhymes that support disenfranchised people's struggles to gain agency and success, rather than shit on them for driving something less fly than a Bugatti.