What constitutes the failure of a rapper? Losing all authenticity, or going bankrupt? In an ideal hip-hop world, the two would go hand-in-hand. Rappers who boast fake personas would lose their fan-base, record labels would drop their deals, and Rick Ross would watch the BET awards from his couch from 2013 on. Alas, the reality is that rappers almost always have to face a choice between maintaining their integrity, or chasing money. The only rappers we hear about have attained monetary success and dropped the authenticity that made them hungry for money in the first place; and the artists who remain devoted to their street credibility and authenticity? Well, let’s just say they’re still in the streets.
In many ways, rappers try to maintain their authenticity by swearing fierce loyalty to their “hood.” Young Jeezy might have a crib in the suburbs now, but, his music is “for the hood.” Peep some lines from Jeezy’s hit single “My Hood” from Thug Motivation 101:
(Chorus)“Every time I do it I do it for my hood/
Every time I do it I do it for your hood/
Every time I do it I do it for they hood/
It’s understood, I do it for the hood!” (2x)
(Verse 1) The streets love Jeez and I love ‘em back
And If I still had to work I’d front you a sack.
It’s all gravy still reach ‘em with my words
And make ‘em feel good like the first and the third.
Young Jeezy, much like Jay-Z, jumpstarted his career and gained street credibility as a successful drug dealer. Of course, he dropped that business when he gained fame as a rapper, seeing that he no longer needed the money from such a risky business. He was evidently a friendly guy, loved by the whole neighborhood: “The streets love jeez and I love ‘em back/and If I still had to work I’d front you a sack.” The ‘first and the third’ in the last verse refers to the bi-weekly arrival of welfare checks, as to say that Jeezy’s rap nourishes the hood. His verses—stories of hood ambition and drug dealing success—are his version of a government handout, making the people “feel good” with motivation in times of poverty and hunger.
Jeezy creates his own public persona, this image of him strolling the streets and handing out drugs to smiling crack-heads who stand waving to the celebrity returning home: Hey Jeezy! Nice to see you again! Keep doing it for the hood! We’re still here…thanks for the drugs!
This is all hypothetical, of course. Young Jeezy doesn’t walk around the hood. It’s far too dangerous after boasting about all the money he has to go strolling through areas of poverty, and rappers complain about fake friends asking for handouts just as much they as they assert their street cred. Instead, Young Jeezy uses rap to connect with the hood from a far.
Many successful rappers establish a sort of double-life, bragging that they can afford to move out to the suburbs, but still connect to the inner-city through their music. T.I. speaks to this double life on his hit song “I’m Illy:” “Rarely out my element, barely out the ghetto with/ One foot out and one foot in, intelligent as fellas get.” He keeps “one foot in” the inner-city to maintain his authenticity, but still admits that—albeit barely–he is “out” of the “ghetto.”
The rapper’s double-life makes sense: Who wouldn’t brag about being able to afford a crib in the suburbs. Despite the ugly cookie cutter houses, the suburbs come with many amenities that white people take for granted on a daily basis. For black men, the suburbs represent a safe haven where they aren’t being monitored on an hourly basis with police drive-bys, or being stopped and frisked for simply walking from one house to another. Black men have spent their entire lives being racially profiled, trying to evade the mass-incarcerating justice system that pinpoints them as the prime target in the war on drugs.
The problem is, rappers could do a lot more for their neighborhoods after they gain monetary success. T.I. had a joke of a show on MTV “Road to Redemption,” attempting to show the world that he could change lives in the inner-city, one by one. After the show, he ended up back in jail and destroyed any image of a role model he had established prior. Rappers could use a bit of these bountiful portions they speak of to start high-quality programs for inner-city children. Instead of claiming that their rap is even close to a substantial handout for the poverty-stricken hood, they could give back to their neighborhoods without physically returning. Perhaps, Jeezy, you could create a center for the arts where kids could go after school to record music or make beats, as a way to keep inner-city children away from the gang violence and drug trafficking that has led so many black youth to jail or death before the age of 21.
I’m not saying that this double-life is bad for hip-hop. But I think rappers could do a lot more to re-connect with their roots in a way that would live up to what they portray in their music. In many ways, that would give a rapper authenticity in my eyes, and give some credibility to rappers and hip-hop as a genre to the millions of people who write it off as a calamity of guns, drugs, and violence. Yes, you can be authentic and rich, if you just put your money where your mouth is.