Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Rags to Riches Has to Start With Rags: Let's Talk About Money (Part 3)

This is Part 3 in a series examining the paradox of money in the American Dream mythos. Part 1 looked at my inspiration for this series: the question of whether Mitt Romney is too rich to be president. Part 2 used two films to look at the fine line between criminality and innovation. This part is going to look at the way that the rags-to-riches narrative sets up a complicated relationship between poverty and success. Just as I used movies to examine this theme in the last post, I'm going to use some music to examine it in this one. 

And if we're talking about rags-to-riches, there's no better place to start than The Throne. 

Jay-Z and Kanye both use this theme in their music independently. 

Take Kanye's "Good Life" for example:

This song is rife with the mythos of the American Dream. From the very first verse, Kanye set up an individualistic philosophy: "I go for mine/I gots to shine." This verse works to demonstrate that his hard-earned success is just that, his hard-earned success. It also demonstrates that he's going to "shine," that is, make sure that everyone sees what he's worked so hard for.

And much of the rest of the song works to illustrate just what that "shining" looks like. He's got the car: "I pop the hood: Ferrari." He's got the drive for fame: "I'ma get on this TV mama." And that drive gets actualized: "And if they hate, let 'em hate and watch the money pile up." And his success has led him to the parties: "The good life, so keep it comin' with those bottles" and--of course--the ability to attract and collect women as sexual conquests: "Have you ever popped champagne on a plane/While gettin' some brain?"

So he's hit the markers of "success" in his particular cultural niche, and he's making sure that everyone sees them.

But he also says this:

"I always had a passion for flashin'/Before I had it, I closed my eyes and imagine, the good life"

See, the other part of the American Dream is that you have to rise. And in order to rise, you have to start out somewhere below where you end up. The farther the rise, the better the story. So, the lower the start, the more dramatic the possibilities. Beneath all of these messages of success is the story of struggle. Starting out on top just doesn't cut it.

That's why Kanye also has a repertoire of songs that demonstrate where he began. "Spaceship," for instance, does a lot to set up the distance between start and finish.

In this song, our narrator is not popping bottles of champagne on planes or driving Ferraris. Instead, he's getting harassed by his manager at the Gap. He's "working this graveshift" and he "ain't made shit." 

The other half of The Throne has a history of using this rhetoric as well. Take Jay-Z's song "Empire State of Mind"

This song is also about making sure that everyone can see the luxuries that success has afforded him. He talks about his "off-white Lexus" and the ethos of New York--the city that exemplifies innovators taking risks and trying to reach their dreams. He "came here for school, graduated to the high life" where he's "sipping mai tais" and "sitting court side." He's definitely made it.

But the song also hints at a troubled start and a path to success that's rife with danger. He notes that his success started with drugs: "I used to cop in Harlem, all of my Dominicanos/Right there up on Brooklyn, brought me back to that McDonald's/Took it to my stash spot, 560 State Street/Catch me in the kitchen like a Simmons whipping pastry."

Also evident in Jay-Z's American Dream narrative is his understanding that he didn't get there alone. In addition to tipping his hat to the "Dominicanos" who were selling him drugs, he notes he has "a gang of niggas walkin' with [his] clique, though." He also recognizes that he's lucky. Sure, he took risks and worked hard (even if it was in an illegal trade), but he could just as easily have not made it: "Cities a pity, half of ya'll won't make it."

Which brings us to the work that the pair is doing together. As The Throne, Kanye and Jay-Z have branded their work as "luxury rap." They sell glimpses at their high-powered life and the public is happy to consume. Perhaps the song that best exemplifies this message is "Niggas in Paris."

There's nothing subtle about the use of luxury in this song: "What's 50 grand to a motherfucker like me, can you please remind me?" They drop the names of luxury clothing brands, talk about drinking to excess and running through women like appetizers. 

Still, even here in this song that's all about success and showing it off, there's hints at the narrative of rags to riches: "I'm shocked too. I'm supposed to be locked up, too/If you escaped what I escaped, you'd be in Paris getting fucked up, too."

What's It Say About Money?

On the surface, the collected narrative of The Throne (and plenty of other musicians) suggests a complete adherence to the American Dream. These are people who innovated paths to success (though possibly illegal ones), worked hard, and rose from rags-to-riches. As is the formula, they must now flaunt those riches to the public. This works to remind the public that wealth is the marker of success and to demonstrate that the rags-to-riches story is possible, giving them something to work towards. 

But is it really that simple?

As this article points out, Kanye and Jay-Z may appear to be merely rolling in their riches, but their songs actually contain a lot of social commentary:
"Murder to Excellence" encapsulates the theme in a two-parter that shifts beats halfway through. West begins by quoting an old Jay-Z line — "I'm from the murder capital, where they murder for capital" — to decry black-on-black violence in his hometown of Chicago. Jay-Z then describes ascending to "the new black elite" with Will Smith and Oprah Winfrey. "Only spot a few blacks the higher I go ... that ain't enough. We gon' need a million more," he raps. 
Isolation infuses the Swizz Beats-produced "Welcome to the Jungle," where West drinks away his struggles: "Just when I thought I had everything, I lost it all. So que sera. Get a case of Syrah, let it chase the pain." Jay-Z places himself in the shoes of fellow musicians at their lowest points, linking Eminem, Michael Jackson, Pimp C, 2Pac and more through coded couplets that reward repeat listening. 
Even more dour is the RZA-produced "New Day," with odes to sons the two may eventually father. Over a plinking piano and Nina Simone sample, West flagellates himself for mistakes, from his choice in women to post-Katrina telethon appearance, noting: "I'll never let my son have an ego." Jay-Z is even more direct: "Sorry Junior, I already ruined ya, 'cause you ain't even alive, paparazzi pursuing ya."
Lyrics like these disturb the simple, individualistic message of "work hard so you can play hard." There's a whole world out there, a world that even the richest among us can't escape because they are a part of that world. Jay-Z and Kanye would not be rich without the millions and millions of fans--most of whom are certainly not enjoying this lifestyle--willing to spend money on their product. Ignoring the violence and oppression in that world ignores the plight of the cultural ecosystem their success depends upon. When they bring their children into the mix, they're recognizing that individualism only takes you so far. If you plan to be a part of a society and especially if you plan to procreate in it, then you have a vested interest in making it the best place it can be, and that often means looking up from the champagne.

After all, if you came from rags, then you know just how hard that position can be. Not everyone has the chance to escape those rags--if they did, the American Dream wouldn't be a "Dream"; it'd be an operating manual.

We shouldn't begrudge the successful among us for their success, but success shouldn't be an amnesiac, either. Perhaps it's easier for the successful whose livelihood is directly tied to the community at large (such as through record sales) to remember. As Jay-Z says in "Empire State of Mind" "Now I'm down in Tribeca/Right next to De Niro, but I'll be hood forever."

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