“Cash rules everything around me/Cream!/Get the money/Dolla dolla bill y’all” (Wu Tang Clan, C.R.E.A.M).
The naked celebration of money–and the drive to get money (hustlin’)–permeates mainstream rap. It’s long seemed to me that if capitalism had a soundtrack it would be rap music. This might offend some, and of course, we need a touch of nuance at the outset. I’m talking about one theme within a genre, and by no means does the theme “I’m rich/I get money” cover all rap. But there are many lyrical moments in rap where I feel like the voice of capital is spitting flow directly into my ear. As Marx puts it:
“As a capitalist, he is only capital personified. His soul is the soul of capital. But capital has one driving force, the drive to valorize itself, to create surplus-value . . .” (Capital 342).
In rap, the “money theme” takes a distinctly capitalist tone, because it is not just about the accumulation of capital, but rather about capital’s circulation (most often by earning capital and then putting it back into the market through purchasing extravagant commodities). “Thinking beyond deeper than Ghandi/While I’m in the Diamante/Counting my G’s/I’m out to be a millionare/Dipped in gear/Flickin’ hundred dollar bills in the air/Oh yeah, Cuban Link is into getting benjamins/Cuz if it doesn’t make dollars/Then it doesn’t make sense” (Cuban Link, Glamour Life).
Often this “money theme” appears in rap in a “rags to riches” narrative that involves moving from poverty to crime to rap. “Blame Reagan for making me into a monster/Blame Oliver North and I ran contra/I ran contraband and they sponsored/Before this rhyme was stuck, we was in concert” (Jay-z, Blue Magic). This “worker-turned-criminal” becomes a member of the capitalist class by leaving crime (or not) and turning to hip hop music. After all, when your collar turns from blue to white, your crimes get whitewashed too.
Once the rapper has entered the capitalist class, s/he often has no problem becoming part of the establishment, usually the entertainment industry. “What I’m doin?/Gettin’ money/What we doin?/Gettin’ money/What they doin’?/Hatin’ on us/But they never cross/Cash Money still a company/And B***h I’m the boss” (Lil Wayne and Birdman, Stuntin’ Like My Daddy).
Herein lies the most insidious side of rap’s money theme: it reinforces the current capitalist system (and its inequalities) by offering salvation through the system itself, saying, “I’m the biggest boss that you seen thus far” (Rick Ross, The Boss), and so implying that the listener might also find success, wealth, and meaning in climbing the capitalist ladder.
At the same time, rap is testament to the great creative force of capitalism. The fact that the simple theme “I’m rich/I get money” can be expressed in so many different ways, that it can continue to circulate in new permutations, shows how the circulation of capital demands the shattering of limits. But at what cost? “In this white man world/We the ones chosen/so goodnight cruel world/I see you in the morning’” (Kanye West, Power).