We’ve been scouring the MIMO vaults this month for some of 2012’s more intriguing posts. Today we came across this gem from Shane Danaher, first posted in August, discussing the issue of authenticity in the hip-hop scene. His poignant insights are always fun to read, and give food for thought. -Ed
The buzz for Rick Ross’s God Forgives, I Don’t has outgrown the scale of conventional pre-release marketing to take on the colossal character of an “Event.”
With extensive coverage by MTV, a timely collaborative release from his personal label, and a tenured presence on the cover of XXL, Ross has cast perhaps the largest of 2012’s sizable pop music shadows.
While impressive in its own right, this achievement is made all the more noteworthy by the fact that Rick Ross has built his career on a pair of flagrant fabrications. In 2008, The Smoking Gun revealed that Ross had worked for 18 months as a corrections officer in Miami County. Ross, who borrowed his stage name from a notorious Los Angeles drug kingpin, initially tried to suppress the evidence of his not-so-gangster past. However, once it became apparent that the media had no intentions of letting the trail go cold, he elected to simply shrug off the whole affair and continue apace with his outlaw self-mythologizing. His fans, curiously enough, went right along with him.
Ross’s post-2008 albums have seen progressively higher sales and Ross himself has used his fame to build one of hip-hop’s largest commercial fiefdoms.
The success of Ricky Rozay’s promotional machine calls to mind other MCs whose bark is less than representative of their bite. Lil Wayne began his career as a member of the Hot Boys—essentially a hip-hop boy band that owed a great part of its identity to record label tinkering. The group’s gold-certified albums have ensured Dwayne Michael Carter Jr. access to extreme wealth since the age of 15, though he still raps about the streets to which he has only a tangential connection.
Kanye West has exercised caution when it comes to dropping gangster bona fides, but the suburban-bred rapper still makes occasional reference to a drug trade with which he is familiar only in his capacity as a client.
In the case of Drake, street-level associations have never really been claimed, though the man still raps with a rancor far beyond what should be allowed someone who spent his formative years on the set of Degrassi.
Self-reinvention in the interest of pop music success isn’t a phenomenon exclusive to hip-hop. Bob Dylan started out his life as Robert Allen Zimmerman and massaged his past to fit the romantic image of a wandering vagabond. Punk rock progenitors The Sex Pistols, while insisting on their status as street-born scum, owed a large part of their identity to the keen marketing instincts of manager Malcom McLaren. Before ascending to the level of sexual idol, Mick Jagger spent his time as a student of finance at the London School of Economics.
Though hip-hop has, in general, placed a greater insistence than rock and roll on the authenticity of its icons, both genres have ultimately prized image over reality, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Rick Ross’s post-revelation success serves as a testament to the intellect of hip-hop fans, who, provided with the truth, have been willing to accept Ross’s hyperbole as theater, rather than scripture.
Pop music relies on tall tales to justify its own hype, and hip-hop has provided folk heroes of uncommon scale. Whenever rappers are faulted for their lack of authenticity, one of the twin specters of Tupac Shakur or Biggy Smalls is inevitably invoked. The pair remains posthumously enshrined in hip-hop lore, but had they lived, would we have seen Biggy sell out his image to pimp energy drinks? Or Tupac follow DMX’s route and prove too much the soldier to maintain a mainstream career?
Rick Ross’s success helps highlight the important (and all too real) gulf between the biographies and boasts of many pop artists. In a way, his prosaic past makes his current dominance of the hip-hop scene all that more impressive.
Ross rose to his current renown by leveraging his talent as a rapper and his shrewdness as a businessman. His debut album didn’t hit stores until he was 30, and had already refined his abilities as an MC. As a result of his decade-plus of striving, Ross knows how to please a crowd, and how to win that crowd’s attention in the first place.
He’s not a criminal mastermind; he’s an entertainer. And in that latter capacity, his credentials check out.