Part of marketing a celebrity musician is selling the musician’s persona. Singles and albums sell on iTunes and in record stores, but record labels siphon a good amount of the overall profit generated. In response to this, artists recognize that going on tour and being personable enough to draw live audiences is key to earning additional money. In the 1990’s – 2000’s, before rap became intertwined with mainstream pop culture, rappers in many cases transitioned from urban poverty to becoming established musical artists in a short span of time. However, their experiences with crime, poverty, drugs, and low-income neighborhoods became reflected in their lyrics. I think that the shock factor made rap instantly marketable. The poor and the needy have very little voice in society and here were a collective of artists willing to describe the desperate situations found in crime laced urban environments; the power of their words influenced listeners to realize problems with society they ignored out of inexperience and at the same time connected rappers with a section of the populace that felt misrepresented.
As rap became more popular in the 2000’s I started to notice a trend. Materialism became a significant theme in rap lyrics and had significantly increased in presence from the lyrics of the late 1990’s. To demonstrate how I perceive the progression, N.W.A. started rapping about the realities of Compton while advocating for an understanding of black youth instead of victimization, then 2pac continued this grimy level of advocacy while adding a more theoretical understanding of society, and then The Game shifted the focus to being the successor to West coast hip-hop greats and successfully signing onto the Aftermath record label to market a platinum selling album. To be fair the 2pac era introduced materialism to the rap scene, but that was not the main focus of that generation. By The Game’s generation it had become well established in struggling city neighborhoods that rapping made a successful career and was a way to quickly escape a desperate situation. Lyrics describing material wealth definitely indicated an understanding of this process. However, one problem remained. Rappers of the previous generation tacked on a gangster* persona, and this happened to be an accurate representative of desperate measures taken to provide for themselves, and in some cases family members as well. By the mid-2000’s not every individual trying to become a rapper shared those experiences, but in order to market themselves better many up and comers adopted the gangster persona.
A really good example of this is Rick Ross. The Miami based rapper had already formed a solid marketing strategy for his persona by his first album release. The moniker Rick Ross was adopted from “Freeway” Rick Ross who was sentenced to life imprisonment after establishing a drug empire in Los Angeles during the 80’s. With Rick Ross’s first album, Port of Miami, there is a clear theme that Rick Ross made money dealing cocaine. Ross rapped,” It ain’t no walkin’ ’round me, see all these killers ’round me\Lot of drug dealin’ ’round me goin’ down in Dade County” (Rick Ross – Hustlin’). In reality, Rick Ross had worked as a corrections officer in Florida for two years and attended Georgia’s Albany State University on a football scholarship for a year. The disconnect between Ross’s true persona and that of the rapper made it very clear that he knew how to craft a marketable persona. Listeners clearly enjoyed experiencing the gangster persona and in order for Ross to claim a career in rap he stretched the truth about his experiences growing up in the impoverished Carol City, Florida.
Rappers are well-known for starting feuds and nemeses of Rick Ross have taken jabs at him for the truth behind his persona. In his diss track, Officer Ricky, 50 Cent said,”Officer Rickyyyy, radio for backup/See ya a** anywhere you know I’m gon act up.” The subsequent hate aimed at Rick Ross has fueled the rather comical website officerricky.com, whose sole purpose seems to be discrediting Ross. Ironically, Rick Ross has already established himself as a successful artist and gained commercial success. Ross is the face of the Rolls Royce Phantom, smokes cuban cigars, has a gigantic mansion, and is worth $25 million according to a shady website I don’t really trust (celebrity net worth is always speculative and I chose the low figure just to make the point).
The persona of the musical artist has become a commodity itself and Rick Ross is living proof of that fact. This is further demonstrated by the fact that the rap audience could really care less about the origins of the Rick Ross persona. He is still one of the most popular rap artists in the scene and any attempts to parade him as “Officer Ricky” failed. Casual audiences tend to only care about the persona portrayed to them in live concert and on records; they do not involve themselves with the day-to-day ongoings of the artist. Thus rappers like Rick Ross demonstrated that an artist’s persona can be independent of their true persona, even if their public image demands certain experiences from their past. Good marketing and carefully crafted lyrical themes can satisfy the casual listener, who comprise the majority of the listening audience.
However I believe that Rick Ross’s generation of rappers paved the way for even more experimentation in the next. Rappers of this decade have a variety of different persona’s and tend to market themselves based off of characteristics that make them unique rather than conforming to a specific norm as before. I think this could be due largely in part to the subconscious recognition of the fact that anyone could adopt the gangster persona, thus discrediting the uniqueness of such a quality. In essence the initial shock factor was lost due to overabundance. Now a variety of different people have become rappers, each with unique personas. This probably never would have happened if individuals like Rick Ross had not monetized the rap persona.
*I really hate how the term gangster can be misconstrued. Here I am simply referring to the suggestion by the artist that they have a previous record of criminal activity and are able to legitimately speak to that lifestyle.
This post is dedicated to a black man I saw walking down the street yesterday. I was returning from the bar with a friend of mine and my exhaustion from the week on top of the fact that I had consumed alcohol resulted in utter fatigue. He walked up behind my friend and I and asked us if we knew where the terminal was. I honestly did not know where the terminal was (or what he was referring to in general) so I replied over my shoulder that I had no idea. Under normal circumstances I’m quite helpful to people asking for help, but it was getting late and I was too tired to really be bothered. He must have gotten the wrong message because he replied, “Sir..Ma’am I mean no harm” and when I kept walking, “I just wanna know where the terminal is. Hey! Someday you’re gonna need help. Pu** a**….”. It really bothers me that he perceived me as a racist, something I truly try not to be. It’s not like this post really solves any of those problems of miscommunication and mistrust, but hopefully by covering topics like this, which intellectuals often times ignore, I can help bridge the gap by the most infinitesimal amount.
As a bonus here is the description attached to Rick Ross (aka Hood Billionaire)’s Twitter:
Small disclaimer: If you’re wondering what this post has to do with diced pineapples and are getting aggravated by the fact that this question has not been answered so far, here is what you must do. Take a deep breath, wait five seconds, now let it out. Rick Ross wrote a song called “Diced Pineapples”. I thought this was far more clever than “Officer Ricky And The Monetization Of Rap Personas”. Sorry for any discomfort caused by my selection, at least I apologized in advance.
Do you think rappers should base their persona’s off of their real life experiences, or does it not matter? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
I had the worst case of writer’s block when writing this post, but I powered through. I wish you success in powering through as well.