In an especially brilliant moment of Comedy Central’s critically acclaimed television show Corporate—a hilarious sitcom about the soul-sucking horrors of working for an evil, multinational conglomerate—one of the show’s two main characters turns to the other and expresses a concern that he is wasting his life sitting in pointless meetings. Keeping with the show’s dark sense of humor, his colleague deadpans, “If it makes you feel any better, there's no way not to waste your life. The best you can do is find something you love and work so hard and so long at it that it eventually becomes something you mostly complain about.”
For as depressing of a sentiment as this is, I’d have a hard time arguing that it’s untrue. Fewer notions are more heavily romanticized within our culture than the call to arms to “follow your passion,” yet people rarely talk about the other side of this pursuit: the risk of waking up one morning, suddenly feeling resentful towards a craft you once loved. Pursuing your passion full-time is the quickest way to turn your most gratifying means of escapism into the very stimulus that causes you to seek an escape. You wouldn’t advise your friend to buy a Subway franchise just because sandwiches are their favorite comfort food, yet that’s what Western society encourages people to do constantly, metaphorically forcing the chain’s distinct smell so far down their noses that they can’t help but recoil at the mere sound of the words “chicken teriyaki.”
It’s an unfortunate realization to come to, but sadly the reality of pursuing your passion doesn’t always live up to the fantasy you’ve constructed. In your fantasy, you might begin each morning feeling divinely possessed to follow your true calling, but in reality, your passion just becomes work—a series of routine tasks for you to dread, procrastinate, and bemoan, not unlike any other job.
Interestingly enough, this is equally true for rappers as it is for hypothetical Subway franchisees. Most rappers wear their profession as a persona—which is why fans tend not to think of rapping as a job—yet, rappers are likely to spend as much time checking their emails as they do spitting bars. When you close your eyes and picture Travis Scott, you don’t exactly imagine him sitting on a conference call waiting impatiently for someone to dial in, but this is undoubtedly a component of his daily agenda, sandwiched between “stream of conscious Auto-Tune warbling at 2 pm” and “extended Kardashian family strategy session at 5 pm.”
Speaking as someone who spent several years working in a mundane office environment, it is my belief that there are actually more similarities between being a rapper and working in an office than one might think. Though you’d be hard-pressed to think of two categories of jobs that appear more dissimilar on the surface, a deeper dive into the minutiae of what it’s really like to be a rapper shows that these artists’ professional lives follow similar patterns to that of the average office worker’s. Allow me to shed some light on a few of these shared patterns.
1. "Faking It Until You Make It" Is Profoundly Important
Starting a new job in an office environment is never easy. You can do your best to prepare by reading your job description dozens of times over and keeping a meticulous record of all the “non-negotiable” skills you lied about possessing in your job interview, but you are still all but guaranteed to arrive on your first day feeling completely in over your head. In between meeting all your new coworkers, acclimating to a new environment, and adjusting your work habits to your boss’ preferences, you will likely lose whatever confidence you possess, and spend most of your first week staring at the clock, trying to figure out the minimum amount of time you need to wait before pestering your polite but increasingly exasperated coworker with another in an endless series of questions.
This is particularly unfortunate because this is also the stage where you’re most worried about making a good first impression. Anxious that your boss will begin regretting their hiring decision, you are left with no choice but to actively start pretending like you know what you’re doing. You overcompensate wildly in email exchanges, taking on work assignments you don’t understand by enthusiastically replying “sounds good” and “definitely,” hoping that you’ll be able to figure out your work on the fly and that affecting this fake competence will eventually translate into real competence. It’s not uncommon for people to spend entire years at their workplace playing this character, and some people will even do so for their entire careers.
This type of “fake it until you make it” persona was on full display at an artist showcase I recently attended in Toronto, run by an organization called Coast 2 Coast. Up and coming rappers were selected by Coast 2 Coast to perform in front of judges for the chance to compete in Miami for a grand prize of $50,000. Never before had I seen so many rappers auditioning for the job title of “Rapper”—spelt with a capital “R”—in one location.
These artists hit the stage, confidently yelling “TORONTO! WHAT THE FUCK IS UP?!” imitating animated dance moves they’d seen their favorite rappers perform, carrying themselves with the utmost swagger, despite the fact that their lack of mic technique betrayed their secret that they’d never performed in front of an audience before. Jumping around on stage like Tyler, The Creator might have sold their performance under different circumstances, but their inability to rap loudly enough for the audience to hear them simply made it look silly. Their boastful raps about money may have been clever or aspirational if they’d been delivered by different people, but the very context of the stage they were performing on betrayed their delusion.
As I watched these artists take turns hitting the stage, I oscillated between laughing at them and feeling bad for them, depending on how absurd their performances were. Upon further reflection, however, I realized that these rappers were carrying themselves exactly as they should. Just as applicants for office jobs claim to be “proficient in Photoshop,” the job description of a rapper requires them to be “proficient in swagger.”
Almost every rapper who has ever made it possesses a certain amount of confidence that others may have, at one point, referred to as “irrational.” Consider, for example, the well-documented legends of a young Kanye West obnoxiously rapping for everyone he encountered or the fact that Tupac pretended to be a gangster for so long that he eventually became the very archetype of a gangster that real gangsters idolize. Neither of these rappers could have possibly succeeded at the level at which they did without their capacity for delusion. “Faking it until you make it” is just as critical a skill for rappers as it is for people who work in offices.
2. Sometimes the Work Just Needs to Get Done
When you work 40 hours a week in an office setting, it’s often difficult to find the motivation to be productive. Trying to find inspiration in the mundanity of your daily routine is as pointless as trying to drill for oil in your bathroom sink. In my previous role, this is a battle I waged daily. In the course of writing press releases, website copy, marketing brochures, sales proposals, and email newsletters, I exhausted all my creativity within a week, meaning that I spent the remainder of my year and a half at this organization phoning it in, writing some slightly altered permutation of a thing that I’d already written during that initial week.
Most days, this made it impossible to live with myself. I’d get an assignment and find myself mentally unable to concentrate on it, doing everything else imaginable until the last possible second, when I eventually hammered it out so I could go home. I was never proud of my work, nor did I ever want to look at it again after it was done, but when you work in an office, none of these considerations are relevant. You do the work because it needs to get done and then you move on.
In JAY-Z’s recent interview on David Letterman’s Netflix talk-show, My Next Guess Needs No Introduction, I was somewhat surprised to hear him express a similar sentiment. During a conversation about his writing process, JAY-Z tried to explain to Letterman how he knows when a song is done. “It’s a feeling,” he said. “Sometimes, it happens immediately. Songs happen in three minutes sometimes, literally. And then 'Forever Young' took me about a month to finish. It was just like ‘man, I can never finish this song!’ And it never turned out the way I wanted it. And it went on to be a really successful song for me, but I can’t even like—it still bothers me that I didn’t finish it the way I wanted to.”
It’s interesting to think that, just as I had to turn in my dull work every day to meet my deadlines, JAY-Z had to turn in “Forever Young" even though he was never able to find the necessary creative inspiration to finish it to his satisfaction. JAY-Z clearly worked harder at this song then I did my press-releases, but the ultimate product was the same: a piece of work that neither of us was particularly proud of. When you have a job, whether you’re a rapper completing a record or someone in an office updating a spreadsheet, it is your daily obligation to simply put your head down and finish your work.
3. You Spend A Lot of Time Performing Tasks That Are Only Tangentially Related to Your Job
Despite being hired to work in a business development role, my day-to-day duties at my aforementioned job often varied wildly. My boss would regularly pop into my office and ask me if I would mind performing some task that was completely unrelated to my job-title—as if to present me with the veneer of choice—even though I never really had the option of saying no.
I recall one particularly infuriating instance where he walked into my office and asked me if I would assume my coworker’s tech-support duties while she was on vacation. If I’d been able to say no, I would have explained that my complete lack of technical expertise would encumber my ability to perform this job effectively and that I didn’t want to perform tech-support because it would complete my transformation into an Indian stereotype, but instead I just said “sure” and moved on with my day. When you work in an office, you put up with these sorts of requests constantly to appease the person who pays your salary.
On a similar note, if the position of “rapper” was posted on an online job board, the description of their job duties would be limited to “rapping.” Many artists get into the rap game for this reason, fantasizing about spending all their time in the studio writing intricate rhymes and creating timeless pieces of music. Yet, in today’s era, where music makes very little money, it’s not sustainable to build a career off of rapping alone. The job of being a rapper means being an ongoing ambassador for your brand: to sell merchandise, concert tickets, Patreon contributions, and promote any other stream of income you can get your hands on.
This side of the rap game is artfully depicted in the show Atlanta, where the buzzing rapper Paper Boi (a.k.a. Alfred) is often shown doing everything but rapping in order to make money. He does nightclub appearances, plays in celebrity basketball games, appears on panel shows about Transgender rights, records voiceover intros for playlists on streaming services, and more. Only once in the entire run of the show is Alfred shown in the studio, and even then he’s only there for strategic reasons to collaborate with another buzzing artist. A job, by definition, is the thing you do to make money, and Alfred is well-aware that, in 2018, this isn’t rapping.
If you work in an office and take stock of how little time you spend actually working at the job you are employed to do, you might find it shocking. Yet, as depicted in Atlanta and evidenced in the rap industry in general, this is true across all professions. If there’s one common thread shared by all professionals, it's that we'll do whatever it takes to keep our paychecks rolling in.