“I ain’t tryna die. Or get locked up. Had to change up the way I move. Rapping just gave me something to do versus the streets. I got a crew. I got a lot of real niggas around me that deserve everything that I deserve. Rapping is one of the tools we can use to make sure all our folks straight.” —21 Savage ("Meet 21 Savage, Atlanta’s Most Respected New Rapper")
Sports taught me that victory wasn’t only celebrated by those who partook in the game. The success of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the '90s extended throughout the city of Chicago. It wasn’t just the Lakers who were crowned champions the following decade, but the entire city of Los Angeles. When LeBron James left the Cavaliers for the Miami Heat, the decision affected more than just his team and the NBA; the disgruntled reaction from fans, especially those who lived in Cleveland, displayed a deeper betrayal. There ’s no “i” in team, but there’s an “i” in city, and each team is an extension of the city they call home.
On a macro level, hip-hop shares a similar relationship between rappers, their victories, and the cities that spawned them. Rappers are synonymous with their homes once becoming emblems of excellence, no different than Superman and Metropolis or Batman and Gotham. The men and women of rap carry the glory of their cities, regions, and coasts with a pride not witnessed in genres like country, pop, and rock.
On a micro level, once a rapper achieves the fortune and fame associated with success in music, their stature comes with a natural hierarchical change within the spaces of family, friends, and community. For instance, YG, who encompasses how rap is an escape from poverty for more than just himself. On the opening lines of “Really Be,” a standout selection from his debut album, My Krazy Life, he raps:
“I be goin' through shit, losin' bitches and homies / If I don't make it with this rap shit, nigga, I might be homeless / My moms don't got a job, my pop's checks ain't enough / If ain't bringin' home that money, my whole family is fucked” —YG, "Really Be (Smokin N Drinkin)"
Lil Yachty recently purchased a brand new Corvette Stingray as a birthday gift for his best friend. It’s a gesture only made possible because rap afforded him the luxury. When a career is established where a major financial upgrade is possible, the wealth is often spread among those who were around when the thought of such gifts was only a daydream. There's a lot of joy expressed in the video, not only shock from Yachty's unsuspecting friend but the excitement from Yachty who is visibly happy to give.
Watching the video reminded me of JAY-Z, and the third verse of “Lost One.” He opens with the line, “My nephew died with the car I bought, so I'm under the belief it's partly my fault” to display his deep guilt. Despite not being physically involved in the incident, he connects the tragic death of his nephew to the Chrysler 300 he gave him as a graduation gift. To understand the love Jay has for his nephews, look no further than the third verse of “Anything.” To provide further context, Jay spoke with Rolling Stone in 2005 regarding Colleek D. Luckie's graduation day:
“When Annie’s son, Colleek D. Luckie graduated from high school, Jay flew across the country to be there. ‘I flew, I landed, I get in the car, I asked the driver, you know where you goin, right?’ The driver said yes, so Jay took a nap, but when he awoke they were lost. ‘I’m thinking, if I miss his graduation, oh my God. I gave him my word. I don’t ever wanna break my word with these guys. Specially from when how I came up, like my pop. I know how kids remember. I’m the kid who never forgets.’ He was so upset he almost punched the driver. 'I was so mad. I had tears in my eyes and shit. I don’t cry over nothing. But I made it [to the ceremony]. I was a little late, but I made it.’ —JAY-Z ("The Book of Jay")
Being in the position to give doesn’t stop the tragedies that lurk around every unforeseeable corner. Jay loved Colleek, he would’ve given him everything under the moon, but becoming a billionaire doesn’t give you the gift of life or the power of God. J. Cole recently touched on this reality in “Jermaine’s Interlude,” explaining how the purchase of his mother’s home didn’t suddenly become an elixir for pain. Riches from rap may allow for financial support and grandiose gifts, but they don't create an Eden unaffected by the world's ills.
No artist has captured the burden of being a global star, and the inability to halt the nonstop insanities of life, with the visceral pain Kendrick Lamar displays on “u.” Achieving his stature in hip-hop meant he could become a figure of light to the kids of Compton, to be the hero of a mad city. Rap took him away—"preaching to 100,000,” he specifies on “u"—but not even one of hip-hop’s most influential could reach his baby sister back at home with a baby growing in her womb.
Every night Lamar performs “m.A.A.d city” for an audience who will never experience Compton, who will never walk offstage and receive news that a childhood friend was shot. The song “u” is told from the perspective of Lamar's conscious, the rawest thoughts sitting upon his soul while going through the motions of becoming a celebrity to the world.
The song ends with a haunting message:
“And if I told your secrets, the world'll know money can't stop a suicidal weakness.”
Capitalism reinforces the illusion that money is the answer to all problems. Life is unquestionably easier when you're living rich rather than surviving poor, but swan diving into a swimming pool of gold like Scrooge McDuck isn't going to create an antidote for problems that don't have a price tag. Understanding this doesn’t change outside perception, either. Becoming financially free and world-renowned attracts an abundance of people who want your help. Most of them you will want to help.
On “4 da Gang,” Future raps, “I can't grieve, 'cause ain't none of my Grandma bills late (On gang!) / I bought my mom a mansion and it came with a lake." The song is about what his newfound wealth has provided for others. But it brings to question a recurring theme from Lamar's third studio album, DAMN.: Who is looking out for Future? Who is providing an outlet for him while he's paying all these bills and buying these homes?
When Lamar presents the notion of “nobody praying for me” throughout DAMN., it's the paranoia and exhaustion of all that giving, all of those demands, and having no escape from the devouring anxiety and loneliness born in the aftermath of prosperity. What money can't buy.
For Big K.R.I.T., this idea crystalized on the record “Price Of Fame,” as Justin Scott openly deals with the burden of K.R.I.T.’s success.
“I came up to hold my fam' down, can’t tell them ‘bout my depression because most of them fans now,” K.R.I.T. muses, being open about family and how they're no longer an outlet for emotional support. To them, K.R.I.T. was no longer seen as just kin; he was the one who made it out. A position a privilege, yes, but also one that carries with it an invisible weight.
Like Atlas, the Greek god, who was condemned to endure the weight of holding up the entire sky, both K.R.I.T. and Kendrick have learned of this invisible pressure. That achieving success is, in effect, the burden of having to hold up the sky.
"Lord forbid I let my blood down / The first time I say, 'No,' guess we ain't blood now / Scared, me as a businessman is like all they see / Justin Scott trapped as Big K.R.I.T. screamin', 'It's really me'/ When it was only us it was only love, how could this be? / When fallin' out for some is not gettin' the V.I.P. / And a simple conversation means we talkin' work / To play a song that's almost perfect but it need my verse" —Big K.R.I.T., "Price of Fame"
On "Strong Friend," a standout selection from his excellent new album, Book of Ryan, Royce da 5'9" reminds listeners of the importance of checking on those who we consider our most bulletproof allies. On the first verse, Royce rewinds the tape back to 2003, using imagery to depict his lavish lifestyle. As the song continues, however, his perspective changes, accounting for how financial improvement affected his relationships with friends. While dealing with his own traumas, Royce was expected to be the baller for all, treating everyone like family. Not only with his money but also with their problems.
I catch chills each time he raps, “I'm already hiding all of my problems behind my pop's problems / When I was nine seen my father beat the shit out of my momma / I'm smiling' right now I'm trying not to cry about it.”
The second verse further illustrates the value and importance of the strong friend, the one who is thought to be invincible, the one who is supposed to take care of others. As the song's overarching theme illustrates, the people we view as the strongest often aren’t as strong as they seem.
With hip-hop becoming more vocal about mental health, songs like "Strong Friend" remind us that being a rich recording artist is often equals parts gift and curse. I’m far from famous, and even further from rich, but chasing deadlines and creating opportunities can be the cause of neglectful habits that impact life outside of writing.
Recently, someone who I consider a strong friend went through a rough patch. I expected him to escape the funk with ease, and so I wasn't the friend he needed me to be. Imagine the heart-racing panic when, after receiving several alarming drunk texts, I arrived at his public location to find a gun pressed up against his head and the Reaper in his eyes. Imagine the unshakable terror of wanting to call 911, but knowing there was a good chance that the first police officer to arrive might end up putting a bullet in another black man's head. I would have nightmares about what unfolded that night if I slept long enough to dream. Thankfully, a few weeks later, he was helping me move out of my apartment with Logic's “1-800-273-8255” playing from his pocket. My friend is strong.
Rappers tend to become the strong friend of their friends, families, and communities. Being the one who makes it means shouldering the lives and livelihood of others. There's no easy transition, you are thrust into the role. This is why every record deal should come with a therapist—money isn’t going to suddenly solve all your past traumas and the new grief that comes with a million-dollar advance. Money will not save your soul, neither will success, but both come with burdens that could drag you into a deep depression, or worse.
Look no further than the Lil Baby lyric, “In the streets ain’t no award, so this Rollie be my trophy / I’m just trying to survive the motion,” which speaks to how all the jewels, expensive gifts, and clothes being flossed on Instagram could never suppress the reality that artists are often just surviving the motions. Everyone is battling their own personal demons and trying to escape their own personal hells. There’s pain rooted in poverty, and there’s pain that affects the wealthy. No one is safe.
"La tristesse durera pour toujours" were reportedly the final words of Vincent van Gogh. In his last breath, the prolific painter spoke of the never-ending constant of rich and poor, famous and forgotten, successful and failing: "The sadness will last forever."
By Yoh, aka Your Strong Friend, aka @Yoh31