Introduction: Why Do Rappers Even Brag In The First Place?
Quick history lesson. A major aspect of hiphop, as a culture, is self-expression, be it through dance (Breakdancing), visual art (Graffiti), creation of music (DJing) or the spoken word (Rapping). And you can throw fashion in there too. Now, if you don’t know, rap as a distinct artform can be traced back to party-rocking MCs who would ‘toast’ over music to keep the party moving. One of the first acknowledged people to do this was Jamaican-born American DJ Kool Herc, back in the early 1970s. Of course, MCs had been doing this kind of thing in the West Indies long before the culture flourished in New York, and the concept of rhythmic spoken word poetry reaches back deep into the travelling griots of West Africa and beyond.
Now, the precise purpose of rap is an interesting debate. Part storytelling, part party rocking, part teaching, and part self-aggrandising, it’s a pretty complex mesh of purposes. What we can say for certain is that rappers, for better or for worse, have evolved into a breed of artists who are almost pathologically concerned with bigging themselves up. Inherent in the DNA of rap is a confidence that gives way to arrogance, a culture of self-promotion that should probably be repulsive, but is actually incredibly seductive. Not only do we tolerate these people who can’t stop talking about how amazing they are, but we actually encourage them to do so by buying, listening and sharing their records.
Now, permit me to state the obvious:
Rappers talk about themselves. A lot.
In the grand scheme of things, there are a great deal of topics to discuss in this world, and naturally, rappers do so. But they usually use themselves as the predominant lens through which to discuss the world at large, meaning that the focus is never that far away from themselves at all. This much is pretty simple, but where it gets interesting is in considering why rappers can’t seem to get over themselves, and indeed, why they feel the need to validate their existences so aggressively, through bragging. What are the psychological roots of all this boasting? Well, there are a few obvious (ish) reasons:
Competition: Hiphop is a culture rooted in healthy competition. It’s a celebration of expression, yes, but also a test of skill, with individuals or groups pitted against eachother to win plaudits and the respect of peers. Every time you stand up to spit a verse, you are entering an arena of lyrical battle. So you’d better be good.
Grandstanding: What better way to prove your superiority than displaying all the evidence of your successes? I’m better than you! How do I know? Well I’ve got a bigger car and more jewellery, obviously.
Insecurity: We all know that the most outwardly confident people are most likely harbouring deep-seated internal conflicts and self-deficiencies, hence the front they put up. They aren’t convincing us with all that big-talk, they’re convincing themselves! Ostentation is a mark of insecurity.
Pride: One of the Deadly Sins, yes, but a fair enough reason to shout about your achievements. Who else is going to do it? And coupled with the insecurity mentioned above you can see why someone might be likely to shout about their achievements. Like a toddler looking for parental approval.
Anyway, cod psychology aside, I now present the Top 20 Things That Rappers Brag About (In No Particular Order).
Top 20: Things That Rappers Brag About (In No Particular Order)
1: The Gold Chain
If rapping was a job, a gold chain would be the uniform. From the earliest days of hiphop, rappers have adorned themselves in gold chains of various shapes and sizes up to and including thick gold ropes. The gold chain is the quintessential hiphop status symbol. It connotes wealth in an obvious, direct and indisputable manner; a physical display of wealth. Jewellery serves no purpose other than to signify wealth and look pretty, and to flaunt it is to flaunt one’s financial power.
Beyond this, there is something undeniably regal about gold. Rappers assert their authority and status not simply through wealth, but through specific trappings of wealth that might better befit a monarch.
Kanye shoutout: Mr West takes this to extremes both physically and conceptually in the line ‘Bought the chain that always give me back pain‘ (Monster), suggesting serious weight that is too heavy to handle. Here, it’s worth noting links to Ancient Egyptian culture (as you can see in the photo below). Arguably, gold symbolises an Afro-centric wealth that circumvents Western notions of wealth and kingship. Rappers, being born of migrant peoples, may well find allure in these ancient codes of prosperity.
Slick Rick, one of the most notorious wearers of gold in the game, calls himself ‘The Ruler’ and goes as far as donning a crown to complement the chains. He literally decks himself out in the garb of a king. Is this purely pantomime, or psychological self-aggrandisement?
One final WARNING from Lupe Fiasco though: ‘the crown don’t make you king…‘ Wise words Mr Fiasco, wise words…
2: The Watch
Similar to above, the watch (particularly the gold watch) is a staple hiphop status symbol. The difference between a fancy watch and a gold chain, however, is that a watch connotes a certain level of ‘class’, in a very Western perspective. The watch is a symbol of male sophistication and socio-cultural awareness. It’s the accessory of corporate success. Businessmen don’t bowl around in gold chains, but they damn sure have their Rolex sitting at the end of a well-tailored cuff.
Unsurprisingly, the Rolex (a long-accepted standard of timepiece excellence) has been the rapper’s watch of choice. In the 90s, Biggie asked us to ‘wave our Rollies in the sky‘ as a decadent variation of “wave your hands in the air”, and the Game recently announced the launch of a record label called ‘Rolex Records’.
Jay-Z, arguably one of the most successful (in financial terms and in regards to mainstream acceptance) rappers of our age, has taken his watch game to crazy heights. ‘Otis’ saw him announce new additions to the watch roster, including the brands Hublot and Audemar Piquet. Why? Because he wants to prove his ever growing sophistication, as symbolised by refined, obscure and expensive timepieces. Ironically, the excessive nature of these boasts could be said to detract from the sophistication being sought, especially in lines that compare a rapper to an Octopus (‘So many watches I need eight arms…‘). Not very classy, but you can see why a rapper might say such a thing in the first place.
It’s no accident that rappers brag about what they wear, the reason being that what you wear says a lot about who you are (and what you want to be). Brand worship is one of the most obvious watermarks of rap in particular (not hiphop in general) and it’s not simply because the ability to purchase lots of clothes suggests a healthy bank account. That’s part of it, but just a small part. The real reason rappers talk clothes is because clothes denote culture and style, as well as wealth. Fine clothes = refined living, be it RUN DMC bragging about unlimited supplies of Adidas, Biggie’s Coogi sweaters and Versace glasses, Meek Mill’s “fly as hell YSL“, Theophilus London’s “$900 Givenchy jeans“, Tyler the Creator’s affinity for SUPREME, Nas’ declaration of ‘never wearing less than Guess‘, Kanye West’s excursions into Martin Margiela or having ‘more clothes than Muhammad Ali’, almost every rapper has a fashion preference. Even when being ANTI-fashion, rappers can still find themselves name dropping, as in Roscoe P Coldchain’s assertion that he prefers Dickies workwear and Timbaland boots to flashy outfits.
Why? Because clothing is branding and rappers are masters of self promotion. It is perhaps unsurprising that many rappers have dabbled (with varying degrees of success) in clothing ranges. Notable examples include Jay-Z’s Roc-a-Wear, Pharrell Williams’ Billionaire Boys Club and (Kanye shoutout!) Kanye West’s excursions with Louis Vuitton. The clothes maketh the man…
Worth noting that even relatively modest brands can be worthy of bragging, if they are the accepted mark of style. Case in point, Timbaland boots, which stomped all over 90s hiphop, and hiphop’s ongoing love affair with NIKE, ostensibly a mass-produced sportswear brand. We can all afford this stuff.
Hiphop does NOT mess about when it comes to materialism. In the world at large, cars are an obvious and ubiquitous status symbol, so it makes sense that rappers park their self-esteem in automobiles. That said, there are deeper resonances to the significance of the car. In the US, cars are a powerful symbolism of freedom and driving harks back to the pioneering spirit of the USA’s forefathers. Getting a car is a major US rite of passage and to own cars is akin to owning your own freedom. It makes sense that a rapper might boast about having wheels.
In this, the marginalised status of minority peoples cannot be ignored; having access to personal transport is highly self-affirming. Of course, the more prestigious the brand of car the better, hence why Rick Ross has (somewhat perversely) named his music ’empire’ after the Maybach automobile company. Some rappers, case in point Ludacris, positively evangelise over their cars, as the ode to the automobile ‘Two Miles an Hour‘ attests.
Kanye shoutout: The car as a status symbol has evolved nowadays to include all manner of light aircraft and high-performance water-based vehicles. Kanye says as much in the ‘Otis line’: ‘Can’t you see the private jets flying over you?” and, in ‘Clique’: ‘Speedboat swerve homie, watch out for the waves!’ Wheels are so 20th century…
When, in ‘Big Spender’, Theophilus London (pictured above) states “My nickname international, my accent change by accident” he exemplifies the rapper bragging about being well-travelled. Hiphop, at its core is a local phenomenon, born in ghettoised communities and never really expected to go global. Whenever rappers start bragging about having seen the world, they are effectively celebrating their emancipation. Similarly to ‘Cars’ above, travelling denotes true freedom – an important concept if you were born into socially constrained contexts (such as the ghetto). Furthermore, the well-travelled person is the cultured person. To have seen the world implies a high level of cultural capital that sets you apart from ordinary, home-bound nobodies.
Another Kanye shoutout: In ‘Gone’ Mr West rhetorically muses over how he can be out in Europe living large, having started in Chicago… “How we out in Europe, spending Euros…?”
Ok, so that’s the first five. Phew. Watch this space for numbers six to ten…