How hip-hop excess has hit sick new heights

OPINION - Ultimately it's none of my or anyone else's business how rappers spend their money, but a little humility in the midst of a recession wouldn't hurt...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Despite his questionable skills an emcee and declining record sales, Atlanta-based rapper Soulja Boy always manages to grab headlines. He’s been involved in feuds with other rappers (most notably Ice-T and Fabolous), a victim of robbery and assault, and rumored to be taking on the role of Bishop in a remake of the 1992 film Juice, originally played by the late Tupac Shakur. His extracurricular activities have helped him maintain his relevance well past the shelf life of his dwindling recording career. But Soulja Boy’s latest headline is as perplexing as it is jaw-dropping.

News broke over the weekend that the newly minted 21 year-old had purchased a $55 million private jet as a birthday gift to himself. The plane itself was reported to run $35 million, with the other $20 million coming from Soulja Boy’s customized upgrade, including Italian leather seats, flat-screen TVs, four liquor bars, a special travertine tiled floor and Brazilian hardwood cabinets. That’s certainly a lavish gift to bestow upon one’s self.

And it’s the type of purchase that raises eyebrows and inspires My friend, writer and poet Bassey Ikpi jokingly tweeted, “I don’t want to live in a world where Souljah Boy can buy a jet but I can’t afford a subscription to Jet.” Which brings up an interesting question: just how is it that Soulja Boy can afford a $55 million plane?

Turns out, he probably can’t. According to Interscope Records’ Greg Miller, Soulja Boy’s spokesperson, the “elaborate rumors” of his huge purchase are “not true.”
With reported earnings of around $6 million in 2010, it’s hard to imagine a bank would extend a line of credit for such an exorbitant amount given his comparatively modest earnings. So why would he feel the need to lie? Likely to appear to be keeping up with the ever evolving monetary status of his rap peers.

Conspicuous consumption is as much a part of hip-hop culture as sampling and video vixens. We lived through the late ‘80s and the days of Slick Rick sporting a bevy of thick gold chains and four-finger rings, and then transitioned into the “bling-bling” era where platinum replaced gold and 20 inch rims on a six-figure vehicle were the minimum. Yachts and private airplanes became the new must have props in music videos. Instead of trying to outdo one another in terms of rap skills, rappers turned to competing with one another’s wallets, attempting to outspend each other on largely useless goods that depreciate in value.

Last year, Lil’ Wayne had $150,000 worth of jewels in his mouth that had to be removed before he could begin his one year prison sentence at Rikers Island, while Kanye West had his entire bottom row of teeth removed and replaced with diamonds because he thought they were “cooler.” Cash Money Records co-founder Birdman bragged about placing a $2 million bet on the Miami Heat winning the NBA Finals earlier this year, a bet he ultimately lost.

I can still remember Beanie Sigel sitting on the couch of BET’s 106 & Park and bragging about owning three Bentleys, though he was only a few short years into his career at the time and neither of his two solo albums had reached platinum status. I’m not his lawyer, accountant or business manager, so I’ve never been privy to the intimate details of his personal financial situation, but something about that sounded off.

It would appear few have learned from rap’s first cautionary tale, that of the first diamond (10 million) selling rapper, MC Hammer. After the success of his Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em album, on the strength of the single “U Can’t Touch This,” Hammer had amassed over $30 million. By 1996, he was filing for bankruptcy. His lavish lifestyle and out of control payroll plunged Hammer $13 million into debt. It’s the type of story that eventually finds its way on to television via series like TV One’s Unsung and should serve as an example of how not to manage one’s money.

Perhaps there are some who feel like Jay-Z, who rapped “unlike Hammer, 30 million can’t hurt me” on the song “Monster.” But not everyone has Jay-Z-like money or business savvy and they certainly won’t ever achieve that status by constantly blowing the cash they do earn on frivolous expenditures in an effort to “outshine” the competition.

Ultimately it’s none of my or anyone else’s business how rappers spend their money, but a little humility in the midst of a recession wouldn’t hurt.