Irrational exuberance is so widespread in hip-hop right now that Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke might freak out—if he understood rap lyrics.
There's no two ways about it—hip-hop sales stink. Album sales dropped 30 percent in 2007, a figure that includes digital downloads. Ringtones, which have given folks like Soulja Boy a reason to, um, soulja on, are not lucrative enough to be a panacea for the industry.
But from recent rap songs, you'd think these guys were too rich to stand up. Literally. In fact, Fat Joe's recent single, "The Crackhouse," begins: "I'm sleeping on a billion dollars." (Bear in mind this is coming from a guy whose last CD, Me, Myself & I, sold about 250,000 copies.)
Once upon a time, MCs were content to exaggerate their wealth in somewhat-plausible ways. Only a few years ago, in fact, T.I. made the fairly modest claim to be worth "a couple hundred grand" in his song "Rubberband Man."
But those days are ancient history. Nowadays, even the lowliest rappers claim Steve Jobs-type stacks. Perhaps the most egregious offender is Bow Wow, who boasts on his recent album that "It's like every time I breathe, I make a million."
Seriously? Human beings take at least 10 breaths per minute, so that would put him at about $600 million an hour—perhaps double that figure if he's dancing. And if he really makes that much money, his record company must be pissed, considering that his album Face Off—a collaboration with Omarion—debuted at No. 11 on Billboard and likely won't go gold.
R. Kelly, on the other hand, is a bona-fide megastar and probably quite rich. Nonetheless, it's hard to believe him on Beanie Sigel's song "All of the Above" when he claims, "I'm worth about a billion, but I'm still hood rich," if only because of his mountain of lawyerly fees. (Quick aside: Isn't Kelly misusing the phrase "hood rich?" Surely he means he's simultaneously rich and true to the hood, right? After all, according to the trusty urbandictionary.com, "hood rich" means "a person with extravagant luxuries that they clearly cannot afford, and they live in the hood or have a hood lifestyle.") Meanwhile, in that same song, Sigel claims to pull "seven digits clean soon as I grace the stage," which is odd, considering his new album sold about 50,000 copies in its first week and debuted at No. 37.
Equally preposterous is the title of Sigel's protégé and fellow Philadelphia rapper Freeway's new song, "Roc-A-Fella Billionaires." "Roc-A-Fella Billionaires" is a collaboration with Jay-Z, who, according to Forbes, earned $34 million in 2006, more than any other rapper. This gives us one reason to believe the song's chorus, which, perplexingly, downgrades their status to "Roc-A-Fella millionaires." But that still doesn't explain how Freeway, whose latest album sold 36,000 copies in its first week, managed to acquire "30 mil in the bank, 30 grand on the wrist and 20 mil in the Swiss," as he raps on the song.
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There are probably other rappers claiming to be billionaires. Pharrell Williams, for one, has a clothing line called Billionaire Boys Club, but there's something kind of murderous-sounding about that, so we're not going to talk about it. But we will use this interlude to remind everyone that having a billion isn't the same as having a recoupable six-figure advance and a few nice cars. Billion has nine zeroes. It's the same as having $1,000 million.
Inflating your own wealth, of course, is an American tradition; Donald Trump has made a career out of it. But hippity-hoppers seem to be among the worst offenders. Russell Simmons famously admitted to deceiving the public about sales of his Phat Farm clothing line. According to The New York Times, in a 2004 civil deposition, he said, "It is how you develop an image for companies. So, in other words, you give out false statements to mislead the public so they will then increase in their mind the value of your company." Though Simmons had claimed his line sold $350 million in 2003, the actual figure was less than 1/20th of that.
Much was made, meanwhile, about 50 Cent's stake in Energy Brands after its brand Glaceau (which includes Vitamin Water) was sold to Coca-Cola last year for $4.1 billion. Though 50—judged the second-highest-earning rap cat in 2006 by Forbes—did nothing to quash rumors that he was a 10 percent stakeholder in the company, the Energy Brands folks did, calling rumors that 50 had become a near-half-billionaire "erroneous."
Not surprisingly, there's even a label called Billionaire Records, based in Crockett, Texas. It seems likely that the company's name is something of a misnomer because Billionaire Records has only a single MySpace friend: Tom.