There are three major themes in mainstream rap: “I’m so awesome”, “I’m so rich”, and “I’m so poor”. This is, of course, an oversimplification, as it leaves out sub-genres like “I’m so high and/or drunk”, and “I’m so socially conscious and/or misinformed”, but again, we’re talking mainstream.
Usually, just to be safe, the rapper will cover his or her (but probably his) bases by mentioning more than one theme and often all three, the Holy Trinity of club bangers and radio records. Like the other Holy Trinity, this can get rather confusing and paradoxical- how can all three be the same thing?- yet when we learn to reconcile the Father (“I’m so awesome”), the Son (“I make so much money because I’m so awesome”), and the Holy Spirit (“But I’m still hood”), we can reach some enlightening conclusions (as you can probably tell, I attended a Jesuit university). Take, for example, Ace Hood’s classic “Hustle Hard”.
“Times are getting hard,” Ace Hood notes, summing up the recession, and “mama needs a house, baby needs some shoes.” He invites us to guess his course of action, but we already know: “hustle, hustle, hustle HARD.” And you can’t blame him. After all, “closed mouths don’t get fed on this boulevard.”
But the first verse paints a different picture. He brags about his car on 24 inch rims and all the rosé he buys at the club. Has his hustle grown so successful that he can now afford this lifestyle? Nope. As soon as the chorus kicks in, it’s the “same old shit, just a different day.” Mama still needs that house, baby still needs some shoes, and Ace Hood is still “out here trying to get it, each and every way.” That is, until the next verse, when he hits the mall with his ladyfriends and gives them a blank check to buy whatever they like.
What’s going on here? Most likely, Mr. Hood was just trying to cover the spectrum of rap culture, but I prefer to draw my own conclusions. Inadvertently, this song is a very accurate discription of the drug trade for the vast majority of hustlers.
As Freakonomics famously noted, dealing isn’t terribly profitable for all but the select few at the top. For many, once they pay thier connect, their crew, the boss, etc., the profit is no better than minumum wage. And, unlike unlike flipping burgers or washing dishes, they are constantly being arrested, beaten, or killed. So why would anyone follow that career path?
Ace alludes to one of the reasons right in his song: “All I know is hustle.” In the projects and the ghetto, not everyone has markatable skills or even an education. They may also be missing life skills like interviewing and job-hunting. The black markey may be all a young foot soldier knows and the only career he has considered. As Jay-Z recalls in “Allure“, “My brother hustled so naturally up next is me.”
More importantly, it’s “cool”, and similar minumum wage jobs aren’t. As Big L explains in “Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous“, “Picture me getting a job, taking orders from Bob, selling corn on the cob… I’d rather do another hit.” And if being a flipper is cool, being a don is awesome, as evidenced by the estimated 50% of rap from the perspective of a crime boss. It’s this aspiration, suggestsFreakonomics, that drives otherwise reasonable young men to take absurd risks for low pay.
Except that real dealers don’t always see it that way. In an interview on NPR, legendary drug dealer Freeway Rick Ross (the real Rick Ross, not the Twitter Thug) questioned the high-risk, high-reward model of drug dealing. To Ross, the risk hardly ever crossed his mind, as he never expected to make it past 24 anyway. Even at the top, the drug trade was hardly glamorous as it entailed long hours, a life in hiding, and constant distrust. Still, Ross loved it for the feeling of power. It was a lifestyle thing. As Sudhir Venkatesh recounts in Gang Leader for a Day, for a certain segment of the population, the life of a dealer is appealing. You spend most of your time hanging with the homies, getting high and/or drunk and perhaps rapping about it (see above), you carry a gun, and are treated with fear and respect.
Which brings us back to Ace Hood and “Hustle Hard”. Poverty and rosé aren’t antithetical, they are both par for the course for a rising dealer. Ace may have gotten into the drug game to put a roof over mama’s head and some shoe’s on baby’s feet, but as soon as he can “double up on [his] profit” he hits the club to live the life. After all, as Raekwon mentions on Kanye West’s “Gorgeous“, in this game “if you can’t live, you’re dying.” But once the dope boy lifestyle eats up your meager earnings, you’re left right back where you started. To finish with some OutKast: “So now you’re back in the trap, just that, trapped. Go on and marinate on that for a minute.”