"Don't believe the hype" - Public Enemy
I feel sorry for Shawn Carter. I know I shouldn't, but I do.
It seems that in recent weeks, Carter, a rap star and music executive known professionally as Jay-Z, has pronounced himself angry with the makers of Cristal champagne. Cristal, you should know, is frequently referenced in rap lyrics as a synonym for the high life, for pimping and drug dealing your way into an existence where the women are always willing, the luxury cars always gassed up, the sheets always satin.
This prompted the Economist magazine to ask Frederic Rouzaud, president of Champagne Louis Roederer, parent company of Cristal, whether it might hurt the brand's image to be associated with such a coarse, outlaw culture. Rouzaud's reply: "That's a good question, but what can we do? We can't forbid people from buying it. I'm sure Dom Perignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business."
To which Jay-Z responded angrily. The rapper, who in his music has done as much as, or more than, anyone to position Cristal as hip-hop's bubbly of choice, issued a statement decrying Rouzaud's "racist" statement and calling for a boycott.
And here, it might be worthwhile to observe two facts.
One: Cristal has managed to thrive for most of 130 years without Jay-Z's endorsement. Indeed, the brand is manufactured sparingly and is perpetually sold out around the world.
Two: Cristal retails for upward of $200 a bottle. How, exactly, do you launch a boycott of something most people can't afford? Might as well ask me to boycott Gulfstream private jets while you're at it.
It is, on both sides, a silly contretemps. Still, there is something poignant in Jay-Z's apparent surprise and hurt at Cristal's blithe rejection of hip-hop's operating ethos: that acceptance can be bought.
There has never been an entertainment form that placed as much faith in the healing virtues of materialism as rap. From the days when Run-DMC first extolled the virtues of Adidas shoes, rappers have invoked brand names and branded themselves with talismanic fervor. Timberland! Hennessy! Lexus! S. Carter!
They seem to feel that when you can afford these things, it makes you, I don't know ... complete. As if, with Tims on your feet, Hennessy in your glass and a Lexus in your garage, you're good, you're covered, you're in the club.
For an art form whose artists and fans are largely young, largely black and largely from poor, bullet-scarred neighborhoods, it is a powerfully attractive fantasy. But it is a fantasy nevertheless.
Which is, in so many words, what Frederic Rouzaud just brutally explained to Shawn Carter: that he is not in the club. That no matter how much Cristal he buys, he will never be in the club. Sure, kid, we'll take your money. But don't mistake that for respect. Not while you're young. And black. And reeking of nouveau riche. And representing values that are anathema to our own.
So yeah, I feel sorry for Carter. But at the same time, what's it tell you that he was even surprised?
Among the many lies of hip-hop, this whole notion that wearing or imbibing or driving the proper brand will make you whole is in some ways the most infuriating. It represents a corporatization of cool that would have made Miles Davis ill. In his era, after all, cool meant being an iconoclast, a visionary threat to the status quo. In Jay-Z's era, it is a brand name, it has a sponsor, it can be bought off the rack.
Rap could have been, should have been, a truth-teller and world-shaker. Instead it has largely contented itself with being free advertising for corporate titans, selling fake cool, sometimes with corporate assent, but often, without even a thank-you. Brand names, it says, will make you whole.
It is painful to know that Jay-Z has sold that lie to young people by the millions. What's more painful is that, apparently, he also bought it himself.