Monday, August 16, 2010

Why Does Travie McCoy Want to Be a Billionaire?

In a nationally publicized affair earlier in the summer, Elena Kagan called the Supreme Court confirmation hearings “a vapid and hollow charade”; unknown to the newest member of the Supreme Court, however, was that fact that her words offered an excellent critique of contemporary rap music, a genre too reliant on two things—you guessed them: sex and money—and too afraid to explore new themes, for fear of tinkering with its tried, tested—but trite—formula.

So, after hearing the title of Travie McCoy’s “Billionaire”—a single from his new album Lazarus, which debuts June 8—a sigh or two would not be out of order.

Indeed, at first, the lyrics don’t seem to deviate from the norm. McCoy, like his fellow rappers, only wants fame and fortune:

I wanna be a billionaire so fuckin’ bad

Buy all of the things I never had

I wanna be on the cover of Forbes Magazine

Smiling next to Oprah and the Queen

But “Billionaire,” surprisingly, isn’t merely another glossily superficial litany of wealth or women (ahem, Lil Wayne); rather, it eschews the money-women-sex banalities in an unlikely meditation on munificence. What? Generosity? But that’s anathema to rappers!

It’s true. McCoy himself tells MTV that the song, which has a laid-back slowness reminiscent of anything by Jack Johnson, endeavors to “open up the question: if you were in a position to do something with a decent chunk of money, what would you do?"

As for the singer himself?

I’d probably pull an Angelina and Brad Pitt

and adopt a bunch of babies that ain’t never had shit

Give away a few Mercedes like here lady have this

And last but not least grant somebody their last wish

And get this:

I’d probably visit where Katrina hit

And damn sure do a lot more than FEMA did

A philanthropist and humanitarian? Have we met the Nick Kristof of the rap industry?

Well, kind of. The whole song is a proposition—notice that “I would…” and “I probably” qualify each of his brazenly idealistic dreams. And, sure, it’s also a self-serving magnanimity—a wave of satisfaction comes over him as he says, You can call me Travie Claus minus the ho-ho—but McCoy’s message is still a massive improvement over Lil Wayne’s lame sexual innuendos.

The song’s music video, according to McCoy, comprises “vignettes where unfortunate things happen to people and I happen to have the anecdotes for their particular misfortune. If you listen to the lyrics…a lot of it has to do with helping people out, a lot of selfless things. Overall the vibe is real summertime, but there’s also a positive message.”

On the track, McCoy is joined by Bruno Mars, who departs from the traditional rap fare exemplified on his recent hit “Nothing on You” to provide an sonorous melody for this uplifting beach ballad. It’s a song with a simple guitar chord and drum beat—which favorably compares to the auto-tuned-to-death nature of an increasing number of pop and rap songs. It’s a perky song of human imperfection, even in the best of us—he avariciously wants to “buy everything” despite his philanthropic motivation. And, set in an economy barely dragging itself out a recession, it’s a song of creating dreams, outlandish dreams we will never realize, dreams to keep us going, the Aston Martin picture on my teacher’s wall.

Mars delivers the last lines, I wanna be a billionaire/so fuckin' bad, with a delightful resignation, ones suffused with a lush languor and an uncanny genuineness—so much so that the clean version (sans f-word) seems bowdlerized, seems false. Even budding rap stars will never have billions, but McCoy and Mars know this. As the song ends, the singers smile wide in acknowledgment of the blissful impossibility of their supposed goal—but every time I close my eyes…

-Shaj Mathew, Guest Contributor, incoming freshman at Penn

1 comment:

  1. Great post! This is an interesting look at something we all think about - the degeneration of mainstream hip-hop and rap. No doubt this stuff is a step up from Weezy's crap, and it's great to see that you picked that out. I have to ask, though, would you compare it to some of the better hip-hop from the 90s or even early 2000s, when MCs like Common, Nas, Tip and Phife, Outkast, etc., were at the top of their respective games? I don't think I would. That music was socially conscious and lyrically impeccable, and though it was playful, it was badass. Asking what you would do with a billion dollars in a cheeky, Sublime-esque reggae tune is fun, but it's not quite the same as producing a soulful beat and tackling some real sh** with tongue-twisting lyrics. But it's definitely better than what we're used to nowadays, so you have a very valiant point.