By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Irrational exuberance is so widespread in hip-hop right now that Alan Greenspan might freak out—if he understood rap lyrics. There are no two ways about it: Hip-hop sales stink. Album sales dropped 30 percent in 2007, a figure that includes digital downloads. And ringtones, which have given folks like Soulja Boy a reason to, um, soulja on, are not big enough business to be a panacea for the industry.
But judging from recent rap songs, you'd think these guys were too rich to stand up. Literally. In fact, Fat Joe's 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 ways that were somewhat plausible. Only a few years ago, in fact, T.I. made the fairly modest claim he was worth "a couple hundred grand" in his song "Rubberband Man." But those days are ancient history. Nowadays even the lowliest rappers brag about 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? Humans take at least 10 breaths per minute, so that would put him at roughly $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 difficult to believe him on Beanie Sigel's song "All of the Above" when he asserts, "I'm worth about a billion, but I'm still hood rich," if only because of his mountain of lawyerly fees. And in the same song, Sigel claims to pull "seven digits clean soon as I grace the stage," which is odd, given that his new album sold about 50,000 copies in its first week and debuted at number 37.
Some in the rap game are also inflating numbers for their other, non-music businesses. 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." Though Simmons had claimed the line sold $350 million in 2003, the actual figure was less than one-twentieth of that.
Much was made, meanwhile, about 50 Cent's stake in Energy Brands, after its subsidiary brand Glaceau (which includes Vitamin Water) was sold to Coca-Cola last year for $4.1 billion. Fiddy—deemed the second-highest-earning rap cat in 2006 by Forbes—did nothing to quash rumors he was a 10 percent stakeholder in the company. But 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 the label's name is a misnomer, although the title of its most popular song on MySpace probably isn't. The track is called "Billionaire Dreams," and it has been played 260 times.