What millions of us learned when we first heard rap in the late 1970s is that rappers often boast about things they do not have, about glamorous lives they do not live, about credit cards that are not in their wallets. "I got a Lincoln Continental and a sunroof Cadillac / So after school, I take a dip in the pool, which is really on the wall," rapped Big Bank Hank in the second verse of Sugarhill Gang's monumental 1979 hit "Rapper's Delight." He had "checkbooks, credit cards, [and] more money than a sucker could ever spend." This excessive bravado was justified and even encouraged because everyone knew the rapper was poor, mostly likely came from the projects, and was often found waiting in the welfare line.
In the beginning, rap was not about keeping it real, but about escaping from what Marvin Gaye called the "inner city blues." Why would you want to hear about real life when a rapper could roll out a magic carpet of rhymes and transport you to regions of unimaginable wealth? "So Larry put me inside his Cadillac / The chauffeur drove off and we never came back," rapped Joseph "Run" Simmons of Run-DMC on radio's first major modern hip-hop track, "Sucker MC's" in 1984.
Fast-forward to 2019, to a memoir by Chicago-born rapper/actor Common (fka Common Sense, born Lonnie Corant Jaman Shuka Rashid Lynn), Let Love Have the Last Word, and you'll find an MC with more money than a sucker could ever spend. In the first chapter, Common, who claims three masterpieces in the hip-hop canon—Can I Borrow a Dollar? (1992), Resurrection (1994), and Like Water for Chocolate (2000)—and whose collaboration with J Dilla, "Heat," is arguably one of the greatest hip-hop tracks ever made, is looking into a mirror in a Los Angeles fashion designer's studio.
His personal assistant is sitting nearby handling Common's calls, business, schedules. And on the laptop next to him, he's FaceTiming his stylist, Micaela Erlanger, whose clients include Lupita Nyong'o and Meryl Streep. How much money did he spend during this moment? More than many of us earn in a month (some in a year). He is very rich, among the 1 percent, and he has written a book that offers a very realistic image of this fantasy life.
"It's human nature to feel the absence of things, the lack," he writes in that opening chapter (it starts with a quote by Lebanese American poet Kahlil Gibran: "Work is love made visible"), "more than the bounties, the presence of people and blessings, the very present itself. I wake up early each morning around five or six, and the first thing I do is meditate. Maybe it is more like silent prayer, because in these moments I feel especially close to God, and sometimes I might pray for clarity in regard to a problem—an issue with Omoye [his daughter], or something selfish, like wanting an opportunity to play a role I desire after reading some script—as the sun rises over the hills in Los Angeles."
But Common was not born rich. He came from the streets, and he makes that clear: "The love of God, the Most High, adds depth to my very real and human life; regardless of being a celebrity, at heart I'm still that lanky Black dude from the South Side of Chicago." Also, unlike those rappers of old, he is not boasting about his wealth. It is just his life, his day-to-day. And it's not perfect. The final message of his book, and one that is completely missing from the reveries of Big Bank Hank's raps, is that money does not guarantee happiness.