Since the financial crisis is now a precocious toddler of 2 years old—you turn your back on that little scamp for a minute and he's doing something unspeakably horrible to the family dog—we have all had time to digest how fucked we are. And those of us who possess even an ounce of basic curiosity about how we got fucked have already looked into it. The non-literature-inclined have seen the documentary Inside Job or watched a TV special or two about the origins of the collapse. Tens of thousands of readers have consulted Michael Lewis's The Big Short. We aren't curious about the provenance of the bouncing baby anymore; we just wish he would go away and leave us alone and give us a moment's peace, for Christ's sake.
But there's one more book about the fucking of us that you have to read, because it's the angriest, most informative, smartest, funniest book ever written about the financial crisis. Matt Taibbi's Griftopia is the new essential text, an unabashed but accurate polemic that points out the responsible parties—Alan Greenspan, the "vampire squid" that is Goldman Sachs—and patiently explains how this happened.
With Griftopia, Taibbi steps out from under the shadow he has lived in at Rolling Stone (where much of the book was initially published), which is to say that the carefree days of comparison between Taibbi and Hunter S. Thompson are past. He's not just that Rolling Stone columnist who says outrageous things about politicians anymore—he's that occasionally foul-mouthed man who somehow manages to clearly explain complex economic terms while simultaneously ripping the lid off the commodities bubble. That is a feat that even Thompson in his prime couldn't have pulled off.
If there's a problem with Griftopia, it's that it's a narrative about the very end of a long and complex life. It only covers the last five seconds of a system that required centuries to build to its orgasmic, sociopathic peak and the first five seconds of the weird zombie economy that preys on America today, jacked up on malevolent economic voodoo. Those who are hungry for context, who are curious about how economies are born from nothing to become all-encompassing engines of civilization, will have to look elsewhere.
Dan Charnas's The Big Payback examines the history of one such economy, the hiphop economy, from its moment of birth in Harlem to the modern day. As he reminds us in the opening sentence of the book's startling first passage, "The man who invented American money"—Alexander Hamilton—"lived and died in Harlem." Unlike other biographies of the musical form—Jeff Chang's Can't Stop Won't Stop is probably the best-written hiphop history to date—Charnas doesn't try to interpret events for the reader or apply a thick layer of meaning to events. He just wants to talk about the money behind the music and how the money affects the music. As a work of journalism, it is an impressive text.
It's entirely appropriate that Charnas chose money as his pivot point; every art form requires funding, but few artists are so openly covetous of money as mainstream rappers. And just like every worthwhile genre of popular American music, hiphop began with absolutely nothing, on the streets, ignored and misunderstood. But this isn't some bland accountant's dossier fat with columnsful of numbers; Charnas has access to some of the most colorful personalities in the world, and he uses them to great operatic effect.
The majority of the first half of Payback is interested in the artistic and business relationship between the white Rick Rubin and the black Russell Simmons. Charnas focuses on the ways rap wasn't co-opted by white musicians the way rock 'n' roll was. Charnas, who is white, doesn't shy away from the racial dynamics at play (although he does make the unfortunate choice of overemphasizing race by capitalizing it in every instance, resulting in galumphing, awkward-to-read passages like this one, about the Beastie Boys: "a White group with a Black DJ, managed by a Black man and his White Israeli-American lieutenant. Their Black-sounding hiphop records were produced by a White man and promoted to White radio programmers by a Black man").
Lord knows the music industry tried to murder hiphop in the crib: Against their listeners' wishes, radio stations would proudly promote themselves as rap-free, and Will Smith's manager had to shatter Hollywood's race barrier by attacking it directly. (When the president of 20th Century Fox tries to bargain Smith out of the leading role in Independence Day, the manager says to him: "Here's what's happening... You just don't think a Black man can save the world.")
Eventually, the potential profits became too large to ignore—Charnas credits a hiphop-centric Sprite marketing campaign with doing a lion's share of the work of breaking the music into the mainstream—and the money started crashing down everywhere, getting into everything. Within a generation, the biggest rapper in the world was the vapid, hypermuscular 50 Cent (with his vacant lyrics and steroidal swagger, he was truly the George W. Bush of rappers), who bragged about the fortune he made repackaging the grape quarter-water that Charnas calls "the ultimate ghetto beverage" into an overpriced Vitaminwater flavor. Something tremendous was lost. As Charnas laments, "Hip-hop's love of profit and fame had long since superseded its love for itself." At this stage, Charnas's hiphop culture resembles Taibbi's pantheon of greedy bankers, in love with money for money's sake, willing to tank everything for the lizard-brained rush of one more gigantic payout.
Jay-Z appears only in the last sixth of The Big Payback, but when he first walks onstage, flamboyantly turning down a record contract by boasting, "I don't rap for a record company... I own a record company," he carries the same casual air of heroism as King Richard the Lionheart at the end of most versions of the Robin Hood story—he's the outsize figure who sweeps in and fixes the world after everything goes wrong. In Jay-Z's case, he effortlessly melds hiphop's mission statement—keeping it real—with its business sensibilities, stamping out the blood feuds between the East and West Coasts and calling out phonies where he sees them.
Jay-Z's own account of this story, his memoir Decoded, is a celebrity autobiography to be sure. It's full of photos and fancy font tricks like a glossy magazine, and it's only as controversial as Jay-Z himself. He's probably not going to start an epic beef with this bit of obviousness, for example: "I can't say I've ever given much of a fuck about people who hear a curse word and start foaming at the mouth. The Fox News dummies. They wouldn't know art if it fell on them."
But between hitting all the requisite celebrity-bio points, Jay-Z gets some interesting writing in. He lovingly compares rap to sonnets, he waxes rhapsodic about The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and how it broke open hiphop's horizons, and he annotates the lyrics of selected songs with wry, intelligent facing-page footnotes. He responds to his own line from "Ignorant Shit," "Y'all hail me as the greatest writer of the 21st century," with a curt "This is a slight exaggeration." He can talk plainly about the devastation that the arrival of crack brought to the ghetto on one page and refer to his friend and business partner Bono as having "such a pure soul and positive energy" on the next. He discusses the cultural importance of Basquiat and he explores what makes marketing work.
Jay-Z understands that to be a successful artist, you have to balance commerce and your roots. He knows that to forget the basic humility of your origins—born mewling, prideful, sorrowful, without a penny to your name—is to lose everything. That's a lesson that the men in charge of our economy have yet to learn.