Everything but the Song: Roddy Rich’s rap is more than materialism

(Art by Shideh Ghandeharizadeh)

 A smile comes across my face whenever I hear 702’s “Get it Together” fade into “I put the new Forgis on the Jeep.” “Ballin’” isn’t the rapper’s victory lap or celebratory dunk — it’s a warm-up track.

For those who don’t know, there is a host of reasons to be proud of Roddy Ricch. Aside from being another rapper on the rise, the 20-year-old already has a feature on Meek Mill’s “Championships” and two mixtapes to his name. His career has just started its marathon. 

“Ballin’” comes after the brutally honest “Die Young” and an ode to his late friend “Ricch Forever.” A common theme in the Compton-born Ricch’s music is the threat of early death or incarceration, a fate he’s all too familiar with. But “Ballin’” goes beyond detailing the come up, it celebrates the successes. 

In an interview with MTV News, Ricch talked about his future plans. “I want to buy more property, start a couple of small businesses, and if my cousin wants to go to college, I want to put him through with ease,” he said. 

“Ballin’” is the lyrical representation of these hopes and dreams. He’s detailing what he can do through the success of his art. 

Twitter user @MrSirCool, calls it a “fuckin negro spiritual,” and I could not agree more. If we could rework the definition of it to fit into today’s musical landscape, it wouldn’t solely include the “struggle” or the pursuit of freedom; it would taste like happiness and success⁠ — a sentiment that Mustard and Ricch capture on the track. 

The rags-to-riches celebration is almost standard material for most rappers. Think about all 12 minutes of Kanye’s “Last Call,” Cole’s “Blow Up” or Biggie’s quintessential “Juicy.” They are stories of “the come-up,” deeper than surface-level lyrics about ostentatious glamour, but they are ultimately tales heavily rooted in the art of the hustle. 

The Rolls-Royces, the cash and Audemars Piguet watches we hear of are more than boastful mentions of material possessions. The lyrics are signifiers of how far not only their individual lives have come but how the genre of hip-hop has developed as a whole. 

Just as Ricch has moved beyond but has never forgotten his native Wilmington Arms projects, hip-hop has progressed past 1520 Sedgwick Ave. It has widened beyond a form of expression for urban Black youth rooted in DJ culture and conscious lyrics to detailing not only their struggle but their victories. 

One of the most common critiques of songs like Ricch’s and the genre as a whole in its modern-day context is the same element that exemplifies moving beyond the struggle: materialism. 

I think about when Miley Cyrus distanced herself from hip-hop in 2017. Describing seemingly superficial lyrics rap songs she says, “That’s what pushed me out of the hip-hop scene a little. It was too much ‘Lamborghini, got my Rolex, got a girl on my cock’ — I am so not that.”

At the surface level, her criticism can seem valid; she wants substance in her music and the current climate of the genre didn’t provide that for her. But when one thinks about where and how Ricch grew up compared to Cyrus’ life, much is lost in translation. 

A girl who grew up a Disney Channel star, with Billy Ray Cyrus as a father might not understand what it means or what it feels like to make it out of the projects. The feeling of touching money and that level of success was an attainable trajectory for Cyrus. For Black youth like Ricch, the same that is not necessarily true. 

Noting the differences in their upbringing and paths to success are not commentaries on Cyrus’ or Ricch’s talent but on the set of circumstances like the school-to-prison pipeline and other facets of institutional racism that have prevented those who look like Ricch from reaching their full potential. 

From Cyrus’ perspective and position of privilege, the talk of material items is boring and peripheral. But for Ricch it’s not just about the “stuff.” The stuff represents how hard he’s worked and the situations he’s overcome. 

Hip-hop as a genre has often been criticized for being too loud and boastful for a world that is hell-bent on subjugation, not the celebration of Black lives. But a classic rags-to-riches anthem tells a different story than the common narrative seen on CNN, NBC, Fox, etc. It’s the people’s honor roll.

And in the same way, The New York Times riddled Lorde’s anti-bling “Royals” as a “class-conscious” anthem, Ricch’s “Ballin’” is too. He’s loud about his triumphs and he’s not afraid to stunt. It’s the perfect song to wake up to and face the day. It’s about where the grind can take you.

Ellice Ellis is a senior writing about the music industry and social justice. Her column “Everything but the Song” runs every other Tuesday.