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Will recession dull hip-hop's bling?

  • Story Highlights
  • Some observers say the economy may cause hip-hop's bling era to fade
  • Rappers may not be able to afford the jewels
  • They also may not want to seem out of step with their struggling audiences
  • Others say hip-hop luxury offers an escape from reality and won't go away
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By John D. Sutter
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(CNN) -- Gold teeth, luxury cars and diamond chains heavy enough to slump a bodybuilder's shoulders have been ubiquitous symbols in hip-hop music for years, if not decades.

Industry experts say hip-hop's flashiness -- or bling -- may fade during the economic recession.

Rapper Lil Wayne performs Sunday night at the Grammys wearing a modest necklace.

But -- as you may have noticed at the Grammys on Sunday -- there are signs that the genre's high-dollar bling may not survive the economic recession.

Many rappers came to the annual music awards show wearing sleek suits; their famous jewels were conspicuously absent. Artist Lil Wayne, who accepted two of rap's biggest awards -- Grammys for best solo rap performance and best rap album -- performed wearing a T-shirt. Only a modest necklace dangled from his neck.

Like everyone these days, rappers are feeling the effects of the country's economic meltdown. But industry commentators are split on whether they think financial woes will cause rappers to give up their hefty jewels.

Some experts contacted by CNN said the bling era soon will come crashing down. See an interactive on the end of bling »

"We just came out of the 'bling era,' where everything was about wealth and what you could attain, and I'm starting to see artists being more socially conscious," said Amy Andrieux, a senior editor at The Source magazine, which covers hip-hop.

President Obama's election has inspired some of the change, Andrieux said, but rappers also "just can't afford what they used to" because of the recession.

Top artists such as Lil Jon, who once made about $80,000 per track, now are grappling with the fact that they may get half that sum if they're lucky, said Bryan Leach, senior vice president of urban music for RCA Music Group.

And while most Americans may not weep over the fact that famous rappers may make only $35,000 per song, the price cuts -- and layoffs -- are sending shocks through the recording industry, Leach said.

"Every major label has been laying people off," he said.

Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that hip-hop record sales are declining relative to other genres, according to a recent report from the Nielsen Co.

Last year saw rap album sales decline nearly 20 percent compared with 2007. While other genres also took dives, only classical, Latin and country music fell by a greater percentage than rap, according to the report.

Leach said the signs of hip-hop's move away from bling may not be apparent yet, but that listeners will see more of the trend soon.

"This is not about just popping bottles and buying jewelry," he said, also attributing some of the trend to Obama's election. "Everyone's got to be responsible and mature."

If financial woes don't dull hip-hop's diamond-encrusted image, then perhaps reactions from audiences and record labels will.

"I don't see concrete stuff yet, you know, but I imagine you will see more rappers doing some less-gaudy things just because it would be out of step with the audience," said Touré, an author and television personality. "The audience is struggling and striving, and then you're like, 'Look at my four diamond iced-out chains.' "

Last year, Young Jeezy -- an Atlanta, Georgia, rapper who wore an Armani suit to the Grammys -- put out his third album, "The Recession," which seemed to foretell the financial collapse.

In the track "My President," Jeezy says feeding and clothing the kids are giving him a headache; he also expresses worry that his son is "addicted to Polos," referring to the brand of designer shirts.

"It's about keeping it simple," he told CNN at the awards show Sunday.

The idea that musicians reflect on money in their lives and in their communities is not new. Throughout music history, poverty and wealth have influenced lyrics and musical styles.

The blues were born from tough times. And early hip-hop artists documented the ills they associated with President Reagan's economic policies in the 1980s and the crack epidemic, said Guthrie P. Ramsey, an associate professor of music at the University of Pennsylvania.

In the Clinton era and beyond though, the economy has been good to hip-hop listeners, and the genre has been less focused on social commentary and more intent on bragging about its commercial success, Ramsey said.

It's unclear exactly what will happen to hip-hop's bling now that times are tough, several experts said, but it's unlikely that bling will go away completely.

That may be because some brands of hip-hop promote an alluring fantasy -- whether or not it exists.

"In times like these people are looking for escapism, which is what I think that bling thing is all about anyway," Ramsey said. "It's just like a trend in movies: bigger and better, louder and stronger. ... The people for whom it's supposedly intended are never going to be able to attain those lifestyles, but just like little Shirley Temple and Bojangles, we want to fantasize about the life we could never have ourselves."

Some artists will continue to tout they can afford the luxury promoted in some hip-hop music videos regardless of the economic situation, said Leach of the RCA Music Group.

Those efforts have given birth to a new term in the hip-hop world: "recession-proof."

"Now when they are able to spend money and buy cars, they call themselves recession-proof," he said.


Andrieux, the editor at The Source, said more rappers will start following Young Jeezy's lead by commenting on the economic slump.

"There's still rich people regardless of the recession," she said. "And people want entertainment. At the end of the day, they want to escape ... but I think artists are going to move more toward lyricism again, where they're talking about real-life subjects, real-life topics."

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