When I was a kid, I barely listened to rap, and most of what I knew was West Coast "gangsta rap." To me, gangsta rap was basically a form of chivalric fiction - a glorification of the honorable, violent lifestyle of warriors in an anarchic society. It was all just "Mine enemies besmirched my honor, so I smote them down with the strength of my good right arm." Medieval knights were basically just gangsters, after all, so it makes sense that they'd have similar romantic myths.
I also was dimly aware of protest rap ("Fuck tha Police", Public Enemy, KRS-One, etc.) and 80s dance rap (a variant of goofy 80s dance music).
But as I got older and started to listen to more rap, I noticed one theme that was overwhelmingly common, and seemed to be getting more dominant: the rags-to-riches story. A huge amount of rap these days, and for at least the last ten years, has lyrics that are a variation on: "I was poor, then I made high-quality entertainment products, and now I am rich!"
For example, here's an excerpt from "Started From the Bottom," by Drake:
I done kept it real from the jumpThis theme is absolutely ubiquitous. In the late 90s and early 2000s, around the time I started listening to more rap, it seemed to be totally replacing gangsta rap as the dominant lyrical message.
Living at my mama's house we'd argue every mornin' nigga,
I was trying to get it on my own
Working all night, traffic on the way home
And my uncle calling me like "Where ya at?
I gave you the keys told ya bring it right back"
Nigga, I just think it's funny how it goes
Now I'm on the road, half a million for a show
One interesting thing is how overwhelmingly capitalist this theme is. A number of (white) lefty humanities students I meet are quite enamored of rap, viewing it as a form of protest against the structural injustice of the capitalist system. But barely any of that has been popular for many years now. The overwhelming majority of the mainstream popular rap music from the last decade and a half has been about working hard, taking risks, reaping financial rewards, and enjoying a money-driven status-conscious consumerist lifestyle. In other words, a total and utter embrace of the capitalist dream. Of course, the successful business exploits of rappers themselves are now well-known; the capitalist dream goes way beyond music-making.
Modern rap also puts the lie to the idea, popular in right-wing media, that rap encourages a culture of poverty. That was true of gangsta rap - even if he amasses money and power, a gangster is expected to stay in his community and remain true to the lifestyle of the streets (much like the ideal of noble poverty in chivalric fiction). But modern capitalist rap is about hard work and risk-taking in the pursuit of prosperity - exactly the kind of values conservatives ostensibly want people to have. Ludacris, whose music O'Reilly has repeatedly failed to recognize for the satire that it is, even has a song advocating Randian selfishness.
So I think both lefties and conservatives get modern rap fundamentally wrong. It's just Horatio Alger, updated for a wealthier, more liberal, mass-media-driven age.
But rap is about the culture of Black America, and therefore it is about scarcity. You can't have rags-to-riches without the rags. Black America is much poorer than the rest of the country, and is therefore a world defined by the daily experience of scarcity; it's a world where every constraint always binds. That makes for some interesting economics.
For example, the drug trade figures prominently in rappers' stories of how they survived before getting rich. The standard rapper autobiographical tale has the rapper selling drugs until his music career takes off. Usually, this involves taking large risks, since it involves operating outside of the protection of the law. This, of course, demonstrates many of the unintended negative consequences of government prohibition of commodities.
Also, a world of scarcity is a world where transaction costs are too high for many kinds of market institutions to function. For example, equity markets. Here is an excerpt from Future's "Where Ya At":
Where your ass was at, dog, when I was in the Pyrex?and also:
Where your ass was at, dog, when I was drinking Hi-Tech?
Where your ass was at, dog, came through the projects?
Where your ass at we keep that fully loaded contracts?
Where your ass was at when I was trapping in the stove?The song is addressed to someone who wants some kind of unspecified favors from Future now that he's a rich, successful musician, but who refused to help Future when he was a poor, struggling chemical manufacturer. Unfortunately, given the lack of formal equity markets, the dispute over just how much the person helped Future must be resolved by extra-legal means. Informal purchasing contracts, barter, and other economic workarounds also make frequent appearances in rap lyrics.
Had to struggle to get where I'm at and sell dope
I don't think I'm reading too much into these songs, either; rappers themselves are obviously acutely aware of the importance of good formal economic institutions.
Rap lyrics paint a picture of how government has influenced the economy of African-American society, especially via the War on Drugs. An economic niche has been carved out and reserved for poor Americans. That niche offers the promise of a middle-class income, but at the price of horrible risk to life and limb. It has encouraged informal marketplaces with weak institutions, leading to high transaction costs and numerous market failures.
No wonder rappers are so proud at having escaped that situation and made it into the regular economy! I know I would be. Perhaps our politicians should listen to more rap music.