More than Drinking and Sexing: Mad Men's Characterization of Hip-hop
Characteristically, Mad Men bleeds hip-hop. On the surface you may think, "Of course it does, the characters smoke a lot, they drink like there's no tomorrow, and to them sex is more casual than a handshake." And while that's part of the story, it's a little bit deeper than that. Skydiving into its final season, AMC's zeitgeist into the advertising industry's golden era generates weekly criticism and adoration for its themes of glamorous idealism toward success, dark realism in favor of authenticity, alongside a continuing list of social paradoxes.
Throw in a cast of All-American anti-heros masked by uncommon perspectives, rash extravagance, and bottles upon bottles of regret, and what you have is a scuffle between lucrative conformity and interpersonal friction. Wait, that sounds a wee bit like the current state of hip-hop. So why go any further to conceptualize the 1960's Madison Avenue universe around contemporary hip-hop artists that already fit the bill? In the spirit of Don Draper, why the hell not?
Whether you argue that Mad Men's leading character is Don Draper or Peggy Olson, Don has more conflict created out of introspection. He lives in a hallucinogenic fantasy of masculine grandeur suited with a revolving door of disillusioned women, drunken outbursts of emotional regret, and a fairly secret identity that threatens his hyper reality.
Don characterizes the lyrics and lives of rappers Drake & Rick Ross, believing when God closes a door, he opens the dress of a Free Spirit.
Drake (Aubrey Graham) is the Canadian child star turned polished rap outlier known for giving strippers champagne showers before spilling his soul with remorseful 3 a.m. drunk calls to exes that couldn't care less. Not to mention, much like the talents of Draper, if Drake is involved in a song's creative process, you'll know it.
Rick Ross (William Leonard Roberts II) is a former corrections officer that has reformatted his world into an episode of Miami Vice, filled with cocaine riches, yachts of trippy supermodels, and fleets of minions that just want to make him happy. Trapped in a fast-paced life of impulsivity, Don treads the line between family-man complacency, immediate satisfaction, and solitary stagnation, all in the company of people he never fully trusts. He is the mid-century Drake Ross.
On another end of the 1960s social spectrum lays Peggy Olson. This career-driven copywriter has transformed through seasons of introversion and disapproval for a slew of mistakes, in addition to being credited as one of the leading feminist icons on television. Standing as a duality between professionally being one of the guys while personally being one of the girls, Peggy progressively characterizes the hip-hop personas of Lauryn Hill and Eve.
As an artist, Lauryn Hill's talent speaks for itself, whether it's in her songwriting, rapping and vocal prowess. She maintains an modest air of love for her craft, even in the midst of turmoil.
As a lyricist, Eve's "pitbull in a skirt" moniker charismatically labels the once undermined emcee as one that chooses not to exploit her sexuality but also doesn't neglect its bipolar existence within her past. Likewise, her argumentative working relationship with Dr. Dre, mirrors the successful Peggy-Don dynamic. Silently working her way up the ladder without sexual reliance and making life decisions in favor perfecting her craft, all while unexpectedly blowing your mind, Peggy Olson is the mid-century Eve Hill.
Now what about that Ivy League byproduct that everyone loves to hate, Pete Campbell? Since the beginning of Mad Men history, Pete has been a Technicolor punching bag of misunderstood passion, envy-stricken setbacks and an overpowering dissatisfaction with his achievements. With meticulous patience and a contradictory outspoken nature, Pete characterizes the progressive struggle of college-kids turned rappers, J. Cole and of course Kanye West.
J. Cole is a talented rapper/producer that lyrically speaks from his conscience and has played by the hip-hop rules of waiting for his time to shine. He's recorded two No. 1 albums, gained acceptance from a diverse fan base but still knows he's not reaping the rewards he should be receiving at his stage in the game.
On the other hand, Kanye West is an infamous personality marked with socially awkward arrogance, an insensitive disregard for others, and conflicting personal life, all of which casts a dark shadow over his musical talents. He's the best at what he does and doesn't mind telling you because he passion won't allow it any other way. No stranger to power trips, throwing a tantrum in designer suits or having dreams that somehow always stay out of reach, Pete Campbell is the mid-century J. West, and you can't tell him nothing.
Residing in common situations where literary narratives brand the good guys as losing as often as they win, and the bad guys as appealingly multidimensional, both Mad Men and the current state of mainstream hip-hop share characteristics that show the world for what is, with and without intertwining politically correct morality.
For examples please refer to "Sterling's Gold: Wit and Wisdom of an Ad Man" by Roger Sterling. As the show's final season begins, maybe more character traits will show themselves worthy of being added to this hip-hop allegory. Or maybe Drake Ross, Eve Hill, and J. West are just contrived efforts to merge two creative entities that have no business sharing cocktails.
At the end of the day, the consumer is always right, right?
Follow Shawn Gadley on Twitter at @ShawnGadley