Harvard Dropouts: Lil Pump, Bill Gates, and the Life Worth Living
Last month, superstar rapper and record producer Lil Pump effectively stunned most of popular and music media when he announced that he was offered the opportunity to deliver Harvard University’s commencement speech to the class of 2019—a stunt intended to promote his latest album, Harvard Dropout, which was released on February 22nd. Since his announcement, Harvard’s Board of Directors has confirmed that their original speaker, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is still slated to deliver the speech, and not the 19 year-old rapper—despite the excitement of the university’s undergraduates.
The 16-track album that Lil Pump was promoting features several singles, including “Drop Out” and “Be Like Me (feat. Lil Wayne)—with the latter’s music video released just a few days ago. These songs push very on-character messages from the rapper that caters to his popular audience, especially the track’s lyrics “everybody wanna be like me—I take drugs like they’re vitamin C—I’m a millionaire, but I don’t know how to read—I’m a role model that these kids wanna be!” While messages like these may seem like overstatements, they actually do reflect on some truth of young adult’s desires to obtain excessive circumstantial personal wealth, with as little to no effort as possible. In a way, they’re emblematic of the vision of a life worth living for the majority of young adults: the ideal life is one that is highly circumstantial, with success and fulfillment contingent on the attribution of personal wealth, in the form of either material possession or social status, like Pump shows off in his music videos for the album.
The prioritization of circumstantial wealth has been long-evident among the latest generation of young adults, but can most aptly be described as a trend that has come to a head in this most recent decade in popular media. Some sociologists, such as Princeton researchers Matthew J. Salganik, Peter Dodds, and Duncan Watts, very early in the 2000s attribute this trend to a growing wealth inequality gap between the majority of young adults in the United States and a top one percent. More recent cultural opinion writers and critics attribute it to the advent of social media, and the growing popularity of “influencer” millionaires like Tai Lopez, or Elon Musk—eccentric and often controversial mega-million personalities, who according to an article from Forbes published in 2017, have come to replace the previous mastheads of wealth such as Warren Buffet and Bill Gates as role models for wealth and success.
In a sense, these new role models of success show a shift towards not only envisioning success as material wealth, which Buffet and Gates undoubtedly have more of than Lopez and Musk, but success as social wealth. In popular media such as Lil Pump’s music videos, as well as other top 100 songs from artists like Tyler The Creator, Pharrell Williams, or Kanye West, these personalities are often referenced. These personalities also maintain great influence on social media platforms—Tai Lopez, for instance, reportedly spends millions of dollars annually maintaining his social media image, as well as promoting his online classes for learning social media marketing and influencing skills that he expresses as critical to success in the current market. While advertisements for online classes like these may appear as simple snake oils, or “get-rich-quick” schemes as some opinion writers have dubbed them, they still receive thousands of applicants every month from people who’ve viewed these ads and have been persuaded that material wealth is not only inextricably tied to social capital, but contingent upon it. Therefore, it appears as though social wealth cannot be gained without material wealth, but also vice versa—that material wealth cannot be fully attained without social wealth as capital. This message has been heavily disseminated in the form of Lopez’s advertisements, as well as music and popular media for the majority of the past decade, and evidently has garnered a foothold amongst the majority of young adults. For example, the Harvard Dropout album, within a week of its released, already climbed to the seventh spot on US Billboard 200, selling over 48,000 album-equivalent units. The “Be Like Me” video also has nearly 50 million views on YouTube since it was published.
However, with the growing popularity of these epitomizing messages of social and material wealth come concerns about misguided pursuits of these ends—Harvard Dropout, amongst other popular media, certainly implies that the road to success entails rejecting conventional forms of pursuing wealth such as education and long-term goal setting. Lil Pump interestingly enough commented on this while being interviewed by Harvard’s undergraduate WHRB radio on February 28th, when asked about his Harvard Dropout lyrics “Dropped out—then I got rich!—Dropped out, used to go to Harvard off a bar!—Dropped out, now I’m richer than your mom!” Lil Pump commented in response to these lyrics that, “All the kids—ought to stay in school. You all need to stay in school, because while a lot of people think dropping out of school is cool, truth is that is not cool at all. For those who do make it, a lot of us are ending up homeless, or being drug addicts, or you know. So what I want all you kids to do is to live your best life, live your dreams, and don’t listen to anybody except for yourself.”
These words represent a massive narrative break for Lil Pump and popular media, but represent the growing concern of young adults emulating success through high-risk-high-benefit behavior—this is misguided, as Pump says, and ignores the reality of how improbable these successes are. In a sense, while the popular vision of a life worth living may be highly circumstantial—the real life worth living is not one in which the goals are only material and social wealth. As Lil Pump suggests, there are greater aspirations that young adults ought to be pursuing, of personal fulfillment and self-actualization towards “living your best life.” The tragedy, however, is that young adults have lost sight of these aspirations—arguably, because these reality-based messages, stories of successful graduates, don’t sell albums as well as the dropouts.