Why do rappers ‘flex’? What do long nails and facial tattoos have in common?

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Anyone familiar with rap music and its underlying culture should be immediately familiar with the concept of ‘flexing’ — a slang term describing a flagrant display of possessions and wealth commonly found in rap-related videos, shows, and culture.

For the uninitiated, prime examples of this in recent rap music can be seen in the American rapper Lil Pump’s infamous track “Gucci Gang”, in reference to the Italian luxury brand of the same name. Besides the title, the track also suggest Lil Pump “spends ten racks (ten thousand USD) on a new chain” and purchases ‘Balmains’, a French luxury brand.

Gucci gang, Gucci gang, Gucci gang, Gucci gang
Spend ten racks on a new chain
My b — - love do cocaine, ooh
I f — - a b — -, I forgot her name
Rather go and buy Balmains

Lil Pump “Gucci Gang”

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In other rap videos, it is not uncommon to see rappers literally throwing away wads of cash, a la “Making it Rain” by Fat Joe and Lil Wayne. And yet others wear expensive, impractically oversized jewellery on their person; American rapper Lil Uzi Vert’s $220,000 diamond chain is a case in point.

Keen observers may also notice another new recent trend emerging; once considered in bad taste, face tattoos have suddenly become de rigueur for young rappers. Perhaps the most striking example can be seen on American rapper 6ix9ine a.k.a. Tekashi69’s face — but rest assured there are plenty of other examples (see: Post Malone, 21 Savage, Lil Peep [RIP]).

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But what does the emerging prevalence of face tattoos amongst young rappers have to do with ‘flexing’ culture in rap and hip hop? And why do rappers ‘flex’ anyway?

Well here’s one potential explanation:

‘Flexing’ and face tattoos are a form of signaling.

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In economics, signalling is a way to credibly convey some information another party. For signalling to be truly credible, it has to be costlyCheap signalling, or ‘cheap talk’ is no good — any lousy imitator can cheaply fake the signal — invalidating the credibility of the signal.

In the case of rap, ‘flexing’ is a way to signal the wealth and ability of the rapper. By flaunting materially expensive valuables — like luxury cars and gold chains — the rapper hopes to signal their immense wealth. The credibility of ‘flexing’ comes from the fact that it is financially costly. Surely no poor imitator would be able to afford to do so.

Of course, rappers are far from the only people who use signalling. Other modern examples of costly signalling include military awards and attire — signalling credibility, toughness, experience and dedication.

For context, this kind of signalling is nothing new, and such ‘status symbols’ have been practiced for centuries.

Norwegian-American Economist Thorsten Veblen wrote all the way back in 1899 on the signalling of the wealthy (something he called conspicuous consumption) — like how affluent women kept long nails to signal that they so rich they need not work the fields.

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In the 1800s, virtually all work required manual labour. Having long nails necessarily excluded these women from being able to work at all; they literally could not hold a tool.

It was a credible signal of status, something that said: “I am so rich I don’t even need to work”.

Rappers’ face tattoos today are probably quite similar.

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Face tattoos are the long nails of yesteryear: since most decent jobs would probably not allow face tattoos, a rapper sporting large facial tattoos are necessarily excluded from a proper job in the same way women with long nails once were. Just like the nails, face tattoos signal the rapper’s tremendous wealth and lack of need for a conventional job.

Of course, ‘flexing’ is not just about signalling.

Other factors matter too; like the notion that many rappers also come from a relatively impoverished ‘hood’ background. Their new-found wealth provides an opportunity to ‘flex’, and show the world that they have ‘made it’. Canadian hip hop artist Drake’s aptly named 2012 track “Started from the Bottom” sums this up nicely:

Working all night, traffic on the way home
f — -, I just think its funny how it goes

Now I’m on the road, half a million for a show

And we started from the bottom now we’re here

Drake, “Started From the Bottom”

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But going back to the long nails: once manual labour became increasingly rare with the advent of labour-saving technology and the rise of the desk job, long nails on women lost its credibility as a signal of wealth and class. It became ‘cheap talk’, adopted and copied by the non-rich everywhere.

Maybe not too far the future, tattoos might become so accepted in mainstream society that having a face tattoo no longer meant facing exclusion and stigma in the workplace. If and when that happens, face tattoos would probably then go the way of the long nails as a credible signal.

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Perhaps then, enterprising rappers wishing to present a credible signal of their wealth and status might choose something else — might I suggest long nails?

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