How Love & Hip Hop Sells Us A Different American Dream

Photo: Prince Williams/Getty.
Six years ago today, the very first episode of Love & Hip Hop premiered on VH1. At that time it was mainly a show about Chrissy Lampkin, the girlfriend of Dipset rapper Jim Jones, and her group of friends. Since then, it has grown into a media franchise with two additional installments that have taken the show from New York to Atlanta and Hollywood. There have been four spin-offs and three specials, in addition to an eponymous mobile game.
Spearheaded by Mona Scott-Young, the show’s success stems directly from it’s ability to be multiple shows at once. It’s one part “Where Are They Now?”, one part “Secret Life Of…”, one part “Behind the Scenes Of…”, one part soap opera and one part Real World. Love & Hip Hop's unique cocktail for success is its ability to simultaneously feed into both hip-hop nostalgia (with a cast of rappers and singers who are living in a time after the peak of their music success) and a potential sneak peek at who’s up next.
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The franchise has been critiqued, like many reality shows about Black folks, for it’s portrayal of the Black community, particularly Black women. The story lines, which are (at least partially) scripted, are basic, predictable, and overly dramatic. Dialogues are cut down to be more digestible, even though we all know that actual human emotions and relationships are never that simple. These minor beefs often escalate to incidents of physical violence that become news before the moments can even air on television.
In terms of viewer engagement, Love & Hip Hop offers the same facade of inside membership as Instagram accounts like Baller Alert and The Shade Room. These channels have become the urban counterparts to E! News and Perez Hilton. When it comes to Black Hollywood, we prefer a no-frills approach to celebrity gossip. Don’t sell us a pre-packaged write up about our new favorite couples. We want the receipts of their romance, and a digital map that will lead us to wherever the nearest side chick might be hiding. Instead of a rumored feud that can only be confirmed by a gatekeeper like Andy Cohen, we’ll troll a celeb ourselves in order to provoke a direct confrontation or denial. The drama of Love & Hip Hop can be experienced both on and off the TV.
If I had to make a literary comparison, I'd posit that Scott-Young’s production basically creates the televised version of urban fiction. As someone who grew up reading titles like True to the Game and the Coldest Winter Ever, I understand the allure. While focusing on female players, Love & Hip Hop has managed to completely avoid the question of whether or not women can have it all, and has instead built a franchise that banks on how entertaining it is for us to watch them try. It essentially profits off of the allure of “hood dreams.” In this bass-laden alternative to the traditional American dream in which women are trying to redefine their role, love and success are fragile byproducts of a fame that is both fickle and fleeting.
Photo: Michael Hickey/Getty.
Ironically, the fact that so many former and would be urban artists find themselves on the show is testament to the professional instability of the genre. Love & Hip Hop becomes a way for these figures to create income streams and generate buzz for themselves when labels aren’t ready to throw a lot of weight behind the actual music. I'll admit, as much as I love Joseline Hernandez, I still haven’t deemed her worthy of $1.29 of my own money to purchase one of her singles. When you can’t sell the songs, sell yourself.
Love & Hip Hop is about second and third chances for the urban artist who is ready to make their successes and failures worth watching. From a sub-genre reality show to a media conglomerate, Love & Hip Hop has become it’s own lane in urban music and entertainment, not just commentary on it. Hip-hop veterans get to show up for cameos and say, “Hey, I’m still relevant,” even if the show can pose as a threat to their credibility. New entertainers essentially get an internship where they’re paid in exposure for creative and personally exploitative labor. With new rules that crack down on physical fighting — mainly for the safety of the filming crews and producers, not the cast who are willing to throw blows at a moment's notice — they may not even have to get their wig snatched to do it.
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