The argument over causal links between pop culture and social behaviour is a well-rehearsed and inconclusive one. Yet it's a debate that is tirelessly rehashed when it comes to rap music. Not long ago, David Blunkett and Kim Howells both denounced the dangerous effects on young people of songs by "macho idiot rappers" such as Jay-Z and So Solid Crew. They were talking about rising gun crime in Britain. More generally, though, it is the bling lifestyle of diamond rings, flashy cars and Cristal champagne evoked in so many hip-hop songs that irks critics. Last year, for instance, the BBC3 series The Trouble With Black Men argued that rap's celebration of materialism encouraged a posturing, get-rich-quick mentality that led to the low education results and disproportionately high crime rate among young black Britons.
A keener analysis of the cultural impact of bling can be found on the website American Brandstand (www.americanbrandstand.com), which celebrates its second birthday this month. The site's format is based on the US Billboard singles chart, but artists are rated not by record sales but by the number of brands they mention in a song. The number one spot for 2004 went to the rapper Kanye West, who managed to name-drop 19 brands in four singles, including Lexus, Versace, Cartier, Mercedes and Cadillac. Behind him came a host of rappers including Jay-Z, 50 Cent and Snoop Dogg, all with references to luxury brands from Bentley, Porsche and Gucci to Gulfstream and Dom Perignon.
American Brandstand was launched by Lucian James, a British marketing consultant based in San Francisco, who had the idea of tracking the connection between corporate products and popular music. James began the site as a means of explaining to clients such as Sony and General Motors the way that pop culture could have an impact on their business: how Polaroid might expect a boost in sales, for instance, after the line "Shake it like a Polaroid picture" featured prominently in Outkast's hit single "Hey Ya".
It quickly became apparent that, with rare exceptions, all the artists name- dropping brands were rappers. American Brandstand is thus an ideal means of charting the rise of bling and of monitoring what messages rappers are really delivering in their songs.
Howells may feel justified in attacking hip-hop for glamorising violence when he learns that, according to the site, references on rap records to makes of gun such as Beretta and Glock rose from 11 mentions in 2003 to 53 in 2004. The most violent branded song of the year? Trick Daddy's "Let's Go", with the lyrics: "The AK go chop, chop, chop, chop/The SK go fire, fire, fire, fire."
What is less apparent from this side of the Atlantic, however, is that some of those brand-heavy records are themselves critiques of the bling lifestyle. For instance, Kanye West's "All Falls Down" invokes a panoply of luxury brands such as Rolex, Hennessy and Cadillac in the service of a biting song about "a single black female addicted to retail".
Indeed, while it is easy to dismiss many rappers for their flashiness, it is also worth considering that their ostentation may be a conscious strategy. What does it mean when multimillionaire artists such as Sean "P Diddy" Combs and Jay-Z brag about their cars and clothes? In doing so, they are deliberately appropriating the symbols of upper-class society once barred to black people in America. Hence their persistent referencing of Bentleys and jets and houses in the Hamptons.
Success in the music industry has allowed young black people to breach the furthest territories of white exclu- sivity. As with Jack John-son, the first black heavyweight boxing champion, who enraged white America with his diamond rings and expensive cars, their flaunting of wealth is intended as provocation against a society that has striven to confine the aspirations of black people. For a while, Combs was even seen in public attended by a valet dressed in a bow tie and plus fours. The difference between then and now is that while today's black stars present themselves as role models as much as Johnson did, they also have no hesitation in exploiting their fans.
With annual sales topping $2bn, hip-hop is the second most popular music genre in America behind rock'n'roll. Yet where rock stars have tended to sneer at the commercialism of the music industry, hip-hop artists have no such qualms. Rappers are happy to be courted as spokespersons by companies such as Reebok, Adidas and Virgin Mobile, which are eager to reach the young urban consumers who form hip-hop's largest constituency.
Even a conservative brand such as Courvoisier has established connections with the rap world after its sales leapt on both sides of the Atlantic thanks to the Busta Rhymes song "Pass the Courvoisier". The result of such alliances has been records that sound dangerously similar to adverts. The most shameless lyrics of 2004 could be heard on Petey Pablo's "Freek-a-leek": "Now I got to give a shout out to Seagram's Gin/Cause I'm drinkin' it and they payin' me for it."
But increasingly, the most commercially astute rappers are moving from name-dropping brands to promoting their own wares. For Jay-Z, that means assiduous plugging of his record label, clothing line and recently acquired spirit brand, Armadale Vodka. Similarly, 50 Cent hustles his G-Unit clothing line, while Nelly drops frequent references to his luridly named soft drink, Pimp Juice.
This, surely, is the truly deleterious effect of bling: not gun crime, but the erosion of art in favour of commerce. A decade ago, the greatest insult in the rap world was to be called a sell-out. That was the era when Public Enemy's Chuck D described rap music as the "CNN of black people" - the unmediated voice of their hopes, concerns and desires. If hip-hop has a message for black people today, it is simply that questioning culture is bad and selling out is good.