TI, “Whatever You Like” (2007)
Bruno Mars, “That’s What I Like” (2016)
Desire is front and center in both of these songs. TI and Mars paint alluring pictures of social status-driven fantasies—“Oh, what a jealousy-inducing life we’ll lead!”—designed to tempt and charm their female conversation partners, as if they had no other desire than to fulfill the women’s every wish.
Released nearly a decade apart, these songs also display an evolution in how popular culture frames what men think that women want, using that frame as a way to mask their own desires. TI’s position is coy: “I mean, if that's what you're into, sure OK” (even though he, too, clearly wants everything he names), but Mars’s is one of candid relief: “Finally I can openly admit this is actually what I wanted all along.”
However, each man’s sexual prowess (the great late-night sex nestled into each chorus) exists only in the context of him having the economic means to afford other symbols of wealth (jewels, alcohol, exotic vacations or locales):
Throughout, each man repeatedly insists that he doesn’t have to think about money—anything his lady wants takes precedence over worrying about costs, and his role as a provider is what makes him attractive. This compulsion to reaffirm their social status is multi-faceted: it points to the exceptionality of being in that financial position in the first place; it also suggests a degree of disbelief that each man is experiencing with regard his good fortune; and it’s a manifestation of hope, in that repeating an idea often enough out loud will make it true, like a character in a fairytale (extending the fantasy/storytelling metaphor) or, in a more practical way, the politics of self-promotion:
Each paints himself as being desirable precisely because he has no financial burden, no restraints. This freedom allows his desires (both sexual and social status) to be unconstrained in an S&M-like liberation fantasy for those coming from the repressive reality of previously lacking money. Their confident swagger is made possible by a financial cushion and emerges in the range of masculine identities in their delivery styles—TI punches the consonants and clips his words in the verses, aggressively commanding the beat, and then indulges in the slow delivery of his chorus with its softer consonants; and Mars begins his verses like a boastful catcall before he luxuriates in the buttery, undulating melody of the chorus and bridge. Each song suggests a cause-effect relationship, that having achieved financial success makes the man more masculine and also puts him in a position to invite the (most attractive) woman along for the ride to cement his social status:
But why is there an if-then relationship between wealth and satisfaction? It’s as if TI and Mars can’t have sexual desires, or act on them by inviting a woman to join them, until they have money, as if their sexual potency is synonymous with financial potency. In a version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it’s as if a certain degree of wealth and material status is necessary before one gets to be a whole person who is allowed to experience sexual joy or satisfaction. It speaks to an implicit broader class-based and self-punishing notion of personal responsibility in which only people who are economically sufficient have permission to enjoy life.
The fantasy-worlds of these songs are undercut not only by equating wealth and self-worth but also by their central premise of who is doing the titular “liking.” Both songs suggest a high degree of joy for the woman involved. TI’s lady gets the satisfaction (as does he) of “Tell[ing] ‘em other broke niggas be quiet,” Mars’s girl gets to ride off into the sunset in a Cadillac, a huge smile on her face, and both are, as the chorus reminds us, having great sex. Yet there's no woman present in either track affirming what, if anything, she really wants. She's given instructions for how to dance and show off her body (affirming the singer’s masculinity), but she has no voice of her own, and therefore, ironically for songs about female desires, no actionable desires of her own.
These songs are framed as a kind of modern-day chivalry, where each man focuses on the wants of his partner and finds his joy or purpose in fulfilling those desires. The fact that the desires of the silent female partner are non-existent doesn’t undermine that male joy, however. On the contrary, his desires are still extant and fulfilled: the female framing device was simply a ruse all along, an empty nod to the fashionable notion of equality of the sexes. There is no evolution from TI to Mars, only a different kind of wool pulled over the eyes of female agency.
The male gaze affirms the power dynamic of their relationships, even more so than the fact that each man is monetarily providing whatever his woman “wants.” By omitting any female voice, the man is humanized; all listeners are put in a position to empathize with his experience, because it’s the only one articulated. She remains an object, just material proof of his success to be added to the list alongside jet-setting, diamonds, and booze.
A footnote-like aside:
 For all their similarities, it’s interesting to note the differences in each man’s bravado. TI’s fantasy is presented more fragilely, as a conditional (“You could have whatever you like”); he is storytelling for both himself and his female companion, imagining a future that may never come, underscoring the gulf between reality and fantasy. Mars’s grammar, on the other hand, is a cockier fait accompli (“Lucky for you, that’s what a like, that’s what I like. / You say you want a good time / Well here I am, baby, here I am, baby.”). Mars has already achieved success and is assuming the role of carnival barker with a “Come and get it” attitude; his lavish life is a take-it-or-leave-it opportunity for the enterprising woman. Yet, it’s Mars who seems to care what his partner is thinking (“Talk to me, tell me what’s on your mind”) when TI can only focus on the sensual details of how good the sex will be (“Get so wet, ya hit so right / Let me put this big boy in yo’ life.”)