It’s All Good? (A Critique of the American Dream Narrative)

“It was all a dream/I used to read ‘Word Up! Magazine,’”  The Notorious B.I.G. raps at the beginning of his rags-to-riches anthem “Juicy.”  He outlines the hardships and struggle that defined his youth and contrasts them against his present luxury.  ”Birthdays were the worst days/Now we drink champagne when we thirs-tay,” he states.

Biggie truly seems to embody the American dream.  Growing up poor in the slums of the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn, B.I.G. (nee Christopher Wallace) felt like the only ways to escape poverty were “slinging crack rock” or “a wicked jump shot.”  But Wallace used his art to escape a life of poverty.  His knack for detail and gift for language, delivered with a thick forceful voice allowed him to escape what seemed like a sure fate.  There were other factors, too: Catchy beats, hustle.  It all came together in a classic story of social mobility and transformation.

But here is the problem.  Too often our stories of free market success glorify the individual without acknowledging the systemic failures that make these narratives so few and far between.  There are reasons why Wallace’s story is exceptional, and they are not just his outstanding talent and motivation.  They also have to do with the oppressive conditions that foster poverty all over the country.

Now, Biggie seems exceptionally grounded.  He enjoys his mother’s pride at seeing him in prominent hip hop publication “The Source.”  He boasts about staying true to his roots by living in the “same hood” and having the “same [telephone] number.”  He aims to enhance the lives of those close to him with his newfound financial stability.  His generosity and perspective are both remarkable given the enormity in the change in his lifestyle.

Primarily, though, his efforts to improve life for his friends and family have to do with providing the material comforts that they had never experienced.  Diamonds.  Liquor.  Marijuana.  Video games.  Limousines.  He expresses loyalty and gratitude and is eager to “spread love” to those in his inner circle.

But, here is the shortcoming of this narrative.  The immediate community is where the ripple effect stops.  Certainly, other children could be inspired by the success story and feel more agency and power within their own lives.  But, at the end of the day, “Juicy” does not question or offer alternatives to the flawed system, but rather an example of how to succeed within it.

These societal problems are alluded to, for sure.  Biggie ironically dedicates the song to “all the teachers that told [him] [he would] never amount to nothin’” and relates the experience of being seen as “the stereotype of a black male, misunderstood” as well as “a fool ’cause [he] dropped out of high school.”  He also mentions that he formerly sold drugs to feed his daughter.  Wallace clearly maintains an awareness of the pressures and difficulties of his upbringing that are still present in America’s urban areas, but that is where the dialogue ends.

Now, it wasn’t Christopher Wallace’s responsibility to improve the state of affairs in America’s ghettos.  His story is just symptomatic of a larger trend towards glorifying the upper class, inspiring the lower class, and ignoring the need for a stable middle class.  Of course his story is more dramatic than that of a young man who puts himself through culinary school and saves up to buy a brownstone in his neighborhood.  But that story is arguably more important.

In a capitalist system, not everyone can be the most famous rapper in the world.  There are winners and losers.  And while it is great to hear a story of an unqualified artistic and financial success, we need to put systems of education, health care, and other resources so it becomes increasingly possible for people to view social mobility as possible through brick-laying or nursing or restaurant management instead of celebrity and wealth.

We are a nation obsessed with fame.  We keep up with the Kardashians, we head for “The Hills,” we care about 16-year-olds’ birthday parties.  This obsession with wealth and fame is, in part what causes us to believe wealthy industrialists and lobbyists who convince us to vote against social programs that benefit the many at the expense of only the select few at the top of the pyramid.

Jay Gatsby, though fictional, typified Biggie’s dilemma decades before the rapper rose to prominence.  He focused too tightly on the trappings of wealth and success.  He took to heart the idea of American exceptionalism without considering the large-scale ramifications of a rapid rise from the bottom to the top without a stint in the middle.  Like Biggie, Gatsby died a violent death.

In a more recent song, rappers Nas and Jay-Z rap about being “Black Republicans.”  Now, it makes sense that two men who have grown up in poverty would seek to protect their financial stability, as would anyone.  But it seems like a vast departure to align one’s self with a party the espouses the social and fiscal conservatism that arguably exacerbates this poverty to begin with.  When we do not have money, we seek to earn it, and once we get it, we want to protect it at all costs because we realize that it is fleeting.

I know it’s not cool to rap about starting a Roth IRA or servicing underfunded public schools.  In fact, artists who make social issues a prominent focus of their music are often pushed to the margins.  (See: Dead Prez, Immortal Technique, Saigon)  And again, it is not the artist’s obligation.  But until we make the improvement of life for the oppressed masses a part of the rags-to-riches narrative, we are doomed to a rigidly striated system with a few shining exceptions that seem to make mobility possible while obscuring larger goals.

Tupac Shakur was the one who got it right.  In his posthumously released “Changes,” he raps: “Let’s change the way we eat, let’s change the way we live, and let’s change the way we treat each other,” as well as “Instead of a war on poverty, there’s a war on drugs.”  But by the time of the song’s release, 2Pac had died of bullet wounds.

But taken on its own, “Changes” is a bleak indictment of American culture.  ”Juicy” provides the ballast that shows that an escape is possible.  Neither provides a complete philosophy on its own, but they complement each other, yin and yang.  The harmonious blending of two divergent outlooks gives us the insight for how to look at our successes and failures and learn from both.

And if you don’t know, now you know.

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An old favorite: ‘Hey Ma’ - Cam’ron ft. Juelz Santana

The only recorded time “plus, I can lay the pipe” was a successful pick-up line.


This is an email I actually just sent for a position that was actually advertised.


This is an email I actually just sent for a position that was actually advertised.

Career Homicide

As we all know, Ja Rule is not the major rap industry player he once was.  In an effort to rebrand himself, he has been trying to branch out from his catch phrase “IT’S MURDAAAAA” and capture a wider audience.  Here are some of his attempts.

Ja Rule endorsing his preferred brand of baby food:

Ja Rule telling a friend about his newly discovered heart condition:

Ja Rule impersonally introducing someone to the guide who helped him climb Everest:

Ja Rule awkwardly explaining a sexual mishap to an ER doctor:

Ja Rule describing his love for his lord and savior, Jesus Christ:

Ja Rule hypothesizing on how Shirley Temple got her hair so bouncy:

Ja Rule settling an argument on the color of Mace Windu’s light saber in the Star Wars prequels: 

Ja Rule teaching his cooking class the technical term for that raw steak stuff:

Ja Rule outlining what part of a house under construction does not meet code: 

Ja Rule lamenting the death, eleven years ago, of a former Green Bay Packers assistant coach:

“I’ve got no problem with you fucking me. The only problem’s you not fucking me.”

The Old Dirty Bastard, were he to have rapped in iambic pentameter.

If You Don’t Know…Now You Know.

I was a pretty sheltered kid.  I remember watching a PG-13 movie on VHS with my parents once as they fast-forwarded through the curse words and otherwise inappropriate scenes.  The movie?  Robin Hood: Men in Tights.  

Also, as with many kids, my first exposure to rap music was on the radio.  So there were no swears, and somewhat muted descriptions of acts of sex and violence.  You can imagine how unprepared my 13-year old mind was when I started buying CDs for myself.  Full on “Parental Advisory Explicit Lyrics” stuff.  My brain nearly flew out of my head.  It was like seeing Die Hard on basic cable and then HBO and going: “Ohhhh. Yippee-kiyay-motherfucker! I get it!”  Here are my all-time highlights of radio edit vs. actual song content.

1. Eminem - “My Name Is” 

The Slim Shady LP was among the first rap albums I ever owned (along with Redman’s Doc’s Da Name 2000 and Nas’s I am…).  The first single, “My Name Is” had a cartoony video clip in near-constant rotation on MTV, and the lyrics were intricate and clever.  But when I got the CD home, it was clear from the very first lyric that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, Toto.  ”Hi kids, do you like Primus?” became “Hi kids, do you like violence?”  What?  No!  For me, even Primus was a pretty edgy reference at the time.  Also, “I don’t give a damn, Dre sent me to take the world on,” from the radio turned out to be: “I don’t give a fuck, God sent me to piss the world off.”  That’s a little different.  Throw in heretofore unheard references to drunk driving, indecent exposure, and masturbation, and you’ve got three verses that brought me closer to adulthood than all my bar mitzvah training.

2. Big Punisher - “Not a Player”

I remember hearing this song on the radio as: “I’m not a player.  I just crush a lot.”  Oh, that’s cute.  Big Pun is pretty fat, I thought.  Maybe he has a lot of unrequited crushes.  Perhaps it is courtly love like the story of Lancelot and Guinevere.  Then, of course, I heard the uncensored version of the song.  ”I’m not a player.  I just fuck a lot.”  Ohhh.  I see.  He is so fat he physically crushes women during sex.  Duly noted, Punisher.  

3. The Notorious BIG - “Juicy”

This is my all time favorite radio-edit to album-version disparity.  Ready To Die, Biggie’s debut album came out in 1994, but I didn’t own a copy of my own until probably 2002.  So nearly a decade passed where I only heard the song on the radio.  After every verse, Big dropped the simple vocal tag: “If you don’t know…now you know.”  Almost a zen koan, really.  How can you know and not know, simultaneously?

The first few times I listened to the album, I skipped the track, since it had become so familiar to me over the years (I gave “Big Poppa” the same treatment).  When I finally gave Ready To Die an uninterrupted spin in the CD player, I heard the unedited version, which, as you probably know goes: “If you don’t know…know you know…NIGGA.”  Thanks for making this awkward for everyone, Biggie.  What if there had been black people around?  My face would have been so red from being so white.  

I had heard the song for nearly ten years without realizing that there was a giant, nuclear N-Bomb at the end of every verse.  So when I finally heard it, it didn’t even really make sense.  It was like if someone had played me a song that went: “Row, row, row your boat…NIGGA.”  The impact was enormous.  (N.O.R.E. pulls the same stunt in his song “Nothing,” but it’s less jarring somehow.)

So there you have it.  My Top 3 All Time Radio Edit Disparities.  And if you don’t know…now you  know…nevermind.

"Playing Dick Swords with the Jonas Brothers:" The Art of the Rap Song Celeb Name Check

Name checking and rap songs go together like Lenny and Squiggy, like peanut butter and bananas, like Mariah Carey and butterflies, like Rahm Emmanuel and a swift hit to the jugular.

The use of proper nouns is nothing new. But this particular post was brought on by the master Lil Wayne who on his new EP name checks Lane Kiffin, head football coach for the USC Trojans and former head coach of the Tennessee Trojans. Kiffin was reprimanded twice this year for his colorful field commentary and Wayne’s lyric goes, “Smoke weed, talk shit like Lane Kiffin.”

Fans of Lil Wayne can’t deny they had to Wikipedia that one.

In the history of the name check, many of those cited have taken offense — but some, like Kiffin — see it for the honor it is. You haven’t truly made it until Eminem’s called you a “fagg*t.”

Hence the two places where the best name checking comes from that will be examined here; the unexpected and the one just used because it rhymed.

The first is the aforementioned unexpected name check. When rappers namedrop someone so obscure and weirdly high-brow, you stop and question what they do in their free time.

Examples include Biggie rapping, “I make your mouthpiece obese like Della Reese.” A fine rhyme when you consider Ms. Reese is a big lady but it gets dice-y once you realize Reese is best known for her role on ‘Touched by an Angel.’ Biggie, you just admitted you watched a sappy show about angels, that reairs on the Lifetime network. And you didn’t even throw in a “no homo” just in case.

Other examples include T-Pain and Maino keeping up with politics with the lyric, “The new benz is all white, Call it John McCain” and the Roots catching up on their middle school summer reading with, “Push pen to paper like Chinua Achebe.”

Wu-Tang Clan especially has some weird hobbies including philosophy: “Socrates’ philosophies and hypotheses can’t define how I be dropping these mockeries” and watching day time television game shows: “I’m causing more Family Feuds than Richard Dawson.”

It’s nice to know rappers aren’t going for the obvious but at the same time, it’s hard to picture any of them sitting down to flip between a Roma Downey and Valerie Bertinelli Godfest and CSPAN with a copy of ‘Things Fall Apart’ and ‘Plato’s Symposium’ but you know, who knows?

The second is the one that makes no sense other than it rhymes.


While not really rappers, LFO’s ‘Summer Girls’ was notorious for the song’s out of context name checks, like Malcolm X, they made speeches but then they weren’t famous Geldofs like Peaches. (Way. too. easy.)

An example of this that comes to mind is in Nelly’s ‘Grillz,’ where he says, “Got a bill in my mouth like I’m Hillary Rodham.” Oh, I get it. We’re alluding to that oh-so-relevant 90’s scandal. But for some reason, we’re name checking the wrong lady. It’s because “Lewinsky” is hard as fuck to rhyme.

Mos Def also disregards accuracy in favor of the rhyme by saying the actor’s name rather than the character or you know, the real life person: “I get up like Don Cheadle shouting ‘Power to the people!’”

Of course it’s easier to fit into the lyric, but let’s not rewrite history here, fellas.

Another known offender in the name check game, Jay-Z, loves using name checks to compare himself to greater figures, for instance, calling himself the “black Warren Buffett” and proclaiming that his “stamina be enough for Pamela Anderson Lee.” In the case of the last lyric, “Lee” is definitely easier to rhyme than “Anderson” but it also sort of implies that Jay wants her after her marriage to Tommy Lee, which was definitely when the Pamela Anderson brand was on the decline. Despite being a porn star, we’re pretty sure what she picked up from Tommy Lee was way worse than her pre-Lee state. Rookie movie, Hov.

Your best bet is to use a celebrity name check as a way to enhance the lyrics and even make a joke. A great example is Kanye West in ‘Slow Jamz’:

"Got a light-skinned friend look like Michael Jackson, got a dark-skinned friend look like Michael Jackson."

Pure celebrity rap name check poetry, my friends. Eminem and his “playing dick swords with the Jonas Brothers” should maybe lay off the imagery for a while.

Big L - Ebonics

Guys, this song was really important to me as a kid. Every night before bed, I would listen to “88.9 At Night” the Emerson College hip hop radio show. It was (and still is) great. But the problem was, as a very white person raised in a very white suburb, I couldn’t understand what a lot of the songs were about. Not, like, I couldn’t relate. But literally, on a semantic level, I did not know what was going on.

The first time I heard “Ebonics,” it was like having the rap Rosetta Stone thrown at my head. The song is basically a lexicon of urban slang. Some of it is dated (“Hit me on the hip means page me!” Sure L. I’ll get on that. What’s your beeper number?), but some of it is so useful still! For example, did you know: “A ki of coke is a pie?” I didn’t know that! But, fortunately, I had fulfilled all my prerequisite listening, so I knew that “ki” means “kilo” and “coke” means “cocaine.” Sidenote! One time a guy offered me cocaine, and I responded like this: “Oh, no thank you! But I appreciate your trying to make me feel at home.” Anyway, game on! Pie is pretty much my favorite thing, but I wouldn’t want to order one and accidentally receive several thousand dollars worth of cocaine in return. That would be awkward.

I also learned that an “ox” is a razor blade. Until that point, I had assumed that Method Man was just on some Oregon Trail-ass shit. Nope. ”Ebonics” is full of nuggets like that. The most important lyric was: “Mobb Deep already explained the meaning of ‘shook.’” Now, I’d never heard “Shook Ones Pt. II,” but I’m nerdy enough to accept a homework assignment from a rap son. So at that point, Big L helped me cross over from underground “backpack” rap into a more full appreciation of hardcore hip hop.

Thanks, Big L. Rest in peace.  For now I talk with slang, and I’mma never stop speaking it.

I Wish I Was a Baller. I Want a Perfect Soul.

We all have things we wish were different.  About our lives.  About our selves.  About the world in general.  I am sure that we would all jump at the chance to make a change or take a mulligan on certain experiences.  Given the standard three-wish deal by a genie, I imagine we’d all think long and hard about our choices.  All of us, that is, except for Skee-Lo.  

Skee-Lo, the widely forgotten one hit wonder from the mid-1990’s, struck it big for a moment with his fantasy anthem “I Wish.”  It detailed all the ways that immediate wish-fulfillment would make his life better.  As a kid, I was pretty into the song.  As an adult, or at least what physically passes for one, I’m a little underwhelmed.

You may remember (but probably you don’t) that the first lyrics of the song go a little something like this: “I wish I was a little bit taller.  I wish I was a baller.  I wish I had a girl who looked good; I would call her.”  Now, ignoring the fact that Skee-Lo completely eschews the subjunctive mood (“I wish I WERE a little bit taller.”), there are still lots of problems with his choices.

Reallly? THOSE are your wishes?  You want a jump shot and a girlfriend.  Listen, buddy.  Hit the gym and work on one, and the other will follow.  You’re using supernatural powers to improve your ball handling skills?  That just takes practice.  Seriously.  You squandered the goodwill of that genie within moments.  You didn’t save one wish for world peace, you selfish dick?  Why couldn’t you just wish to be a better baller but stay the same height?  What do you have against point guards?  Gah!

At first “I Wish” sounds like a feel-good hip hop summer jam.  But, when you really look at it, it’s got more in common with Radiohead’s glum-rock classic “Creep.”  When Thom Yorke croons “You’re so very special/I wish I was special/But I’m a creep,” you can imagine him thinking it would be really special to be, like, 6’9” so he could get with Niyoshi, and she don’t know him yet, but yo, she’s really fine.  Even as mopey as Yorke is, though, he maintains some semblance of perspective.  ”I want a perfect body,” he moans.  ”I want a perfect soul.”  At least those are things worth spending a wish on.  

Yorke has looked inside himself and found a flawed human being searching for redemption.  -Lo, on the other hand impulsively pounces at the problems of the moment.  A crush.  An off-the-mark 3-point jumper.  He’s like the desperate guy trolling for wishes at last call.  Be a little selective, Skee-Lo.  People are going to start talking.

So, all things considered, “Creep” is less creepy than “I Wish.”  True story.