English essay

Jay-Z “Negative Space”

[This essay is an excerpt from Jay-Z’s book De-Coded. Please take a look at study notes that I attached at the end of this text.]

Hip-hop has always been controversial, and for good reason. When you watch a children’s show and they’ve got a muppet rapping about the alphabet, it’s cool, but it’s not really hip-hop. The music is meant to be provocative—which doesn’t mean it’s necessarily obnoxious, but it is (mostly) confrontational, and more than that, it’s dense with multiple meanings. Great rap should have all kinds of unresolved layers that you don’t necessarily figure out the first time you listen to it. Instead it plants dissonance in your head. You can enjoy a song that knocks in the club or has witty punch lines the first time you hear it. But great rap retains mystery. It leaves shit rattling around in your head that won’t make sense till the fifth or sixth time through. It challenges you.

Which is the other reason hip-hop is controversial: People don’t bother trying to get it. The problem isn’t in the rap or the rapper or the culture. The problem is that so many people don’t even know how to listen to the music.

ART WITH NO EASEL

Since rap is poetry, and a good MC is a good poet, you can’t just half-listen to a song once and think you’ve got it. Here’s what I mean: A poet’s mission is to make words do more work than they normally do, to make them work on more than one level. For instance, a poet makes words work sonically—as sounds, as music. Hip-hop tracks have traditionally been heavy on the beats, light on melody, but some MCs—Bone Thugs ’N Harmony, for example—find ways to work melodies into the rapping. Other MCs—think about Run from Run-DMC—turn words into percussion: “cool chief rocka, I don’t drink vodka, but keep a bag of cheeba inside my locka.” The words themselves don’t mean much, but he snaps those clipped syllables out like drumbeats, bap bap bapbap. It’s as exciting as watching a middleweight throw a perfect combination. If you listened to that joint and came away thinking it was a simple rhyme about holding weed in a gym locker, you’d be reading it wrong: The point of those bars is to bang out a rhythmic idea, not to impress you with the literal meaning of the words.

But great MCing is not just about filling in the meter of the song with rhythm and melody. The other ways that poets make words work is by giving them layers of meaning, so you can use them to get at complicated truths in a way that straightforward storytelling fails to do. The words you use can be read a dozen different ways: They can be funny and serious. They can be symbolic and literal. They can be nakedly obvious and subliminally effective at the same time. The art of rap is deceptive. It seems so straightforward and personal and real that people read it completely literally, as raw testimony or autobiography. And sometimes the words we use, nigga, bitch, motherfucker, and the violence of the images overwhelms some listeners. It’s all white noise to them till they hear a bitch or a nigga and then they run off yelling “See!” and feel vindicated in their narrow conception of what the music is about. But that would be like listening to Maya Angelou and ignoring everything until you heard her drop a line about drinking or sleeping with someone’s husband and then dismissing her as an alcoholic adulterer.

But I can’t say I’ve ever given much of a fuck about people who hear a curse word and start foaming at the mouth. The Fox News dummies. They wouldn’t know art if it fell on them.

BILL O’REILLY YOU’RE ONLY RILING ME UP

“99 Problems” is almost a deliberate provocation to simpleminded listeners. If that sounds crazy, you have to understand: Being misunderstood is almost a badge of honor in rap. Growing up as a black kid from the projects, you can spend your whole life being misunderstood, followed around department stores, looked at funny, accused of crimes you didn’t commit, accused of motivations you don’t have, dehumanized—until you realize, one day, it’s not about you. It’s about perceptions people had long before you even walked onto the scene. The joke’s on them because they’re really just fighting phantoms of their own creation. Once you realize that, things get interesting. It’s like when we were kids. You’d start bopping hard and throw on the ice grill when you step into Macy’s and laugh to yourself when the security guards got nervous and started shadowing you. You might have a knot of cash in your pocket, but you boost something anyway, just for the sport of it. Fuck ’em. Sometimes the mask is to hide and sometimes it’s to play at being something you’re not so you can watch the reactions of people who believe the mask is real. Because that’s when they reveal themselves.

So many people can’t see that every great rapper is not just a documentarian, but a trickster—that every great rapper has a little bit of Chuck and a little bit of Flav in them—but that’s not our problem, it’s their failure: the failure, or unwillingness, to treat rap like art, instead of acting like it’s just a bunch of niggas reading out of their diaries. Art elevates and refines and transforms experience. And sometimes it just fucks with you for the fun of it.

This is another place where the art of rap and the art of the hustler meet. Poets and hustlers play with language, because for them simple clarity can mean failure. They bend language, improvise, and invent new ways of speaking the truth. When I was a kid in New York and the five Mafia families were always on the front page of the newspaper, the most intriguing character wasn’t John Gotti, it was Vinnie Gigante. I’d see him in the NewYork Post under a headline like THE ODDFATHER, always in his robe, caught on camera mumbling to himself as he wandered around the Village. His crazy act kept him out of the pen for decades. He took it all the way, but every hustler knows the value of a feint. It keeps you one step ahead of whoever’s listening in, which is also a great thing about hip-hop art. And it makes it all the more gratifying to the listener when they finally catch up. Turning something as common as language into a puzzle makes the familiar feel strange; it makes the language we take for granted feel fresh and exciting again, like an old friend who just revealed a long-held secret. Just that easily your world is flipped, or at least shaken up a little. That’s why the MCs who really play with language—I’m talking about cryptic MCs like Ghostface Killah who invent slang on the spot—can be the most exciting for people who listen closely enough, because they snatch the ground out from under you, and make the most familiar shit open up until it feels like you’re seeing it for the first time.

RIDDLE ME THAT

So, “99 Problems” is a good song to use to talk about the difference between the art of rap and the artlessness of some of its critics. It’s a song that takes real events and reimagines them. It’s a narrative with a purposefully ambiguous ending. And the hook itself—“99 problems but a bitch ain’t one”—is a joke, bait for lazy critics. At no point in the song am I talking about a girl. The chorus really makes that clear if you bother listening: the obvious point of the chorus is that I wasn’t talking about women. It almost makes my head hurt to think that people could hear that and twist its meaning the full 180 degrees. But even as I was recording it, I knew someone, somewhere would say, “Aha, there he goes talking about them hoes and bitches again!” And, strangely, this struck me as being deeply funny. I couldn’t wait to release it as a single. My only mistake was that I accidentally explained the joke in an early interview and that defused it for some listeners. The phrase has become one of my most often repeated lyrics, because it works on all those levels, in its literal meaning, its ironic meaning, and in its sonic power (the actual sound of the words but a bitch ain’t one is like someone spitting out a punch). And the joke of it is still potent: during the presidential primaries in 2008, some Hillary Clinton supporters even claimed that Barack Obama was playing the song at his rallies, which would’ve been hilarious if it was true.

It’s hard to beat the entertainment value of people who deliberately misunderstand the world, people dying to be insulted, running around looking for a bullet to get in front of. But if you get caught up in the hook of the song, you miss something. Because between the incendiary choruses—on top of the guitar and cowbell Rick Rubin came up with—is a not-quite-true story. The story—like the language used to tell it—has multiple angles. It’s a story about the anxiety of hustling, the way little moments can suddenly turn into life-or-death situations. It’s about being stopped by cops with a trunk full of coke, but also about the larger presumption of guilt from the cradle that leads you to having the crack in your trunk in the first place. But forget the sermon: This isn’t a song written from a soapbox, it’s written from the front seat of a Maxima speeding down the highway with a trunk full of trouble.
“99 Problems”

If you’re having girl problems I feel bad for you son
I got ninety-nine problems but a bitch ain’t one

I got the rap patrol on the gat patrol
Foes that want to make sure my casket’s closed
Rap critics that say he’s “Money Cash Hoes”
I’m from the hood, stupid, what type of facts are those?
If you grew up with holes in your zapatos
You’d celebrate the minute you was having dough
I’m like, “Fuck critics” you can kiss my whole asshole
If you don’t like my lyrics, you can press fast forward
Got beef with radio if I don’t play they show
They don’t play my hits, well, I don’t give a shit, so
Rap mags try and use my black ass
So advertisers can give ’em more cash for ads, fuckers
I don’t know what you take me as
Or understand the intelligence that Jay-Z has
I’m from rags to riches, niggas I ain’t dumb
I got ninety nine problems but a bitch ain’t one, hit me

Ninety nine problems but a bitch ain’t one
If you having girl problems I feel bad for you son
I got ninety nine problems but a bitch ain’t one, hit me

The year’s ’94 and my trunk is raw
In my rearview mirror is the motherfucking law
I got two choices y’all, pull over the car or
Bounce on the devil, put the pedal to the floor
Now I ain’t trying to see no highway chase with Jake
Plus I got a few dollars I can fight the case
So I, pull over to the side of the road
I heard, “Son, do you know why I’m stopping you for?”
“Cause I’m young and I’m black and my hat’s real low”
Do I look like a mind reader, sir? I don’t know
Am I under arrest or should I guess some more?
“Well you was doing fifty-five in a fifty-four” (uh huh)
“License and registration and step out of the car”
“Are you carrying a weapon on you, I know a lot of you are”
I ain’t stepping out of shit, all my papers legit
“Well do you mind if I look around the car a little bit?”
Well my glove compartment is locked, so is the trunk in the back
And I know my rights so you goin’ need a warrant for that
“Aren’t you sharp as a tack? You some type of lawyer or something?”
“Somebody important or something?”
Well, I ain’t passed the bar, but I know a little bit
Enough that you won’t illegally search my shit
“Well we’ll see how smart you are when the K-9 come”
I got ninety nine problems but a bitch ain’t one, hit me

Ninety nine problems but a bitch ain’t one
If you having girl problems I feel bad for you son
I got ninety nine problems but a bitch ain’t one, hit me

Ninety nine problems but a bitch ain’t one
If you having girl problems I feel bad for you son
I got ninety nine problems but a bitch ain’t one, hit me

Now once upon a time not too long ago
A nigga like myself had to strong-arm a ho
This is not a ho in the sense of having a pussy
But a pussy having no goddamn sense try and push me
I tried to ignore ’em, talk to the Lord
Pray for ’em, ’cause some fools just love to perform
You know the type, loud as a motorbike
But wouldn’t bust a grape in a fruit fight
The only thing that’s goin’ happen is I’ma get to clapping and
He and his boys goin’ be yapping to the Captain
And there I go trapped in the Kit-Kat again
Back through the system with the riff-raff again
Fiends on the floor scratching again
Paparazzi’s with they cameras, snapping ’em
D.A. tried to give a nigga shaft again
Half a mil’ for bail ’cause I’m African
All because this fool was harassing them
Trying to play the boy like he’s saccharine
But ain’t nothing sweet ’bout how I hold my gun
I got ninety-nine problems being a bitch ain’t one, hit me

Ninety-nine problems but a bitch ain’t one
If you having girl problems I feel bad for you son
I got ninety-nine problems but a bitch ain’t one, hit me

Ninety-nine problems but a bitch ain’t one
If you having girl problems I feel bad for you son
I got ninety-nine problems but a bitch ain’t one, hit me

Having girl problems I feel bad for you son
I got ninety-nine problems and a bitch ain’t one

You’re crazy for this one, Rick, it’s your boy

Notes on Jay-Z’s essay “Negative Space”

Jay-Z writes about various ways in which artists resist expectations. “Expectations about what?” you might ask. Let’s start by finding these words and phrases and thinking over why Jay-Z emphasizes them.

provocative

confrontational

mission

throw a perfect combination

raw testimony

badge of honor

mask

documentarian

trickster

hustlers

improvise

the value of a feint

puzzle

a joke, bait

spitting out a punch

sermon

soapbox

alchemy* (The word does not appear directly in the text…)
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