Good point made by Chris Burgess below. Now that the dust has settled on Glastonbury and pretty much every white rock critic in the land has declared Jay-Z’s once-controversial Saturday night headliner a palpable hit (I’d love to know from someone who was there – and I mean there, having paid for a ticket), I wonder if we might look at the potential dichotomy of the man born Shawn Carter’s lyrics at a festival rooted in pacifism, ecology, non-violence and face-painting.
Having “answered” Noel Gallagher – who opined from on high, “I’m not havin’ hip hop at Glastonbury” – with a karaoke version of Wonderwall (was Jay-Z deliberately singing out of tune?), he and his band powered into the actual opener, one of his biggest crossover numbers, 99 Problems. Now this is a magnificent-sounding track, and, certainly from where I was sitting on the sofa, it sounded massive. Advantage, Carter! (And, hey, he had a band.)
But as if to open up the chasm between “traditional” Glastonbury and this brave new Emily-Eavis era, the song’s repeated refrain, “If you’re having girl problems I feel bad for you, son/I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one” sounded suitably jarring as it bounced off the Pyramid Stage. To allow this to pass without comment, it seems, is political correctness gone mad, but I speak as neither a nay-saying disciple of Gallagher, nor as someone sent from the PC Brigade. I only really know a couple of Jay-Z’s albums, but they’re pretty powerful, not least The Black Album, from whence 99 Problems comes. Like all white, non-American apologists for the abidingly raw lyrical content of rap music, I too have 99 problems, and the casual use of the term “bitch” is one.
But as I’m always arguing: first of all, we’re dealing with culture that was forged in bits of cities where most of us would fear to tread, regardless of race or nationality. Carter was raised in those there “projects” you always hear about. He ran with drug dealers, etc. Rap was his salvation. I get more irritated by the raps about how much money the big stars have made than when they deal with the nastier aspects of their upbringing. This doesn’t excuse a pre-enlightenment attitude to women, but when you watch The Wire, it doesn’t do to get upset by the language, or the attitudes. It doesn’t mean you approve of them not to kick the TV in.
I personally enjoy rap in the same way as I enjoy The Wire, or gangster movies. I don’t want to see films about life in Northampton, nor do I always want to hear pop music about the universal themes of boy-meets-girl. So, check out the whole lyric. I can’t even claim to understand a lot of it, but it paints a vivid picture, like all the best poetry. [My footnotes are in italics.]
I got the rap patrol on the gat patrol
Foes that wanna 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 Zapitos
I know that a Gat’s a gun – thanks, Ice-T, who never cruises LA without “a Gat in my lap” – but are Zapitos some kind of training shoe?
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 …
I understand Jay-Z has a problem with the lack of radio play for his records. While it’s true that most traditional guitar bands don’t write songs about this, The Clash made Capital Radio, which was explicitly about the airplay policy of Capital Radio in London, SO …
Rap mags try and use my black ass
So advertisers can give em more cash for ads … fuckers
Yeah, yeah, the multi-million-dollar entrepreneur with the clothing empire and property portfolio is having a go at the capitalists! Advantage, nay-sayers!
I don’t know what you take me as
or understand the intelligence that Jay-Z has
I’m from rags to ritches, nigga, I ain’t dumb
I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one
This is a recurring theme of Jay-Z’s work, not exactly uncommon in rap, since “escape” from poverty doesn’t come with the guilt it might do to traditional guitar-based rock music – hey, I didn’t make this a rap-versus-rock music battle, that was Noel Gallagher! I really love this next verse by the way … perhaps because I have been hassled by the pigs, or at least had my bags looked into under the Prevention Of Terrorism Act at two overground stations in South London
The year is ’94 and in my trunk is raw
In my rear view mirror is the motherfucking law
I got two choices: y’all pull over the car or
bounce on the double, put the pedal to the floor
Now I ain’t trying to see no highway chase with Jake
This may have been transcribed badly – but who is Jake?
Plus I got a few dollars I can fight the case
So I … pull over to the side of the road
And 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 mo’?
“Well you was doing fifty five in a fifty four …
License and registration and step out of the car.
Are you carrying a weapon on you, I know a lot of you are”
The sin of generalisation!
I ain’t stepping out of shit, all my papers legit
“Do you mind if I look round the car a little bit?”
Well my glove compartment is locked so is the trunk and the back
And I know my rights so you gon’ need a warrant for that
“Aren’t you sharp as a tack, are some type of lawyer or something?
Or somebody important or something?”
Nah I ain’t pass the bar but I know a little bit
Enough that you won’t illegally search my shit
“Well see how smart you are when the canines come”
I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one
This time, the term “bitch” might refer to a police dog?
Now once upon a time not too long ago
A nigga like myself had to strong arm a hoe
Here’s a problematic verse. It’s actually about mistreatment of a lady. He says “a nigga like myself,” but is he actually talking about himself, in an unfortunate incident from his own past?
This is not a hoe in the sense of having a pussy
Wait! Here’s a twist!
But a pussy having no Goddamn sense, try and push me
You won’t wriggle out of this that easily, young man! You state that a “ho” isn’t necessarily a lady, but that a ladypart means a lack of sense, which is just as demeaning. Did Ben Elton teach you nothing?
I tried to ignore him and talk to the Lord
Pray for him, cause some fools just love to perform
You know the type loud as a motor bike
But wouldn’t bust a grape in a fruit fight
The only thing that’s gonna happen is I’mma get to clapping
He and his boys gon’ 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
Paparrazzis with they cameras snapping them
D.A. tred to give the nigga the shaft again
Half-a-mil for bail cause I’m African
All because this fool was harrassin’ them
Trying to play the boy like he’s saccarine
But ain’t nothing sweet ’bout how I hold my gun
I got 99 problems but being a bitch ain’t one
Redemption? It turns out the man strong-arming the “ho” wasn’t Jay-Z, and that Jay-Z had to sort him out, possibly by waving a gun at him – praying to God having failed to alleviate the situation. Despite his money and fame, Jay-Z has been involved in rough stuff in the past couple of years. I’m not sure if this is an incident from his past however, as mention of photographers suggests it’s a post-fame spat. I’m hoping someone will enlighten me on this.
There’s a lot going on in these lyrics. Unlike Wonderwall, which is brilliant but essentially meaningless, a rap lyric is rammed with narrative content and not all of it immediately obvious. Also, you have to get through the patois. I print these lyrics not to make an unequivocal case for or against Jay-Z’s booking at Glastonbury. It looked like a dramatic performance, just not the kind the kids are used to. (I’d certainly rather see him than The Verve.) At least he wasn’t bottled off, as 50 Cent shamefully was at Reading, and, apparently, our own Lethal Bizzle at Download. Shawn Carter was treated with peace, love and all the other things. If he’d censored his own lyrics, as Kanye West was happy to do with Gold Digger at the Brits, what would we have made of him then?
So many questions, and so few hard answers from me. But I’m a liberal goody two shoes.