Tuesday, 15 December 2009

15: Jay-Z - 99 Problems

Back when I was a teenager, I used to learn lyrics to my favourite songs. I considered it a sign of just how "with it" I was that I could recite all the words to The Offspring's 'Self Esteem' or any number of Nirvana songs. In time, I stopped intentionally learning lyrics, but the way my brain works, I still have a good recall for lyrics, especially those I've heard often.

I can recite all the words to '99 Problems'. I don't think this is cool. Far from it. I never planned to learn the lyrics. But I listened to 'Collision Course' (the Jay Z/Linkin Park live remix show) and subsequently the original of 'The Black Album' so many times that I can recite them down pat. Not cool that I know them by heart then, but overall, these are still brilliantly written lyrics. I particularly like the second verse as Jigga details one of his "problems" - in this case, being pulled over by the police for being a black man driving a nice car. The dialogue between Jay Z and the bigoted policeman (also voiced by Jay Z) is like something out of 'The Wire'. Jay Z isn't just rapping to a tune, he's telling a beautifully descriptive story. I love the use of the slightly respectful, slightly mocking "sir" by Jay Z, and the ridiculous generalisation made by the cop:
"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 mindreader, sir? I don't know. Am I under arrest, or should I guess some more?"
"You were doing fifty-five in the 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."

Perhaps the mainstream appeal of Jay Z, Kanye and their ilk is that they don't exhibit the same levels of misogyny and violence as some of their equally talented (but less restrained) peers. Sure, Jay Z still uses the word 'bitch' here a bit too often for my liking, but this is not a song about women being "bitches", it's a song about black men getting a raw deal in 21st Century America.

A mention for the legendary Rick Rubin here too. After beginning the decade producing the likes of Rage Against The Machine, Slipknot, System Of A Down, Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit, his work on '99 Problems' was wholly unexpected and rather spectacular. Trademark guitar riff, big beat, #12 in the charts, easy-peasy.

1 comment:

  1. Nice #16 and #15 - enjoyed them both greatly. All I can say, with reference to my own countdown, is: brace yourself!