It’s high time I dedicated a post in this series to the rapper who gave us its title, Jay-Z. I’ll also thank Jay-Z for building the “pretty much” into my publishing schedule of the first and fifteenth of each month so that I could take a sick day. Today we’re not looking at “December 4th,” though, but another song from the Black Album of 2003, “99 Problems.” Jay-Z, the pseudonym of Shawn Corey Carter, started calling himself Hova (as in God) and “the best rapper alive,” in the early aughts. The Black Album essentially confirmed these two things. Created as his farewell to rap, Mr. Carter went around to the best producers in the rap game and collected beats to tell the story of his life and ascension in the world of popular hip-hop. It was probably the best rap album since the millennium, and signaled that talented rap hadn’t all been lost since its commercialization in the late nineties.
“99 Problems” is easily my favorite song from the album. It is hard-hitting, gritty, and real, much like “Straight Outta Compton.” Rather than dealing with money, cash, and hoes as Jay-Z had on 1998’s Hard Knock Life, he turns his attention to his success in rap and the difficulties he had growing up and with police. The beat feels so antiquated and austere because it was produced by Rick Rubin, an eclectic producer who worked early on with Beastie Boys and with Johnny Cash later in the country singer’s life. Rubin sets up Hova with two awesome samples from rock music. The drum pattern is from Mountain, and the guitar from Billy Squire. A second reason the beat recalls N.W.A. is Rubin sampled the same Wilson Pickett song Dre used on “Straight Outta Compton.” Furthermore, the song is an ode to another gangster rapper from the old school, Ice-T (no relation to Cube), who rapped a song with the same title and chorus in 1993, albeit with a different subject matter. So the general feel of the song hearkens back to Jay-Z’s youth before the spotlight.
Given Rubin’s talent, it’s already obvious that this song is amazing, but the verses Jay-Z produces elevate it to another level. Out of the box the listener knows he is in for a jolt. A capella Mr. Carter states the thesis of the song, “If you havin’ girl problems I feel bad for you son; I got 99 problems, but an [expletive deleted] ain’t one.” The first verse serves to authenticate Carter’s grit. He’s got “foes that wanna make sure his casket’s closed,” no respect for critics, a fair amount of intelligence, and won’t quarter profiteers looking to make a buck off his likeness. My favorite lyric from this verse results from Jay-Z using a Spanish word with English pronunciation to fit his rhyme scheme: “If you grew up with hole in your zapatos, you was celebrating the minute you had dough.” The integration of another language to indicate poorly maintained footwear while maintaining cadence testifies to Jay-Z’s superior rapping skills.
The middle verse is the most memorable, because here Jay-Z discusses some of the most salient of his 99 problems. A la Peter Gabriel in his Genesis years, Jay-Z channels a second voice to act out a skit between himself and a cop who has pulled him over for “driving while black.” The first problem? Jay was doing 55 in a 54. But that’s not all— the second problem is that his trunk is full of raw, uncut cocaine. There’s really only two options: 1) a high speed chase, or 2) try to see what the officer wants, guessing the shield is just profiling. In the verse Carter demonstrates that he has seen this video, because he refuses to consent to any searches:
Cop: Well, do you mind if I look round the car a little bit?
Jay: Well my glove compartment is locked so are the trunk in the back
And I know my rights so you gon’ need a warrant for that
Cop: Aren’t you sharp as a tack, you some type of lawyer or something’? Or somebody important or somethin’?
Jay: Nah, I ain’t pass the bar but i know a little bit
Enough that you won’t illegally search my [expletive deleted]
While Jay-Z is certainly guilty, he preserves his fifth amendment rights, and we are almost certain that the police officer has no probable cause for a search. Hov’ even elicits sympathy by casting the police officer as a racist. Jay-Z, in the midst of displaying his rhyming prowess, also shows us how he can even outsmart the police. The best Biggie could do was interdict someone else’s designs on a young woman.
In the closing verse, Carter closes with how he deals with haters. He has to be careful not to get arrested, but must act. The world is against Jay-Z, even the DA who will set bail at half a million dollars because the rapper “is African.”(Or maybe because he was a known trafiquant?) In the music video this message is much more powerful, with depictions of the ghetto, the traffic stop, and even a prison scene. There is even an odd ending that kept it off MTV where Jay-Z is shot to death, most likely recalling the contemporary NYPD shootings of unarmed black men. So again in doing his dirty work, Carter gets away clean.
Jay-Z’s criminal experiences are probably up for debate, but his skills are not. He’s able to consistently produce rhymes that are intelligent and unequivocal, and to deliver hip-hop without all of the pretenses it later gained as the music of success. He could barely stay away from rap three years before he came back in 2006.
-Michael E. van Landingham