These are lyrics from Jay-Z and Kanye West's "Otis", the first single off their 2011 collaborative album Watch The Throne. And if you listen to any radio station that plays rap, you will here a dozen more songs that go something along those same lines.
I love rap. I enjoy the hard hitting beats, the storytelling, the clever metaphors and wordplay, the uniqueness of rappers' voice and dialects (unless you're Desiigner), all of it. Rap is a sport and I'm drawn to its competitiveness. The stakes are high in a genre centered around knowing who's better. Rappers have to be hyper aggressive, tough, and self-confident in order to have a chance at "making it".
The egotism rappers exude is more than fun showmanship. Their brash is an attempt to immortalize and elevate themselves to legendary status. The ante is constantly being raised on who can be the most outlandish, flagrant and braggadocios. One of the boldest examples of this is on 2013's Yeezus. On a song titled, "I Am a God", Kanye West literally gives God a feature credit. I mean that is next level narcissism right there and I love it.
Excess and opulence are important themes in the vivid and imaginative lyrics of many rappers. It's all about obtaining colossal sized Picassos, putting 5 carats in your baby girl's ears, driving around with rims whose inch size match your age number. Whether it's cars, clothes, women, jewelry, or houses, the aim is to have as much as possible. Rappers are so infatuated with luxury, that you can point to over 20 songs in which rappers have compared themselves to Liberace himself:
Paris, Hublot watches, multiple Benzes, but what about the women? In rap, the guy always get the girl; or at least they tell us they do. Having reconciled my conflict with raps objectification of women, one of my favorite moments in rap history is on DMX and Sisqo's "What These Bi###es Want". DMX, in the most rough and tough DMX way, raps (and barks) the names of 44 females he has on constant rotation in his Rolodex:
"There was Brenda, LaTisha, Linda, Felicia (okay!)
Dawn, LeShaun, Ines, and Alicia (ooh!)
Teresa, Monica, Sharron, Nicki (uh-huh!)
Lisa, Veronica, Karen, Vicky (damn!)
Cookies, well I met her in a ice cream parlor (aight?!)
Tonya, Diane, Lori and Carla (okay!)
Marina (uhh) Selena (uhh) Katrina (uhh) Sabrina (uhh)
About three Kim's (What!) LaToya, and Tina (Whoo!)
Shelley, Bridget, Cavi, Rasheeda (uh-huh)
Kelly, Nicole, Angel, Juanita (damn!)
Stacy, Tracie, Rohna, and Ronda (WHAT?!)
Donna, Ulanda (WHAT?!) Tawana, and Wanda"
For fans, it can be hard to listen to music that is so far from your life. How many of us are throwing our Rollies in the sky, popping bottles in VIP, taking PJs (private jets) around the world and courting anyone we desire? We're constantly being reminded that we aren't where they are, doing what they're doing as fresh and cool as them.
Rappers and their god like personas can create a distance between us and them. But good music is for the people, to unify us through shared experiences we can all relate to. The pictures these artists paint aren't real life. They are fun stories that take us to a fantasy land. The world isn't a 90's Puff Daddy music video; these guys have mo' money and mo' problems too. Even Yeezy comes clean in his classic song "All Falls Down" saying, "we all self-conscious I'm just the first to admit"; that's real, that's keeping it "one hunnid".
Rappers should feel free and safe enough to talk about their disappointments, their heartbreaks, their desires to change their circumstances. So let's give praise to the rappers who aren't "ballin", who don't get the dream girl, and who aren't the big man on their block.
Pharcyde's "Passin' Me By", Skee-Lo's "I Wish", and Biz Markie's "Just a Friend" are classic hip hop songs most casual listeners have heard at least once. While recognized for their mesmeric beats, catchy hooks, and savy rhyme schemes, rarely do people acknowledge the relatability of the stories told. Each rapper presents scenarios many of us have been in, but are too embarrassed to share. This is a unique gift and responsibility of true artists; to beautifully express the mundane, the normal, the commonalities with which we're all familiar.
1) The Pharcyde's "Passin' Me By"
"Passin Me By" has the quintessential 90's boom bap sound to methodically nod your head to. Hailing from my hometown of Los Angeles, California, Bootie Brown, SlimKid3, Imani, and Fatlip's articulated cadences make rhyming along easy. When I first heard this song at the age of 11, I ran home, printed out the lyrics, and proceeded to memorize every word. It is one of my favorite songs of all time and I still know every line verbatim.
Although the chorus clearly repeats "she keeps on passin' me by", it wasn't until recently at the age of 25 that I realized just how sad their love lives were. All of their crushes really do pass them by. The last verse in particular illustrates the overall mood of the song and plight of these fellows. It's here Fatlip puts his heart on the track while rapping about the dopest Ethiopian woman who simply won't give him the time of day.
Now there she goes again, the dopest Ethiopian
And now the world around me be gets movin in slow motion
when-ever she happens to walk by - why does the apple of my eye
overlook and disregard my feelings no matter how much I try?
Wait, no, i did not really pursue my little princess with persistence;
And I was so low-key that she was unaware of my existence
From a distance I desired, secretly admired her;
Wired her, a letter to get her, and it went:
My dear, my dear, my dear, you do not know me but I know you very well
Now let me tell you bout the feelings I have for you
When I try, or make some sort of attempt, I simp
Damn I wish I wasn't such a wimp!
'Cause then I would let you know that I love you so
And if I was your man then I would be true
The only lying I would do is in the bed with you
Then I signed sincerely the one who loves you dearly, PS love me tender
The letter came back three days later: Return to Sender
Poetry. We've all experienced rejection in some form. But it's not often that a rapper admits to being overlooked and disregarded by a woman. Already, his vulnerability is tugging at my heart strings. This woman is the apple of Fatlip's eye. He calls her his little princess, not some b---ch or h-- . Describing a woman you're fond of without using derogatory terms always gets you a win in my book.
Fatlip is so unassuming in his pursuit of this woman that in order to make this young woman aware of his existence he has to write her a letter. Compared to today's suitors who simply slide in your DMs or swipe you to the right on some dating app, Fatlip's efforts are impressive. His salutations are chivalrous and polite harmonizing, "my dear my dear my dear". To be honest, I'd probably marry the first person who wrote me a letter.
While writing the letter Fatlip gets introspective in his admiration for this woman. He admits that he hasn't been able to work up the nerve to approach her and calls himself a wimp and simp. These are fighting words in the hip hop community. Urban Dictionary defines a simp as "a man that puts himself in a subservient/submissive position under women in hopes of winning them over." Unsubscribing to toxic masculinity, Fatlip clearly does not care what you or I think about his emotions. He knows what his heart wants.
Finally, Fatlip builds up the courage to send off the letter with a "the one who loves you dearly" farewell. 3 longs days pass and what happens? The letter is returned to sender. As a listener all you can do is echo Fatlip's final line; a defeated and breathy "damn!". Sometimes you can't win for losing.
2) Skee-Lo "I Wish"
Her boyfriend's tall and he plays ball
So how am I gonna compete with that?
'Cause when it comes to playing basketball
I'm always last to be picked
And in some cases never picked at all
So I just lean up on the wall
I wish I had a brand-new car
So far, I got this hatchback
And everywhere I go, yo, I gets laughed at
Intentionally or unintentionally, Skee-Lo is breaking black male stereotypes by airing out his perceived shortcomings; he's not tall and he's not good at basketball. Meanwhile, Ice Cube was still trying to convince us that he registered a triple double in a pick-up game. There is a historical symbiotic relationship between basketball and hip-hop. Every rapper wants to be a hooper and every hooper wants to be a rapper. This is a biblical fact. Fortunately and unfortunately, many have dabbled in both.
In this case, the undersized Skee-Lo is not a basketball playing, hip hop rhyming double threat. And he believes these perceived limitations are holding him back from being a cooler, more prosperous guy. So doing what he can with what he has, he brilliantly creates a hit rapping about the things he wishes he had. Most rap songs sound something like "Yo, I got this, yea I got that, of course I got her, and I even got way more of that". Skee-Lo does the exact opposite, saying "Yo, I wish I had height, I wish I had basketball skills, I really wish I had a girl and a '64 impala, I'll even take a rabbit in a hat". This would have been the perfect time for Shaquille O'Neal as Kazaam the genie to appear.
I'm don't know if Skee-Lo ever got his wishes, but his song sold over 600,000 copies, went gold, and was nominated for Best Rap Solo performance at the 1996 Grammy's. He lost to Coolio's "Gangsta Paradise", but he was so close.
3) Biz Markie "Just a Friend"
So I came to her college on a surprise visit
To see my girl that was so exquisite
It was a school day, I knew she was there
The first semester of the school year
I went to a gate to ask where was her dorm
This guy made me fill out a visitor's form
He told me where it was and I was on my way
To see my baby doll, I was happy to say
I arrived in front of the dormitory
Yo, could you tell me where is door three?
They showed me where it was for the moment
I didn't know I was in for such an event
So I came to her room and opened the door
Oh, snap! Guess what I saw?
A fella tongue-kissin' my girl in the mouth,
I was so in shock my heart went down south
So please listen to the message that I say
Don't ever talk to a girl who says she just has a friend
This is what us young people call "getting played".
Biz Markie's "Just a Friend" is a great karaoke jam. Released in 1989, before rappers were singing hooks and choruses, it's a 80's hip hop love ballad that I will always choose over LL Cool J's "I need love" which has aged terribly.
No matter where you go in the country, most people join along when they hear Biz belt out, "Ohhh babyyy youuuu! Youu got what I neeeeeed!". A contrast from the tough guy role rappers portray, Biz's playfulness makes this one of the most lighthearted song's in hip hop. His infectious personality and fun rap-a-long style gains the affection of fans. This makes his predicament even more devastating. We love Biz, we are rooting for Biz, we want Biz to win and get the girl.
Being the consummate gentleman, Biz makes a trip to surprise his lady friend while she's at college. He probably has a nice romantic weekend all planned out for him and his lady; beat boxing, taking long walks in the park, making mixtapes on his boombox. You can visualize the whole thing. Yet, to his shock, he finds the lady he's been dating kissing another guy.
We don't know the dynamics of Biz and this woman's relationship, but he's soundly invested. And while she has the right to do what she pleases without his permission, communication could have definitely been clearer. Biz thought his lady was hanging with a platonic friend. She thought Biz was just another friend. You can't help but empathize with the guy.
After such a tragic ordeal, you wonder if Biz developed serious trust issues. But, as a consolation prize, Biz's misfortune has made him a fortune. This hit is still popular 30 years later and has gone on to influence music today. Taking Biz's advice, Chris Brown would go on to make an anthem reminding us that "these h--- ain't loyal".
Hopefully rap will continue to evolve and become more comfortable being self deprecating and despondent. Talking about our pain is a human right that helps us lead healthier lives. We all take L's, but what's most important is that you keep showing up for the game. Law of averages says that you're eventually going to win. Keep swinging.