“I done done it all / From jackin’ and slanging, nigga trust that / Stealing cars, snortin’ dope, gettin’ bust at / Never going to school, all kinda bullshit / They callin’ my momma in, I got her looking unfit / It ain’t Cyn fault I turned out this way / It’s my fault, she told me right from wrong everyday / When my daddy got killed, I think that’s when I went astray / Mark, Nell, L.T. and me made niggas lay on they face…” –B.G., “Hard Times.”
Former Cash Money standout B.G. most likely won’t go down in history as the most lyrical emcee. But the above bars from his 1999 album, Chopper City In The Ghetto stand out as one of my all time favorite verses. This is purely subjective, and I’m not saying B.G.’s reflections on robbing, selling and abusing drugs should end up in some list of the greatest verses ever. But, despite having never robbed anyone or ducked gunfire, the palpable struggle, conflict and candor keep “Hard Times” in heavy rotation on my iPod 14 years after its release. Some of my favorite Hip Hop songs address the concepts of struggle and conflict, and I think that’s because they mirrored some of my own experiences. But even the tracks that address struggles different from my own are appealing when executed properly, and I assume the same can be said for Hip Hop fans across the globe.
When Drake, a representative of the new generation of Cash Money rappers, inevitably landed at the number one spot Tuesday with Nothing Was The Same, I think a lot of questions were answered as far as just what kind of struggle and conflict we value as Hip Hop fans and consumers. What kind of obstacles does an emcee have to overcome to earn our respect, and what variables should be factored into those obstacles? Back in February, when the single “Started From The Bottom” dropped, there was no shortage of backlash. What “bottom” had Drake, the former child actor from suburban Toronto ever experienced? Did it really matter?
The Stigma Of The Suburbs
“‘Everyone has their bottom,’ he says. ‘The three biggest misconceptions about me are that I’m a cocky asshole because I’m a famous male rapper, that any part of me wants to be gangster or hood, and that I grew up rich…’ Drake says he and his mom rented the first floor and basement of a house. ‘We were more or less broke, but my mom didn’t want us to live in an area that could create trouble for her son,’ he says. Meanwhile, as Drake grew older and eventually landed the Degrassi role, he became enamored of the good life.” –Michael Paterniti, June 2013 Profile of Drake for GQ magazine.
For all the ridicule and memes Drake gets (and if you frequent this site, you know I’ve been a part of that group), he raises an excellent point—everyone has their bottom. Over the years, I think we (or at least I) have become accustomed to equating struggle with things such as crime, poverty and violence. If we look at the pantheon of revered artists such as OutKast, UGK, E-40, Ice Cube, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and New York’s holy trinity of Notorious B.I.G., Jay Z and Nas, these themes are often reinforced. I don’t say that to build a straw man argument for Drake, but because history anecdotally bares this out. I think a lot of artists with ties to the suburbs have historically had their “struggle” questioned. Drake is the most current example, but he’s far from the only representative.
And I believe the fact that people have been talking about the authenticity of Drake’s struggle since February proves how much we as listeners are drawn to the success narratives of our favorite emcees. This is an issue much larger than Drake. As a fan of Notorious B.I.G., part of his appeal was the “ashy to classy” narrative. As a UGK fan, seeing the legendary duo go from what Bun B once described as, “two broke bastards from off the cuts” to getting long overdue mainstream recognition via an appearance on “Big Pimpin,’” an MTV Award and a Grammy nomination was a form of validation. We like to see our favorite artists win.
As a black man from a low-income area, I have personally gravitated toward many of the artists who I feel best articulate my own life. But over the past 40 years, Hip Hop has resonated not just in the suburbs but out to other countries where fans don’t even speak English. But I think Hip Hop can be a very insular culture at times, and we’re not really checking for the suburbs. If there’s a doubt about someone’s legitimacy in Hip Hop, we often find their background being questioned. I also think that insular mentality is why some rappers straight up lie and pretend to be from lower-income areas. I personally have had a bias against suburban rappers. In my mind, the area Prodigy rhymed about when he said, “There’s a war going on outside no man is safe from” doesn’t include manicured lawns and neighborhood watch meetings. So I automatically tuned out when someone like Chris Webby started rapping about the suburbs. Webby is aware of the perceptions associated with being a suburban, white rapper. And he was real enough to honestly address those perceptions when I asked him about “Crashing Down,” a song that references multiple legal issues, being kicked out of college and his own “inner demons.”
“People have all sorts of assumptions,” Webby said. “Yes, I’m from the suburbs of Connecticut, but that doesn’t mean I’m a rich kid who has this infinite safety net of money behind me. I’m a middle class kid. My mom was a math teacher at a public school, and my dad’s a guitar player. So he did weddings and stuff, and he gives guitar lessons now. But it’s not like I have some super-rich grandparents, and I don’t have some crazy family members funding my career. So [my parents] had the support and love to hold me down whenever I would fuck up. And if it came to it, it’s not like we had no money, so they would hold me down if I needed it.”
As Webby’s example shows, if we’re looking at Hip Hop as both a culture and an art form, then elite storytelling and showmanship encompasses all types of struggles including but not related to: internal conflicts and external conflicts with the environment or others. The majority of Joe Budden’s Mood Muzik series dealt with his own internal struggles with mental health and addiction. Andre 3000’s early rhymes almost exclusively dealt with the typical struggles of a young, black man in an impoverished area. But as OutKast became more successful, we saw a shift in his subject matter. These days, it would be rather jarring to hear “Three Stacks” rhyming about getting drunk at a Howard Johnson with the hoochie he has on deck the way he did in “Player’s Ball.” Kanye West spent the bulk of Watch The Throne, Yeezus and his hour-long interview with Zane Lowe bemoaning the perceived glass ceiling and what it means to be successful and rich yet still an outsider. And, for the better part of his last two albums, Drake has struggled with how fame and wealth have changed him and those around him. Those aren’t things I’d pay 15 bucks to hear someone complain about, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t forms of struggle in and of themselves. And clearly there are plenty of other people interested in those subjects.
Drake & The Perception Of “The Bottom”
This week’s SoundScan numbers aside, it’s been interesting to hear what Drake’s peers think about him. “Started From The Bottom” was among the half dozen singles that Boi-1Da has produced to sell 500,000 or more copies. And while others include Eminem’s “Not Afraid” and as well as Drake’s “Over” and “Headlines,” his initial contribution to Nothing Was The Same resonates with him for a different reason.
“That song means a lot, because despite what anybody thinks about Drake and them making comments about how he didn’t start from the bottom, he did start from the bottom,” Boi-1Da noted in a March interview with HipHopDX. “We all did. We all started from a place that was not where we are now. A lot of people to say that, but it’s not easy for a rapper to come from ‘Degrassi’ and to make it mainstream as one of the biggest rappers in the world.”
The logical counter-argument is that “the bottom” is different from “a place that was not where we are now.” By the time the argument gets to the point of debating a rapper emerging from a rat-infested housing project (or no home at all) versus a rat-infested studio, are we just dealing with semantics? What, if anything does any of that have to do with being able to rhyme well?
“A lot of mothafuckas like to debate Drake’s place in Hip Hop,” Crooked I confirmed in an August interview with HipHopDX. “Drake is a genius. I don’t care if you don’t like his lifestyle and think, ‘Oh, he didn’t grow up in the Eastside of Watts.’ He’s a mothafuckin’ musical genius. Give him his fuckin’ credit…that’s it. We’re not here to analyze niggas’ lives and shit; we here to listen to music. And he makes some of the best music in the fuckin’ world right now.”
Maybe “Started From A Lower Rung On The Socioeconomic Ladder” just doesn’t have that same ring to it. Either way, if Drake is sitting on the number one album in the country, then Crooked I’s statement is true on a lot of different levels. Both paying consumers and Drake’s peers in the industry don’t feel his back-story is enough to dissuade them from enjoying his music. And whether we’re talking about Saafir versus Hieroglyphics in 1994, claiming Tajai “grew up with wing-dings named Buffy and Brad” or T.I. posting up outside of Bowen Homes during his 2008 beef with Shawty Lo, two grown ass men arguing about who grew up poorer is kind of stupid. Living in a low-income area is nothing to be particularly proud or ashamed of, but lying about it is. If Hip Hop has evolved as much as we’d like to believe it has, should it matter what income level a rapper comes from? Perhaps we’ll find out when the next emcee perceived as middle class emerges with a number one album.
Omar Burgess is a Long Beach, California native who has contributed to various magazines, newspapers and has been an editor at HipHopDX since 2008. Follow him on Twitter @OmarBurgess.