Friday, September 4, 2009

23. Jay-Z "99 Problems" (2004)

I don't know if I count 99 of them, but Jay Z certainly has a cornucopia of gripes: critics, the police, rival rappers, the rap media, a racist district attorney. The number doesn't quite reach the triple digit: he makes it clear that a "bitch ain't one" of those titular problems.

Throughout the song's triptych of verses, Jay Z confronts his adversaries with swagger and defiance. But it's the second verse that especially stands out. As he recounts a run-in with the law, Jay-Z deftly switches perspective between the police officer and himself. In a virtuoso example of rhyming and storytelling, Jay-Z enters a battle of wits with the officer:
Officer: "License and registration and step out of the car. Are you carryin' a weapon on you I know a lot of you are?"

Jay-Z: "I ain't steppin out of shit all my paper's legit"

Officer: "Well, do you mind if I look round the car a little bit?"

Jay-Z: "Well my glove compartment is locked, so is the trunk in the back. And I know my rights so you gon' need a warrant for that."

Officer: "Aren't you sharp as a tack, you some type of lawyer or something? Or somebody important or somethin'?"

Jay-Z: "Nah, I ain't pass the bar but I know a little bit. Enough that you won't illegally search my shit"
While Rick Rubin's album version is great, Danger Mouse's mash-up of the song, with the Beatle's "Helter Skelter," is brilliant. Unfortunately, as Danger Mouse didn't actually secure the rights to the two songs, it's also very illegal.

Whatever the version, the lyric, not the music, is the star of "99 Problems." And for that, Jay-Z has earned the right to swagger.

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