BY ELI KABERON
A central theme in rap music has always been representing. Shouting out where someone was raised, the neighborhood they live and the city they claim is a necessity for any rapper. Go through history and try to find one MC who didn’t have at least one song about representing. It’s impossible; they’ve all done it.
In this week’s Word Is Bond, I wanted to take a look at maybe my favorite song on the subject. No surprise, it’s by my favorite rapper of all-time. Jay-Z’s “Where I’m From” takes representing to a new level, giving all the grimy details on what life was like for a young Shawn Carter growing up in Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects.
Song: “Where I’m From”
Album: In My Lifetime, Vol. 1
I’m from the place where the church is the flakiest
And niggas been praying to god so long that they Atheist
Where you can’t put your vest away and say you’ll wear it tomorrow
Cause the day after, we’ll be saying, ‘Damn, I was just with him yesterday’
I’m a block away from hell, not enough shots away from straight shells
An ounce away from a triple beam still using a hand-held weight scale
Your laughing, you know the place well
Where the liquor store’s and the base well
And Government, fuck Government, niggas politic themselves
Where we call the cops the A-Team
cause they hop out of vans and spray things
And life expectancy so low we making out wills at 18
Where how you get rid of guys who step out of line, your rep solidifies
So tell me when I rap you think I give a fuck who criticize?
If the shit is lies, god strike me
And I got a question, are you forgiving guys who live just like me?
We’ll never know
One day I pray to you and said if I ever blow, I’d let ’em know
Mistakes ain’t exactly what takes place in the ghetto
Promise fulfilled, but still I feel my job ain’t done
Cough up a lung, where I’m from, Marcy son
Ain’t nothing nice
The song samples the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Me and My Bitch,” and the two tracks have similar tones and flows. On “Where I’m From,” Jay isn’t trying to sugarcoat anything or make his hood seem better or worse than it actually is. He’s giving the grimy details. And the details show Brooklyn to be a place where, as he puts it, “ain’t nothing nice.”
Listening to the song, you start to picture the place Jay-Z is describing. “Praying to God so long that they Atheist” shows how alone the people there feel, that nothing they’ve ever asked for has come to pass. The anecdote about the vest is so casual and nonchalant that it seems just normal to hang out with an acquaintance one day and find out they’ve been shot dead the next. “Fuck government, niggas politics themselves” is kind of obvious, and shows the bigger issue of the disconnect between the people in Brooklyn and the outside world. The fact that someone at age 18 needs to have a will is the greatest example, that anyone who lives to their 20s is considered a survivor of the mean streets.
Throughout all of it (verses one and three deserve A+ grades themselves), Jay-Z displays swagger and passion towards the words he’s saying. He lived there and now he wants you to feel like you lived there too. Nobody in rap switches up their style on a song-to-song, verse-to-verse, or even line-to-line basis better than Jay, and “Where I’m From” is a prime example of that. He speeds up and slows down his flow when needed, emphasizing specific words to give them extra punch. The city-sounds beat in the background goes right along with it, making it seem like you’re listening to these words live on a street corner in Marcy, not through speakers or headphones. And the end, “Cough up a long, where I’m from, Marcy son / Ain’t nothin nice” – which is also the chorus – makes the loudest impact of all, a verbal throat-clearing and clarifying of where Jay is representing and what makes it the breeding ground for the best rapper of all-time.