Music Matters! Rags, Riches, and Racial Profiling: An Analysis of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems”

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Jay-Z, a once lonely, struggling teen turned drug-dealer and eventually a multi-million dollar Rap/ Hip- Hop artist, is perhaps the poster child of rags to riches.  Shawn Carter, Jay-Z’s birth name, was raised in the Marcy Housing Project in Brooklyn, New York with his single mother. Before Jay-Z connected with Jonathon Burks (Jaz-O), whom he viewed as a father figure and mentor when first starting his Rap career, Jay-Z spent most of his adolescence selling crack cocaine; a common theme in most of his songs, namely “99 Problems,” which allowed Jay-Z to connect with his audience and grow from rags to riches. “99 Problems” was released in 2003 on The Black Album and walks listeners through an encounter between a colored man and, presumably, a white police officer. While the main theme of the song appears to be about Jay-Z’s lucky escape from the law, the song also touches on real life issues such as racial profiling and even relates to current issues such as Kyleigh’s Law. For a more in-depth explanation of the history, meaning, and implications of Jay-Z’s song “99 Problems” listen to our podcast linked here. To view the lyrics discussed in the podcast click here.

The biographical information mentioned about Jay-Z and his work with Jaz-O was guided by the information in Zack O’Malley Greenburg’s book Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office.* The information provided in our podcast regarding The Black Album and its cover art was guided by the information on Similarly, our lyric analysis described in the podcast was guided and supplemented by the information provided on Likewise, samples found in Jay-Z’s work that are discussed in the podcast were found with the help of Finally, our information regarding racial profiling on the Turnpike and its relation to Kyleigh’s Law was guided by the information provided by Cornell University’s study on Driving While Black.

As for musical references, our opening sequence is the official instrumental of ZZZ Top by Aesop Rock. This contains samples from Henry Rollins: On the State of Music Today and Freaks and Geeks—“You Know Those Sex Pistols?.” The conclusion of our podcast is by none other than Jay-Z himself with Public Service Announcement/My Name is Hov.

*Citation for Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office:

GreenBurg, Zack O’Malley. Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office. New York: Portfolio/Penguin Trade, 2012. Print.

Group Members: Bobby, Bernadette, Patrick, and Theresa


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