Every morning for the past month, as I start getting dressed, I have sung (or is it rapped?) the hook to a song entitled, "BMF (Blowin' Money Fast)" by rapper, Rick Ross. It goes:
I think I'm Big Meech, Larry Hoover
real [expletive] gettin money from the [expetive] start
For those unfamiliar, Big Meech and Larry Hoover are the alleged leaders of two of America's most notorious organized crime units - Black Mafia Family and Gangster Disciples, respectively. I know I am nothing like these two men. I don't really think I'm Big Meech, nor do I really think I'm Larry Hoover, but I know I am a person who needs his music to be hard and aggressive to help get my day started.
These days, all I am listening to are songs like, "BMF" and artists like Freddie Gibbs - a gangsta rapper hailing from Gary, Indiana. It's all the type of music my mother would be horrified to hear, with sinister lyrics and gruesome tales of a hard knock life I only saw glimpses of growing up. Today, I have even less of a personal attachment to gangsta rap's message. My impressionable years are behind me. I have made more right decisions than wrong ones and logged in more hours in classrooms than on street corners. And yet, all I want to listen to is music people describe using very bleak nouns as adjectives - like "killa" and "crack" (as in the drug).
Gibbs' brand new mixtape (and its subsequent EP) is the latest example of the type of music I'm talking about, all the way down to the title, Str8 Killa No Filla. The mixtape's single, "National Anthem (F*ck The World)" is all eerie strings and lo-fi drum sequencing, with the grim lyrics to go with it. Gibbs raps: "Beneath the streets of Gary will I make it out, I wonder/could my obituary be the next they read amongst us." A quick glance at the album's other song titles are also a good gauge of Str8 Killa's content, songs like "Face Down", "Dollar$ 4 Dope", and the "The Ghetto" are as dark as the names of these songs imply. But the thing is, they're good, really good. Especially, "The Ghetto", Gibbs' ode to the mean small-town streets of Gary he grew up in.
"BMF", from Rick Ross's critically acclaimed new album, Teflon Don is another song I have on repeat. To say nothing of Ross himself, who a couple years ago was exposed as once being a correctional officer - a big rapper no-no - the man has made a stellar album, and though the production is a lot brighter than anything on Gibbs' Str8 Killa, the lyrics are just as unlawful.
Neither Ross or Gibbs rap about a life I live, but oddly enough, there's something about both albums I find motivational. It's as if to say, I in no way want to be like Big Meech and Larry Hoover in the literal sense, but I hope to one day have as much success legally as they did illegally. Or, when listening to someone like Gibbs whose tales of the hard never tire, I can almost feel that same frustration. I may have made it out of my small hometown, but when I was living there, there were plenty of days I wondered if they would take me under too.
It may seem preposterous that anything deriving from gangsta rap is motivational. Rap has always been as much about senseless violence and urban decay as it has been uplifting and inspiring; rom its early years as N.W.A's calling card back in the late 1980's and early 1990's, to rappers like Scarface with his group the Geto Boys, and Jay-Z in the mid 90's, all the way up to the turn of the century when artists like DMX and Ruff Ryders were representing their rough upbringings in their hoods. The cloak of controversy surrounding artists who depicted the worst of urban America were deemed as being part of the problem, not part of the solution, and for a long time, I enjoyed mixing it up in such debates.
But these days, I could care less whether or not my music holds a positive message. I just need it to be good. It can be dark. It can be shocking. But I don't need it to always come with a message for me to change the world. When Lupe Fiasco - a rapper who has built a brand out of nerdy, alternative, positive hip-hop music - made his own version of Ross's "BMF (Blowin' Money Fast)", entitled "BMF (Building Minds Faster)", and replaced the names of Big Meech and Larry Hoover, with Malcolm X and Martin Luther, I thought it was clever. I also thought Lupe more than handled his own over the thunderous beat. But did I enjoy it more because it was a more positive message than what is found in Ross's version? Well, according to my Play Count list on my iPod, I have listened to Ross's version of "B.M.F." 28 times; Lupe Fiasco's version, five.
Not all music should glamorize the underworld, and I do find it disheartening to hear these songs come from the mouths of kids who are nowhere near the age to buy anything adorning a Parental Advisory sticker without a parent, it doesn't mean the music is less than. All music should be measured in ways that go beyond the moral fiber of its message. The production should be rich, the lyricism and topics must have range, the collaborations need to make sense, and the album as a whole should be one we can listen to from beginning to end. When people say all certain artists do is rap about guns and killing people, I have to wonder if all the listener does is listen to one song by the artist or if they're listening at all. Some of those songs about guns, violent as they are, are good, and I don't have to be a gangsta to enjoy them.
Jozen Cummings is the author and creator of the popular relationship blog Until I Get Married, which is currently in development for a television series with Warner Bros. He also hosts a weekly podcast with WNYC about Empire called Empire Afterparty, is a contributor at VerySmartBrothas.com and works at Twitter as an editorial curator. Follow him on Twitter.