How To Make Your Enemies Broadcast Your Criticisms of Them in 99 Easy Steps

About once a year I find myself obsessively watching the gorgeous “99 Problems” music video. Check out how the camera is always looking up or straight at Jay-Z, other than when the car is pulled over and we ‘see’ him the way the cop does, looking down at him. The one exception is when Jay-Z is performing; the viewer looks down to see the audience, who is in turn looking up at Jay-Z. When the camera is supposedly Jay-Z’s POV, it’s always ascending. The cuts are quick and varied and between a dozen scenes, but multiple coherent narratives emerge, and the way the cuts are timed with the music is perfect.

The way this song works on the album and as a single is magical. First, Jay-Z made the flip side of The White Album, one of the best and most famous albums of all time, and made it almost entirely autobiographical. Even without the self-lifting lyrics, that’s hubris at its finest.

Amidst the readings by his mother about how he didn’t cause her pain, amidst stories of childhood which song promotors lap up, amidst songs talking directly to the audience, Jay-Z places “99 Problems.” This song is produced by RickFuckingRubin, who Jay-Z name-drops at the end. Radio producers would probably want to play a song mastered by Rubin; due to his clout, them sucking up, or the fact it’s simply bound to be good.

It’s also the most radio-friendly song, despite – and partly because of – the frequent use of ‘bitches,’ which would become semi-controversial. Not only that, it crowd-pleasingly slams the penal system in general and a couple cops in particular. To top it off there’s the music video, also with appearance by Rubin. All this ensures people want to hear it every-fifth-song on the radio.

So what does Jay-Z do with this song he knows damn well is going to get all of the air time? He opens it with a verse about the music industry screwing him, blackmailing him, and using his image to make money.

I got beef with radio, if I don’t play they show
They don’t play my hits, I don’t give a shit SO
Rap mags try and use my black ass
So advertisers can give ’em more cash for ads. Fuckers.
I don’t know what you take me as,
Or understand the intelligence that Jay-Z has
I’m from rags to ritches niggas I ain’t dumb
I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one

Black-and-White is often used as shorthand for 'look at me I'm artistic,' but sometimes, it's also actually artistic.

Then, with the video he emphasizes you can’t embrace Jay-Z and despise all black youth, old black men, black drug dealers, black families, imprisoned or killed black men, because J-Zay is those things. In addition, Rubin is or could be many of those things, yet is given a pass by society and the industry because, white. 

Perhaps due to the frequent ‘bitches’ and referencing how to dodge drug charges making some stations shy, “99 Problems” wasn’t the top Billboard entry from the album (that would be “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”), but it was a top performer and remains one of the best-known songs of Jay-Z’s career. What he did with the song was simple: ensure his legacy prominently includes his narrative about beating the music industry at their own game.

Stray Observations

– If you click one hyperlink in this whole article, let it be the one in the paragraph above. Trust.
– The inference that jail photographers are the same as paparazzi photographers! 

– Beyoncé takes a similar tack to addressing critics, including internet masses.
– Jay-Z as Christ figure – being shot with arms out against a spiked fence – comes shortly after his reference to a crucifix and at least three other spread-armed poses, from the young boy throwing off a blanket to the dancer with the umbrella to the subway warrior. Discuss.

Looking up and camera right . . . . . . looking down and camera left.

3 Responses to “How To Make Your Enemies Broadcast Your Criticisms of Them in 99 Easy Steps”
  1. Rachel says:

    Jay-Z as Christ figure might represent the crucifixion that is racism. The video portrays crime, jail, drugs, the music industry co-opting his situation and using it for image… all fall outs of racism.

    Is he’s saying that society can’t embrace him, yet hate black youth, because black youth, black culture, etc are violent and about drugs? Or is he saying that crime, violence, drugs, this culture are legacies of racism and society can’t embrace him and simultaneously not address race?

    And the misogyny…

    There’s an episode of Breaking Bad where Jesse and Hank argue over whether or not Hank can search his RV. Hank says he can because he doesn’t need probable cause to search a vehicle, at which point Jesse says it’s his domicile, not a vehicle. This is where I’m up to in Breaking Bad (which, by the way, also uses lots of shots that look up at characters, or show characters interacting from far away. What’s that about?), so perfect timing 🙂

    • Melanie says:

      Unjustly crucified for being black; I like the way you put that. Killed by the cops for looking at them the wrong way. Or, by a rival, for being a member of the wrong gang. We don’t see the shooter; it could be all of the above. The obfuscation is good, too many videos would be blatant and ruin the impact.

      Jay-Z is saying he was a drug dealer, was a black youth, was and is in the ‘street culture,’ will be an old black man, has been targeted by the police because of his race and status as drug dealer. He is all these people portrayed in the video. Yet culture/advertisers/authority embrace him at the same time they reject anyone else who looks like these manifestations of him, simply because they can make money off him. He’s angry and calling this double standard as disingenuous as it is.

      Is the song misogynistic, though? ‘Bitch’ refers to the canine unit who was – under a leaky legal umbrella – coming to smell for drugs in his car, but didn’t get there fast enough. Obviously Jay-Z knows bitch is also used as a derogatory word for women, so does using it with this knowledge mean he is contributing to degrading women? What about when he uses ‘niggas’ here, or in other songs; is he being racist, or even inappropriate? What about when women use the word ‘bitch’ in a joking way towards each other; would it be OK if Jay-Z were female?

      Then he uses ‘pussy’ for wordplay, and one could say him punning it to refer to a weak, loudmouthed guy is negative towards females, or one could say he’s further poking fun at slang terms for women, since the entire song hinges upon a similar term. And then all the above questions apply: is it ‘ok,’ or funny, for a guy to say these things? Would it be ok for a woman? Would it be acceptable for me, a white chick, to sing this or other of Jay-Z’s songs with the racial lyrics intact? What about me singing a song about ‘bitches’? Would it be ok for me to use an ethnic Italian slur in regular life, since I’m Italian? If the appropriateness doesn’t hinge upon the user, where does it hinge?

      Further, because this is definitely art, not simply calling people names for the heck of it, is there a different set of standards?

      I of course don’t think we are going to fully answer all these questions right here in my comments section (though hey, wonderful commentors are here in abundance), but 1. I don’t think the song is misogynistic, and 2. I learn and study through questioning, so here goes.

      • Rachel says:

        Racism, or any prejudice, is a crucifixion in the sense that the potential and talents (of both the oppressed and the oppressor) are unable to flourish. It’s a loss to society, to the planet. In the name of greed, hatred, violence, intolerance, power we have sacrificed immeasurable potential and talent. Jay-Z points out his personal experience of it. His talents are allowed to flourish (kind of… because they are making other people $$), but if the culture/advertisers/authority embrace him (because of money) while at the same time reject others who look like him, then all kinds of things are getting crucified: black culture, black people, art, talent, potential, race relations…

        Your questions are great! And everything I write is up for examination and questioning (I learn this way too!) Misogyny… I do think there’s misogyny in this song. ‘If you’re having girl problems I feel bad for you son, I’ve got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one.’ I understand that by the end of the song ‘bitch’ is referring to the dog, yet in this (repeating) line it’s referring to the girl. Could it be referring to both the dog in one sense, and women? And, girls are referred to as ‘ho’s.

        I think that thinking through what’s ok v. hurtful/derogatory/dehumanizing can only be done through examining the specific situation and context. Understanding the intention and motives of the person using the language.

        Another perspective is that we live in a culture saturated with racism, sexism, and prejudice. So we all are racist and sexist to some degree, and therefore whenever we use oppressive terms we are contributing to prejudice. The moment we claim to be operating outside of the sphere of prejudice, and so it’s ok to use these terms because I’m not racist or sexist, we need to look really hard at our motives and impact on others.

        Another perspective is that it’s a misnomer that girls can call each other ‘bitches’ and it’s ok because they’re girls (extend to all races, identities, etc). We can experience/act out internalized oppression. Just because we’re a member of a group doesn’t mean we aren’t prejudiced towards that group — we all live in the same society, with the same media, etc.

        Another thought — unless we’re actively working against prejudice, are we contributing to the problem? Have you heard of the moving walkway analogy regarding this?

        Another perspective is that marginalized groups take back power and authority when they reclaim oppressive terms for themselves.

        Any thoughts? It’s pretty darn cool that you’re creating space where all kinds of thoughtful dialogue can happen!!!! Lurve it lurve it. TV and media CAN be used to spark dialogue and thoughtful interaction, as you and so many commentators are proving.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: