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
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.
– 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.