“I’D RATHER DIE ENORMOUS/THAN LIVE DORMANT/THAT’S HOW WE ON IT/I’LL BET A TRIP TO MAUI ON IT!”
JAY-Z, “CAN I LIVE?” – REASONABLE DOUBT (1996)
No other rapper has been as consistent as Jay-Z over the last 15 years. Churning out radio hits and classic albums over countless summers can attest to that. And the themed stories haven’t changed much since his first album: he grew up in the hood, sold drugs, and transitioned into a successful mogul. On the surface, his subject matter often seems contrived and self-indulgent, but a keener look at Jay’s material illustrates his ability to convey a three-dimensional thug consciousness.
Charles Darwin’s concept of “survival of the fittest,” or natural selection, is based on one’s ability to adapt to changes in their immediate, local environment—and survive as a result. If we look at his early material we find the same arches that his music contains today. “Can I Live?,” from Jay’s classic album Reasonable Doubt, explores Darwin’s theory of natural selection and what that means/looks like in the context of black ghettos. The result is an analysis of what exactly motivates criminal minded individuals.
Jay precludes the track by declaring, “we hustle out of a sense of hopelessness/sort of a desperation.” The desperation he describes refers to the hopelessness found in impoverished neighborhoods and the deferred dreams of its inhabitants that “feel [they] have nothin’ to lose.” Folk who are poor and live in conditions that breed low expectations for the future are so desperate they offer their lives to survive. He asks, “what do you bring to the table?”
It is from that perspective that all other virtues follow in the hood. The nihilistic hopelessness that he grew up in, allows him to justify selling crack; even though at his core he knows the very act of selling drugs, to people in his own community, is inherently immoral: “through that desperation,” he says, “we ‘come addicted/sorta like the fiends we accustomed to servin.’” Jay’s spot-on analysis on this track is tempered, with a delicate balance that shows how the crack–cocaine epidemic impacted fiends and their dealers.
His internal struggle between immoral acts and his addiction to fast money—and security—haunts him. He spits, “I’m tired/a brotha got admire from four fiends away/my pain/wish it was quick to see/from sellin cane/’til brains was fried to a fricassee.” His wealth and prosperity was directly connected to the demise of others and their fried brains. He also shows repulsion by the effect of his dealings has on his immediate environment, but seduced by the lining in his pockets.
While he mourns his acts after the fact, he “cant lie/at the time it never bothered [him].” For Jay, the immediate, local environment he adapted to meant he would die in obscurity or gain wealth through the most lucrative means in the hood; the underground economy. He did not care about how he destroyed folk’s lives because he was “happy to be escapin’ poverty/ however brief.” His desperation to escape poverty meant he had to be willing to put his morality on the line, and risk going to jail by “committing atrocious acts like [he’s] got immunity.” But in the end “[they] all fiends/[they] gotta do it/even righteous minds got through it.”
Jay’s Darwinian slant is manifested here: “lock my body/cant trap my mind, easily/why we adapt to crime/I’d rather die enormous than live dormant.” How would Darwin respond to Jay’s interpretation of his theory? Can he live?
“Either your slangin crack rock/or you got a wicked jump shot.” Thank God for Hip-Hop.
*This is The Word…govern yourselves accordingly.