Encore: A Look at Jay-Z’s Law Lyrics Across his Career

In Never Change 2.1, the study which looked at drugs, guns, criminal and law references throughout Jay-Z’s discography, the law theme had the lowest mentions but was the most consistent throughout his career and has a particular allure because of the way it was referenced. Jay-Z’s relationship with the criminal justice system is something he continually acknowledged, but how he interacts with it changes with the longevity  and success of his career.

His first album, Reasonable Doubt and his latest album, Magna Carta Holy Grail (MCHG) both contain legal references. Reasonable doubt is a legal term defined as a standard of proof used in criminal trials to find a defendant guilty of a crime. The Magna Carta was a peace treaty between barons and King John of England in 1215. It failed because war broke out. However, the treaty was used as the cornerstone for the democratic development of England and the United States.Of great interest to the later generations of “rulers” was Clause 39 of the Magna Carta, which stated “no free man shall be arrested or imprisoned or disseised [dispossessed] or outlawed or exiled or in any way victimised…except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.” This is how you get a reasonable doubt.

In the commercial for MCHG, the rap mogul called the internet the “wild west—wild wild west” with its relationship to music and there is a “need to write the new rules.” For the album, Jay worked out a deal with Samsung to allow the first million owners of Galaxy S III, Galaxy S4 and Galaxy Note II devices to download the album three days before it was officially released on Independence Day of 2013. This forced the RIAA to change the rules of how music sales are quantified. But the rapper, born Shawn Carter from Marcy Projects didn’t always have that pull. The ability to succeed as a drug dealer and stay out of the long arm of the law was one of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems.”

“A million…”
Taking it back to 1995, Jay-Z was hungry for success, but was aware of the pitfalls of his hustling career. On his first single, “In My Lifetime,” Jay rhymed, “If I’mma risk a frisk, gettin’ my wrists wrapped up in steel/I’m out here trying to make a mill’, my shit is real for real.” One year later he ups the quantity:

I keep it tight for all the nights my momma prayed I’d stop
Said she had dreams that snipers hit me with a fatal shot
Those nightmares, ma, those dreams that you say you’ve got
Give me the chills but these mills, well, they make me hot.
“Feelin It,” Reasonable Doubt, 1996

By 1998, Jay-Z is steadily climbing the ladder of success and has some choice words regarding the legal system. On “Money, Cash, Hoes” (Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life), he said, “While y’all player hate we in the upper millions…/I’m trying to restore the feelings; f—k the law, keep dealing!” But it didn’t end there. On “Coming of Age (Da Sequel),” the rapper was, “mouth[ing] off at the cops, outta cranberry drops.” Then on the collabo “Reservoir Dogs,” featuring The Lox, Beanie Sigel and Sauce Money, Hov spat, “I just sit on my money til I’m above the law.”

Free Jay!
It was all good until 1999 when Jay- Z was arrested for the stabbing of Lance “Un Rivera” in a nightclub.  On “Guilty until Proven Innocent” featuring R. Kelly, Jay spits, “Arrested, put in the lineup, tryin’ to put dents in my armor/But I’m a survivor, plus I’m liver than most/Out on bail, fifty thou’, still ridin’ with toast.” Riding with toast became problematic in 2001 when Jay-Z is arrested for weapon possession when a loaded handgun was found in his car. But ya boy got off and had something to say about it on The Blueprint track “Izzo”: “Cops want to knock me, D.A. wants to box me in/But somehow I beat them charges like Rocky…Not guilty…” On The Black Album, Hov lets us know that in just three years, his bail money increased 10-fold with, “half a mil’ for bail cause I’m African.” The rapper may also be acknowledging the bias in the criminal justice system where Blacks ages 18-29 received significantly higher bail amounts than other races due to factors such as low socioeconomic status which hinders them from posting bail, but allows the prison industrial complex to profit.

Jay-Z reenacting his driving while black verse  in “99 Problems”

In 2004, the rapper retired…

In 2006, the rapper returned…

For his homecoming, Mr. Carter (while serving as president of Def Jam) released Kingdom Come. On “Do U Wanna Ride” featuring John Legend, he raps to his friend Emory Jones who was incarcerated. Somewhere in between talking about the finer things, Jay acknowledges that “some of us made it, most of us digressed/In the name of those who ain’t made it, my progress/We show success, please live through me.”  Those who didn’t make it refers to the grim fates of hustlers that are either dead or in jail. So for his fellow hustler behind bars, he says “Up in the fed, and still holdin’ his head/So when he hits the streets he gon’ eat through this bread.”

For American Gangster, Jay is deep in the drug game. He’s back at square one, Albee Square in the 9-0 (“Hello Brooklyn 2.0”) more specifically. The album based on the biopic of Harlem hustler, Frank Lucas has legal references, reminds the listener whether it’s the 1970s, 1990s or 2000s when it comes to crooked cops, “what WE call corrupt, THEY call paying dues.” This relationship between dealers and officers is an acquiescent one but if you know how to play the game, it can be beneficial for your freedom. In “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is)” Hova reiterates, “Boys in blue who put green before the badge…”

“Talk yo ish”

Braggadocio has been a part of hip hop culture since day one. It’s not limited to the boasting about being the best, the nicest, the flyest and the most (you fill in the blank). Rappers claim to be and have things that don’t even exist and do things that are not even possible. Hova is no exception. However, when it comes to the law and success, it took him awhile to get to where he is. Jay-Z is at a level where has some immunity that he didn’t have when his first album dropped.

In the song “As Real as it Gets” off of the Blueprint 3, Jay said he will “probably never see to jail,” then two years later on “Otis”(Watch The Throne), Jay corrects his speech and says, he will “never go to jail.” How? The rapper may flee in a G450, has five passports and can purchase political asylum. Political asylum doesn’t cost anything but is lengthy in paperwork and processing, so if he had to expedite it, you know what time it is—Hublot, homie! This is the same guy, who in his first single said he might risk a frisk to see a mill, now his form of transportation costs on average a whopping $40 million.

But Jay didn’t stop there. On MCHG (the “new rules” album), said what can be deemed the craziest thing as far as law is concerned. He raps to Beyoncé, the love of his life, “Ray Bans on, police in sight/Oh what a beautiful death, let’s both wear white/If you go to heaven and they bring me to hell/Just sneak out and meet me, bring a box of L’s.” What? Who says that? Really, B?

We are all trying to figure it out.

Let’s rewind. Hov sees 5-O, instead of getting apprehended, Jay-Z and his lady—as outlaws—would rather die than be incarcerated.* OK, last time I checked, once you go to heaven or hell, that’s it. This man just told his “thoroughest girl” to sneak out of paradise with some Mary Jane. So now he’s breaking rules that aren’t even of the material world. He’s defying everything which explains why the Mrs. on “Don’t Hurt Yourself” referred to her hubby as a “Bad mother—ker, God complex.” And one day…it all makes sense…Or braggadocio at its’ finest.

“Let’s both wear white,” he said. Jay-Z and Beyoncé as Bonnie and Clyde for their “On the Run” tour trailer.

“I do this for my culture”

Up until now, the focus has mainly been on Jay-Z’s personal interactions with the legal system. As a mogul, he has his hands in various ventures, one being with Barneys New York. When a young black man from Brooklyn was racially profiled in the luxury retail store. The streets were not only watching, but waiting to see what Jay was going to say or do. In the end, Barney increased the sales proceeds from twenty-five to a hundred per cent to The Shawn Carter Foundation, which gives scholarships to inner city youth like those who were profiled. Mr. Carter addressed the issue on the Rick Ross track, “The Devil is a Lie“, “You seen what I did to the stop and frisk/Brooklyn on the Barney’s like we own the b—ch/Give the money to the hood, now we all win/Got that Barney’s floor lookin’ like a VIM.”

Although he is not always front and center about injustices like other rappers (and caught heat from legendary activist Harry Belafonte for not being vocal about the injustices that affecting the Black community) he will call out issues (Jena Six) be present (Trayvon Martin rally) or donate money to various causes (Black Lives Matter, Hurricane Katrina). Shawn Corey Carter understands his power and knows the impact his visibility has on his fans and events. In his response to the civil rights activist Jay-Z says, “the purest form of giving is anonymous to anonymous” and ends the track with, “You don’t know all the shit I do for the homies.”

Lately, he has also been quiet on the solo music front. Jay-Z hasn’t dropped an album in three years but was featured on a few singles. The latest being “I Got the Key” by DJ Khaled and featuring Future. Jay raps, “I got a bag for lawyers, like, “F—k your charges!”/Hop out the courtroom, like, “What charges?”/Big pimpin’ on your court steps/Case y’all ain’t notice, I ain’t lost yet.” As oppose to a blue collar crime, Jay-Z is referencing to a white collar crime (copyright infringement) that he won, and reconfirms what he once said, “simply, I will not lose.”

For the video “I Got the Keys,” Jay-Z is being released from a correctional facility, but he isn’t in a jumpsuit like the others. He is in a crisp white button-down shirt and black pants and temporarily wears handcuffs before he is freed. Moreover, in one of the scenes he is separated from the incarcerated population and has a light shining on him, like he’s being blessed while they are in the shadows. His rap comrades wearing black suits are outside facing officers in helmets with rifles. A subtle way of saying US versus THEM when it comes to the legal system.

An “incarcerated” Jay-Z  in the “I Got the Keys” video.

Success and longevity commandeered the way Jay-Z viewed the legal system. Throughout his discography, Hova also rapped cautionary bars to those up and coming or to those who never learned the lesson. For example, on his sixth album, Jay tells hustlers, “Chains is cool to cop, but more important is lawyer fees. ”

As Georgetown University law professor Paul Butler noted, “On the social meaning of punishment…the hip-hop nation virtually speaks as one…the central point of agreement between gangsta rap and conscious hip-hop is their joint critique of American criminal justice, especially its heavy reliance on prison.” The same can be said of those who are aware of the systemic injustices that inflict marginalized communities no matter their status. Jay-Z is no exception, but he is not necessarily rapping about getting over the law, but beating the odds—whether in life or death.

* With the current state of extrajudicial killings in America, who knows how it would play out.


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