Keeping It Real

Dreams, Mind-Alteration, & Misperception in Hip-Hop

by Quentin B. Huff

26 September 2010

Image (partial) from the cover of Sho Baraka's Lions & Liars 


Sleep and death force our protagonists into confusion over fact and fiction.High-inducing substances like alcohol and marijuana alter the senses. A third category involves the manipulation of perception through delusion or subterfuge. That is, the narrator is either mistaken or deliberately misled.

Self-delusion and paranoia come with the territory of hardcore rap. Artists paint vivid descriptions of characters who have taken permanent residence in solitude and isolation. They are constantly looking over their shoulders, always worried about the consequences of past actions catching up to them. Songs like the Geto Boys’ “My Mind Playing Tricks” underscore this phenomenon, with Scarface, Willie D, and Bushwick Bill facing delusions of psychiatric proportions. Stress and paranoia are their biggest enemies. “Four walls closin’ in gettin’ bigger / I’m paranoid sleepin’ wit’ my finger on the trigger,” Scarface confesses.

Ice Cube’s “Today Was a Good Day” brings us a fantasy of his ideal day. For Ice Cube, that means “a breakfast with no hog”, the comfort of stopping the car at a red light without worrying about carjackers, playing a good game of basketball, and getting phone calls from women he’s actually interested in.  The bad news is that it’s not real—at least not for him. It’s a fantasy, a daydream of sorts, which gives it the dreamlike quality we discussed earlier. “What the f**k am I thinkin’ about?” he asks. Things are not what they seem, nor are they constant. There’s a lesson in rap’s handling of fantasy and reality, and that lesson is simple: everything changes and perception is relative. The trick is to somehow keep things in perspective, and not be too swayed by the extremes.

Sometimes, the narrator’s “delusion” is simply the result of a miscalculation. DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince’s “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson” illustrates this in a humorous way, with Will Smith (“The Fresh Prince”) challenging boxer Mike Tyson to a showdown in the ring. They go through the process of publicizing the fight and having press conferences. The Fresh Prince actually holds his own for the first few seconds of the fight, but Tyson deflates him with a single punch to the ribs (”[A]nd my insides shook”).  The Fresh Prince’s miscalculation? Obviously, it’s thinking he had a prayer of beating Mike Tyson.

A more serious example is Eminem’s Dido-assisted “Stan”. This tale involves an obsessed Eminem fan who has been writing letters to Eminem hoping for a response. His letters, brought to life through Eminem’s verses, are as detailed as they are passionate. They are also troubled, displaying a disturbing inability to separate his love for Eminem’s lyrics from reality (“See, everything you say is real”).  Ultimately, Eminem responds to his fan, but his letter is too late to stop Stan’s suicidal and homicidal plan. Drunk, with his pregnant girlfriend tied up in the trunk, Stan drives his car over a bridge. Stan’s miscalculation? Thinking that Eminem’s lack of response to his letters was the result of apathy rather than a busy schedule—and blowing it out of proportion. Oh, yeah—the getting drunk and tying the girlfriend up in the trunk and driving off the road thing is a big “oops” as well. Eminem’s mistake? Not realizing the power of his words and the effect they might have over people, although writing and recording the song seems to show that he kind of gets it.

Tupac Shakur’s “Papa’z Song” works the same angle. Tupac and his stepbrother Mopreme set the stage with their verses, lamenting in vivid detail the struggles they faced as they transitioned from childhood to young adulthood in the absence of a compassionate and caring father figure (“Please send me a pops before puberty / the things I wouldn’t do to see a piece of family unity”). Their lamentations quickly give way to acrimony, and the more they take stock of their family history, the angrier they become. The final verse, however, is a stroke of genius that belongs to “papa” (given life through Tupac’s distorted vocals), who explains himself as a man who wasn’t a deadbeat dad—he had unfortunately fallen prey to a series of unforgiving circumstances. Caught up in the criminal justice system and unable to get back to his family, “papa” wanted his kids to have a happy childhood but things didn’t work out the way he’d hoped. The miscalculation? The boys missing their father and thinking his absence was deliberate. The father’s miscalculation? Thinking he could escape the penal system and get back to the normalcy of family life.

These tales of miscalculation are almost Shakespearean in their tragic turns and twists. Brother Ali’s “Dorian”, for instance, finds our heroic narrator trying to break up a domestic dispute between his neighbors.  Dorian, the disrespectful neighbor, takes his anger out on his girlfriend and their kid, and when Ali decides to intervene, Dorian takes exception.  Dorian’s rude behavior towards Brother Ali’s wife is the last straw, and Ali makes the confrontation physical.  “It seemed that he invited my right fist for a party on his left cheek,” he quips. Imagine Brother Ali’s shock and awe when he learns that Dorian’s girlfriend calls the police on Brother Ali, thereby protecting the man who had been so abusive to her and her child. Brother Ali is like, “Damn, that was not the plan.” Total and complete miscalculation.

Louis Logic & JJ Brown’s “A Perfect Circle” represents the ultimate in miscalculation (and being a stalker). Fascinated by a woman he’d met while randomly dialing phone numbers, Louis Logic’s main character disguises his voice and pretends to be taking Census information in an official capacity. Armed with information his formerly anonymous flame has given him, he stakes out her place and becomes jealous of the company she’s keeping with another man. Well, that just won’t do, will it? So he breaks into her place, armed this time with more than information—he’s got a gun! Someone enters the place, our hapless narrator gets a shot off, and it turns out that he has accidentally shot the woman he thinks he loves! The first miscalculation? Thinking it’s a good idea to meet the love of one’s life over the telephone. The second miscalculation? Thinking it’s a good idea to break into somebody’s house with a gun and lie in wait. The third miscalculation? Not realizing that his slim chances of succeeding under the first miscalculation had actually worked! Louis Logic’s main character reads the woman’s diary (yeah, he does this) and learns that she too was infatuated with her “mystery man” on the telephone. 

Nevertheless, manipulating perceptions is work best done by others, and is usually more surprising to the deceived individual than self-delusions or miscalculations. A playful example can be found in MC Lyte’s “Absolutely Positively…Practical Jokes”. MC Lyte portrays a perennial prankster who plays practice jokes on her neighbor Ms. Davis.  Come to think of it, rappers seem to have a lot of issues with their neighbors.  At any rate, the bad news for Lyte is that turnabout is fairplay, as Ms. Davis sets up a revenge prank by making Lyte believe she needs Lyte to deliver an important, time-sensitive package (“It absolutely positively has to get there!”).  MC Lyte’s journey to deliver this package is epic—she battles traffic, almost crashes into the back of a Honda, runs out of gas, has her car towed, rebuffs drug addicts looking for money, and has to change a flat tire. When Lyte finds out what’s inside the package she’s been transporting, she sounds livid (“A box of f*ckin’ Q-Tips, man!”). Not exactly earth shattering business but still it qualifies as manipulation. Perhaps the frivolity of it makes it that much more manipulative.

Such manipulation can have more serious repercussions. KRS-One, under the Boogie Down Productions moniker, crafted a narrative to explore some of these consequences in “13 & Good”. In this song, the narrator mistakes a 13 year old girl for a 26 year old woman! “She looked to be about 26, I ain’t dizzy,” the narrator asserts. I have to wonder if maybe the narrator is suffering from Black Sheep’s aforementioned “Strobelite Honey” syndrome.  Anyway, the rest of the song, for me, is a slippery slope of shocking decisions. 

Shock number one: upon discovering this girl is 13, KRS-One’s narrator continues to talk about how “good” the sexual experience was. Say what?!

Shock number two: after professing her desire to be with the narrator forever and facing his rejection, the girl calls her father who turns out to be a police chief. “If I can’t have you, no one will,” she taunts him. “And I ain’t even on the pill.” Wow! 

Shock number three: Daddy, the police chief, arrives at the narrator’s apartment with his gun and (mini-shock number one) nearly beats his daughter senseless before (mini-shock number two) offering KRS-One’s narrator the proposition of being the chief’s personal playmate. “You can see my daughter anytime, anywhere,” he says. “But it’s you that I want to be mine / The price tag is your behind.” OMG, really?

Common’s Kanye West-produced “Testify” follows suit with the machinations of a conniving villainess. By manipulating the judge and jury during the song’s courtroom scene, a guilty woman manages to look like the victim as she successfully pins the blame on her partner. The prosecutor doesn’t realize the plot until this shrewd, guilty lady starts laughing after the guilty verdict is official and announced to the court.

Perception becomes reality, at least for the individual being manipulated, and the person who controls or shapes perception is powerful indeed. Perhaps that’s the biggest lesson to be learned from the “Keeping It Real” concept. That is, understanding the power of the spoken word and its ability to expand and mold the listener’s viewpoint.

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