Song of the decade? Ahhh, if we must. Somewhat surprising, then, that it wasn't a bigger hit: #30 on the Billboard Hot 100, #10 on Hot Rap Tracks, and only the third-biggest hit off The Black Album, behind "Dirt off Your Shoulder" (maybe understandable) and "Change Clothes" (really?). Indeed, I remember opening my ears wide whenever I listened to '04 radio, trying to catch a glimpse of Rick Rubin's massive beats or power chords. It was like seeking the attributes of some rare bird--a giant redheaded woodpecker, maybe, or a bluebird, amid countless robins and wrens. Amid the Hoobastank. (I remember Scott Seward complaining on ILX, in a now-unsearchable post, memorable for its pathos, that he kept hearing "The Reason" when all he wanted to hear was "99 Problems.") But whether because of its language or because the world wasn't ready, we didn't hear it nearly enough.
Jay-Z himself goes back and forth on the issue: "Got beef with radio; if I don't play they show, they don't play my hits--well I don't give a shit, so..." Which is it, Jay? Beef or not giving a shit? Can we safely say that this is the dialectic that defines the song? Do I even know what a dialectic is? Does that matter? (If a dialectic falls on ignorant ears, does it still exist?) "99 Problems" raises many questions, not least of which is: Is there really a Wilson Pickett sample in this song?
The songs credited for samples, presumably for the drum sounds, are Billy Squier's "The Big Beat" and Mountain's "Long Red," which have been used on 99% of rap songs in the world. (Not sure about the cowbell.) The title and lead couplet come from Ice T's slightly more--shall we say?--pedantic '93 non-hit "99 Problems":
*.*.*.IFyou / HAVin'GIRL_PROBlemsIfeel / BADforYOUson*iGOT_ /
NINEtyNINE_PROBlemsBUTa / BITCHain't-one*
At the beginning of Verse 3, Jay also quotes a Bun B verse:
*.*.*.*once / UPon-aTIME_NOTtoo / LONG_Ago*aNIGga /
LIKEmySELF.HADtoSTRONG_ / ARM_Ahoe*.THISis /
NOTaHOE_INtheSENSEof / HAVin'ApusSY.*but(a) /
PUSsyHAVin'noGODdam-sense / -.TRYan'PUSHme*. /
(FORMATTING NOTE: Since underlining appears to be impossible, I'm using unorthodox italics to indicate triplets, as above.)
You can read the title couplet a couple ways: Jay's got lots of problems, but his woman's not one of them (this was during the winky-winky period of his relationship with Beyonce); or, he can easily overcome those "bitches"--foes, critics, radio, magazines, cops, Bun B's "pussies havin' no goddam sense"--who are the cause of his problems. Hence the dialectic: Jay spends the entire song in an extended reverie of beef, but his swagger and humor are such that you never doubt he'll overcome. He ends Verse 2, for instance, in a state of uncertainty--he's got drugs in his trunk and the cop says, "We'll see how smart you are when the canines come." Eek! But we know he'll make it out of the situation, because it took place back in '94, and 10 years later he's a business, man. He's SuperJay! He doesn't have to give a shit, so...
Here's one of two great scenes in Jay's concert movie documentary Fade to Black (the other is when an prancing Timbaland plays beats for Jay, finally arriving at the one for "Dirt Off Your Shoulder"): Jay wants to reconnect with the Old School, so he goes to Rick Rubin's house, raps some Chuck D, says hi to a tickled Mike D (strange to think Jay looking up to the Beastie Boys, but there you go), and lays down "99 Problems." Check out the part 3 minutes in, where Jay imitates the cop's voice, working to perfect his comic pronunciation of "lawyer":
Jay's working method is reputedly this: he listens to the beat, goes off in a corner somewhere, and emerges with a fully-formed lyric that exists only inside his head. (And I'm happy when I can do the Jumble without a pencil!) I can't make too many claims, in part because this is the only Jay song I've looked at so far, in part because artistic intent is a mysterious nebulous cloud of pixie dust, but it seems like such a technique might make him more sensitive to how his lyrics interact with the beat. For instance?
For instance: if you go back to the song itself, at around 2:20 you'll hear just Rick Rubin's basic beat pattern, sans lyrics, guitar, or cowbell. Here's the flowtated beat pattern, without differentiation between the drum sounds (lines equal hits, dots and asterisks equal rests):
-.-_-.*. / *_-_-_-.
Notice that the second bar of the pattern has no downbeat. This drum pattern occurs throughout most of the song, with only a few bars of exception. Now, take a look at Jay's first four lines, flowtated:
*rap*paTROL_ONthe / GAT_PAtrol-.*foes /
-thatWANTtoMAKE.SUREmy / CAS_KET'Sclosed-.*rap /
*criTICSthatSAY_HE'Smon / EYcash-hoes*i'mFROMthe /
HOOD_STUpidWHATtype*of / FACTS_AREthose-.*if /
Notice that, in every second bar, Jay raps a syllable on the downbeat. In lines 1, 2, and 4, he even waits until beat 2 to hit his second syllable, leaving a small (eighth-rest) gap. The effect of this is that, in every second bar, the drum eighth-beats cascade out from Jay's initial syllable. This continues pretty much throughout the song, with only a couple exceptions. Go back and listen, it's beautiful.
Now, remember Rick Rubin's power chords! They hit on the downbeat of every other line (with, of course, some end-of-line pickups and more variation toward the song's end). See above, how Jay avoids rapping on the downbeat of lines 1 and 3? It's almost as though he's getting out of the way of those power chords! In fact, he does the same thing, with only one exception, for every power-chord downbeat in Verse 1. (Verses 2 and 3 are a different story, maybe to increase the excitement, the headlong rush to the end of the song?)
Somebody--Kyle? my wife?--is going to ask me whether I SERIOUSLY BELIEVE that Jay did this stuff intentionally. Well, who cares? I mean, I doubt he anally reasoned out where he was going to place every syllable, and maybe he wasn't aware of the effects he was creating in partnership with the beat. On the other hand, as he has warned me in song, I'd be a fool to underestimate the intelligence that Jay-Z has. He obviously possesses great sensitivity for what he's doing musically, whether intuitively or otherwise. He's a virtuoso.
That virtuosity is further on display in the way he commands some special effects. As I said before, this is the only Jay rap I've looked at closely, so I can't tell you offhand what Krimsian flow he normally uses. (Adam Krims's three flow styles, remember, are sung, speech-effusive, and percussion-effusive.) I suspect he's often speech-effusive because he's from New York and people say he's great, but that's all I got. This song, though, is mostly in the old-school "sung" style. It has regular rhymes on beat 2& or beat 3 of every second bar--same as the title couplet's "son" and "one"--and it doesn't stray too far from that. There aren't even many internal rhymes scattered about. The sung flow sounds--well, like singing, right? It fits a neat beat, it features regular rhymes, and it's not all that much like regular speech. When you appreciate a sung flow--and who hasn't?--I mean, think anyone on Sugarhill Records--you suspend your disbelief. But Jay's virtuosity allows him to break through that suspension in a couple interesting ways.
He uses triplets! The rap is overwhelmingly comprised of eighth-beats, so when Jay whips out the triplet, you know he means it. And basically, he means it to be funny. He's either expressing frustration:
(Verse 1) GOTbeef /
*withRAdiOifIdon't / PLAYthey-show*theyDON'T- /
PLAYmy-hits-.WELLidon't / GIVE(a)shit*so-.*. /
(Verse 3) THISis /
NOTaHOE_INtheSENSEof / HAVin'ApusSY.*but(a) /
PUSsyHAVin'noGODdam-sense / -.TRYan'PUSHme*. /
--or he's imitating spoken dialogue, as in Verse 2, the delicious encounter between him and the Richard Pryor-esque cop:
(Jay:) DOi /
LOOKlikeaMIND_REAderSIR. / Idon't-know*.
(the cop, who gets the best line in the song:) AREyou /
CAR'yin'aWEAponONyouiKNOWa / LOTofYOUare-.
Jay's other tactic to draw our attention from the regular beat is to employ an uninterrupted string of eighth beats. There are only three bars in the song that contain eight uninterrupted syllables. In context, here's Verse 1's, which occurs near the end of the verse, right before the title line (a climax point):
DERstandTHEinTELLiGENCEthat / JAY-Zhas
Verse 2's represents some naturalistic dialogue, and also a moment of rhetorical triumph for our narrator:
KNOWmyRIGHTSsoYOUgon'NEEDa / WARrantFORthat*.
Verse 3's occurs right when the beat breaks down and somebody screams "Whooo!" It's exciting:
THINGthat'sGONnaHAPpenISi / 'MAget-toCLAPpin'
Finally, that carefully worked-over "lawyer" line. It's the only point in the song where Jay deviates from his regular rhyme scheme, of rhyming on beat 2& or 3 of every second bar. Instead, we get this drawled exemplar of naturalisme:
AREN'T_YOU_SHARPasAtack / *.YOUsomeTYPE_OFlaw /
-y'orSOMEthin'SOMEbodYim / PORtantORsomeTHIN'
That's the line that made Mike D, and me, grin upon first hearing. Jay breaks free of the pattern we've come to expect, and for a moment it seems like there's nothing he can't do with a beat. So we grin at his virtuosity, we grin at his impression of a white cop, and we grin at the dialectic of Jay-Z brazenly asserting his rights to a racial profiler WHILE he's got raw in his trunk. He's got beef but he doesn't give a shit. And his performance on this song is a glimpse at how that kind of forceful insouciance--and his career since '94--might be possible.