99 Problems

“If you’re having girl problems, I feel bad for you son. I got 99 problems but…”

You could probably finish the rest of that iconic lyric, but just in case that line doesn’t sound familiar, those are the first words in rapper Jay Z’s song “99 Problems.” In a couple days the song will be 13 years old, and it seemed only right to dedicate a blog to it. Unsurprisingly, “99 Problems” discusses issues that trouble Jay Z, but one of the problems that he raps about is so notoriously common that it helped the record earn widespread acclaim: racial profiling. In an entertaining, storytelling manner, he relays the experience of being pulled over for what he later described in his autobiography Decoded as “driving while black.”

Each verse of the song details a certain predicament that Jay Z has faced (in which he explicitly refers to each of his antagonists as a “bitch”), and the second verse in particular is dedicated to the instance where he was racially profiled by police. After researching the record’s origins, I found that the lyrics were only slightly different from Jay Z’s own experiences. In 1994, he was pulled over by the police while having cocaine hidden in his car. He refused to let the cops search his vehicle since they had no probable cause (or reasonable grounds) to suspect that he was carrying drugs, so they threatened to call in the K-9 unit and have dogs sniff out any drugs present. Fortunately the K-9 unit was not available, and Jay Z was left free to go. In the song, our narrator (who is based off of Jay Z) is driving with cocaine hidden in his trunk and is pulled over for “doing 55 in a 54.” The absurdity of having a 54 mile per hour lane and getting pulled for going 55 miles per hour in it is included to highlight how the driver was targeted for no valid reason: his race was the sole cause of suspicion.  This song resonates with so many, especially people of color, because hidden underneath its explosive beat and catchy lyrics is the familiar and distressing situation of being questioned by a cop merely because one’s skin is brown. Additionally, the cop in the song requests that the driver exits the car so he can search it, and the narrator refuses because the cop presents no search warrant. As we have seen in class, misuse of the law by law enforcement who have unchecked discretionary power is an actual shortcoming of our criminal justice system, but academics have contested the truth of Jay Z’s lyrics. For example, police need only probable cause, not a warrant, to search your car.

In the end, the driver is in the wrong for illegally trafficking cocaine, and the cop is in the wrong for racially profiling a black man. Flaws of both parties are cleverly exposed, whereas it would have been simpler to portray only the cop as ethically wrong. I personally find this complexity in the story more realistic, as such situations are often morally ambiguous. Jay Z also ends the second verse vaguely after the cop threatens to call in drug dogs to leave the listener wondering what happens to the narrator. But often his artistic intentions and allusions to criminal justice issues are not on the mind of one fresh from hearing the song. Instead it’s the crude but memorable “I got 99 problems, but a bitch ain’t one!”

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