There’s been a little ridiculousness because some pop culture asshole was all “Why hasn’t Obama said anything about the death of MCA when he said something about the death of Trayvon Martin and MCA has more talent blah blah blah than Jay-Z blah blah blah.” Which, ugh, is so dumb on so many levels. But the idea that Jay-Z is somehow not a valid hard-working talented artist is just delusional. Plus, he listens widely, which you know is something I love in an artist.
So, I want to talk about “99 Problems” so there’s going to be a bunch of “bitches” and, if you’re not familiar with earlier versions, those bitches are pretty graphically described. You probably shouldn’t listen to these at work. At least, not loudly. Though, I should warn you, Ice T’s version is damn great. But, anyway, this is the line I want to trace back to Robert Johnson. There are two ways–through the propensity to hear a good line and know enough to take it and through an actual invocation.
Here’s Ice T, who I sometimes forget used to be a really catchy rapper, since he’s mostly just a personality now. But check out how he’s all “I love ’em all/ I love ’em crazily/ and they love me back/ that’s why they stay with me” right before he invents a line so great others are going to have to step in and steal it, over and over again–“If you’re having girl problems, I feel bad for you, son./ I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one.” (I use “steal” but I’m sure he’s getting paid.)
He’s got some asshole 2 Live Crew dude in there ruining things, which kind of keeps me from enjoying the song, which otherwise is kind of so over the top joyful that, it reminds me of a NSFW version of Dion’s “The Wanderer.” (Seriously, there’s something about the rhythm of the “I love ’em all” part that reminds me so much of “The Wanderer” that it would not surprise me if Ice-T had it in the back of his mind.)
And then a few years later, Trick Daddy comes out with this version which somehow manages to sound completely dated and stupid in comparison to Ice T’s. I’m not sure why two songs so similar in content, with the same chorus, can be so different, but Ice T’s version works and this version somehow sound like something you’d be forced to listen to in a dark basement permeated by the smell of mildewed carpet, stale beer, and cheap pot.
Okay, before we get to Jay-Z, let’s take a listen to “Touched,” a song he also quotes directly in his version.
You’ll see that opening again right here. But it’s also obvious what Jay-Z has done: take the stuff from these sources that works–words, in the case of “Touched” I think also a kind of rhythm, not to mention the music he’s sampled from all over–and rework it into something uniquely his own.
But it keeps going. This guy, Hugo, is signed to Jay-Z’s label and he’s a British-Thai kid who grew up in Thailand, who has re-imagined the song as a kind of country blues (meaning more a country music/blues music hybrid). And here we are invoking the legend of Robert Johnson, with the singer going down to the crossroads a second time “to make the Devil change his mind.” Because, as I keep reminding you, all roads lead to Robert Johnson, whose birthday is, maybe, tomorrow.
It’s true that Robert Johnson was a minor blues figure in his time, but I think it’s important to note that almost all pre-war blues figures were minor blues figures during their lives. I think Johnson’s influence goes to show that you never can tell. It’s weird to think about but being relatively unknown during your life is no guarantee that you won’t be one of the huge figures all culture revolves around in death.
In other words, people, we can’t know that, in the end, Trick Daddy’s version won’t be the one considered “best.”