Rap, Great Escapes, and Ugly Introductions
Examining how society affects rappers' ability to fulfill their potential.
Photo Credit: Arne Kristian Gansmo
Today I learned that Dallas rapper Lil Loaded turned himself in for the alleged murder of his friend. I thought I had no idea who he was beyond that but was reminded that earlier this year he went on IG live from the hospital bed after being shot. Loaded’s arrest happened days after the death of King Von, a Chicago cult hero who was ascending, but wasn’t close to a household name yet — even though he had the chance to be. It feels like every other week there are rappers who reach our radar in the most disappointing, surreal ways.
For years we’ve heard artists talk about musical peers who didn’t get to fulfill their potential because of jail or the carceral state. Sometimes we’re given names like with Game’s friend 4 Bent aka Billboard, who was killed in 2004. Sometimes we were lucky enough to have some old photos or a “T.R.O.Y.” that gave us insight into who they were, and further sparked our ponderings. Thanks to the information age, we’re seeing these stories happen in real-time. There are artists like the late Lil Snupe, the incarcerated YNW Melly, Tay-K, and others, who purists only had a short time with before they were introduced to casual music fans in tragic hindsight.
I shared a post a couple of months back with legendary DJ Mr. Magic introduced a talent showcase from the ‘80s that featured Jay-Z. It’s likely that no one reading this knows anyone else who was chasing their dream that night. Maybe they all fell back from rap because they didn’t see a future with it. But what are the chances that some of them fell prey to the peril of the crack era, whether that was through jail or the carceral state? Back then there was no DJ Akademiks or Instagram to report the sudden end of their careers.
Jay himself has repeatedly talked about ducking federal investigation (that ensnared most of his crew) and he’s one of the greatest ever. “Niggas In Paris” is a classic not just for the way the massively catchy song properly fed the hype that “The Throne” era stirred, but the way Jay-Z contextualized how his past affected his present:
Y'all don't know that don't shit faze me
The Nets could go 0 for 82
And I'd look at you like this shit gravy
(Ball so hard) This shit weird
We ain't even 'posed to be here
I'm supposed to be locked up too
If you escaped what I've escaped
You'd be in Paris getting fucked up too
Rap is as meta as it gets musically. The propensity that artists rhyme about rhyming makes us take that aspect of it for granted. But Jay-Z made a huge political statement in the middle of that fun song. Could you imagine any other profession where a person makes it clear to you that they’re only plying their trade because they ducked jail? I only ever hear that kind of rhetoric with athletes, most of whom are Black people who share Jay-Z’s story of finding a way out from a neighborhood that didn’t offer much opportunity.
The desperation of the escape gives us so much gratitude that we don’t even care about what happens once we escape. Meek Mill has said that he didn’t understand why people were asking about his well-being after Drake’s “Back to Back” onslaught because he had gone through way worse back in Philly. If the dirty cop who framed him, and conducted an armed raid of his cousin’s residence had his way, he might not even be here. Some other Philly rappers might just be shouting him out as an almost was while we wondered who he could have been. Artist’s good fortune to escape the hood is baked into their creative process, and our listening experience. But it’s also an indictment of this country’s violence that death and jail are on so many sides of the die in the dice game of Black life.
These days, blog sites, Instagram news accounts, and YouTube pages are filled with ugly introductions to unknown, still-aspiring rappers. Some of these kids only have one or two songs. We don’t know what they could have been, or how much greatness we missed out on. The way we engage with their music, and their interviews, is all in relation to the realization that we’re experiencing a glimpse of a career and life that has ended, literally or figuratively.
Tay-K is this generation’s poster child for the ugly introduction. Most fans got their first experience with him in 2017 via “The Race,” a catchy song with a morbid backstory: the then-17-year-old was spitting bars that literally referred to being on the run for a real murder. Eventually, he was caught, and sentenced to 55 to 99 years in prison for one of the murders he was allegedly involved in. Almost every time there’s a news story about a white person getting a lenient sentence for an egregious crime, you can bet someone on Twitter will note that Tay-K’s life was essentially thrown away for what he did.
I’m sure Tay-K’s family has much deeper laments about his current situation and longs for him to be home. But for rap listeners, just hearing his name harkens to a bittersweet song and a bizarre chapter in rap history where the line between art and reality was in major question. Listening to his music makes us wonder what he could have done with his talent had he not made the mistakes he did, much like we wonder what Lil Snupe could have been doing if he wasn’t killed in 2013.
Thanks to the internet, those existential questions are now interwoven into our hip-hop experience. We see a news story about a young up and comer facing misfortune almost weekly. Even those who try their damndest to just nod their head can’t ignore that this isn’t just music. The circumstances that so many rappers explore are dead serious reflections of society. The prevalence of artists who don’t escape, and lose their careers (if not life) reflects an epidemic that desperately calls for our attention. For every Lil Loaded, Tay-K, or Lil Snupe, there are thousands more youth without the musical talent to have garnered a headline. They were all failed by America.
When you hear a story about an artist you never heard of dying or getting a hefty jail sentence, and curiously head to YouTube to see what they had going on, think of all the kids they’re speaking for. Ponder what part you could play in helping them fulfill their potential. Black people shouldn’t have to focus on how to escape; let’s prioritize liberation.
This is a free newsletter. Those who wish to support can contribute here: