This shit set up, the odds against us, shawty. The Federal muthafuckin' government, nigga, will have your muthafuckin' ass in steel for a long time. They'll hide your muthafuckin' ass. —T.I., "Be Better than Me," Trap Muzik (2003)
In America, prisons conceal African-Americans at a rate seven times that of white citizens. More black men are currently incarcerated, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850. Crime drops, yet incarceration rates rise, largely along racial lines. The United States has 4% of the world's population—and 25% of its prisoners.
Hip-hop's story has been intertwined with the injustice of the prison-industrial complex from the beginning. "The Message," one of the very first rap songs to convey a larger social conscience, ends with a jail cell suicide.
There aren't tons of rap songs exclusively about jail; it's not the kind of concept that drives the clubs crazy, and it isn't exactly the stuff big hits are made of. The best prison songs tend to be album tracks, intended for what was once a core demographic of the hip-hop audience. Like the blues before it, rap music sprang from a culture beset by the war on the poor. Prison has always been a subtext, an ever-present threat, and, all too often, one that affects the lives of the performers themselves.
Besides the occasional movie, or episodes of Oz, these days hip-hop is the only form of popular culture that consistently acknowledges people affected by incarceration.
That doesn't mean it always does so responsibly. Critics have argued for years that rap music "glorifies" prison culture—and criminal culture.
But the truth is more nuanced than simple glorification. Aside from its many flaws, hip-hop music is speaks not just about prison, but to prisoners (and those vulnerable to the incarceration trap). It's the only space where other aspects of prison life are even addressed: how it affects loved ones. How it destroys relationships. And what life in prison is really like.
What follows is not intended to be a definitive list of the best prison raps. Instead, it's a look at the diverse ways rappers have borne witness to America's biggest domestic tragedy.
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