Years ago, a friend of mine was explaining to me what he liked about Cam’ron’s music. One of his reasons was purely selfish: Cam’ron rapped about places in New York that my friend was familiar with. There was something appealing in the idea that Cam had touched the same corners, hooped at the same courts, and ate at the same restaurants that my friend would pass by regularly.
Now, the pretentious mini-music critic perched on my left shoulder informs that this is a terrible way to judge music. It’s too personal. How am I supposed to explain such New-York-specific feeling to a reader in California? Why would they care where News One is located in relation to where Cam’ron was shooting from one particular day? Even though I’m then reminded of the days Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre had me ready to ride down to the Slauson Swap Meet, I feel obliged to acknowledge that a personal connection to a song isn’t always derived from the music itself, but rather personal context.
I feel obliged to acknowledge that a personal connection to a song isn’t always derived from the music itself, but rather personal context.
This is something I’m often reminded of when listening to another Harlem rapper, A$AP Rocky, and his verse on “1 Train.” Specially when I am in fact riding the 1 train while listening to it. Now, A$AP doesn’t even have the best verse on the song (I give that to Danny Brown.) But his is a solid showing. And two things about the verse always stick out to me.
The first one is the line the song gets its title from. “I know one thing," Rocky says. "Anything is better than that 1 Train!” First of all, I gotta say that as a long time MTA rider, I particularly like taking the 1 train. You rarely have to wait long and it goes through some nice neighborhoods, even if it sucks that it always goes local. The other part that sticks out is one of the lines right after where he uses the word “courtyard” (“Cheffing like I'm Boyar-Dee/Probably selling D in your local courtyard...”) This is a very specific idea, but I know exactly what Rocky means when he says “courtyard.” It’s like when Big Pun refers to the “devil's mezzanine” on “You Ain’t A Killer” and I can’t help but think he learned the word “mezzanine” from the subway signs that read “Elevator to mezzanine” on various elevated platforms in the Bronx.
Some of this is informed by the fact me and Rocky have a bit in common: I’m from the Bronx and went to high school in Harlem whereas he’s from Harlem and sold drugs in the Bronx. So we’ve both been to these courtyards he's talking about. Sounds very regal, a courtyard—but in buildings in Harlem and the Bronx the courtyard usually consists of decaying items that once looked fancy. Like an oversized water fountain that no longer runs, all dried up and bird-crapped, with the paint chipping off.
Why do I care so much about a single word in a song with seven verses? I suppose, much like my friend who loved Cam’ron, there’s a sense of satisfaction that someone would find it worthy to rap about a place so common to me. Right around the corner from my place. Like Common and Kanye said about a corner in a different city, Chicago, I wish I could give you this feeling.