I like to write & I like music. Once, I took a class in communication criticism that focused on the works of Jane Austen & mostly feminist issues. Don’t judge, the ratio was like 10:1 & I like my women like I like my music: thought-provoking, down to earth & occasionally a little wild. Moral of the story, I wrote this paper about morality in contemporary popular music that focused mostly on hip-hop music. If that sounds at all interesting to you then check out the intro to the section on “I know” by Sean Carter below. You’ll find the rest & a link to the music video after the jump.
Jay-Z’s single, “I know,” from his 2007 album, American Gangster, isn’t your average love song. While on the outside it seems to be a song about the addictions of love, the whole song is essentially a metaphor for drug addiction. This comparison of dependencies provides plenty of fuel for criticism of the song. Throughout the piece there is a heavy emphasis on male gaze and dominance while females are continuously displayed as the weaker, dependent sex. Jay makes vast use of metaphors and inter-textual pop references to ensure his points are understood. Key symbols of power, drugs and addiction help to provide support for the real world claims made throughout.
Warning: It only gets geekier.
Before you continue, you may want a visual refresher…
Jay portrays himself as an authority figure throughout the song which establishes the idea of male dominance. This is evident right from the start where Pharrell Williams and Sean Carter maintain on the chorus that “I know what you like, everything you love … baby you love – Hov.” Jay offers no other alternative to this reality and even goes as far as to silence any theoretical attempts. The key symbols used to assert gender are addiction and drugs, males are given power over their addicted counterparts through this metaphor. One of the most prevalent examples of creating social identities is in the line “I know what you like, I am your prescription; I’m your physician, I’m your addiction.” This line clearly establishes male dominance and helps to structure the identity of females as weaker and dependent by portraying the main female subject as an addict of the male gender.
The female gender is relentlessly represented as weak and dependent, “She fiends for me nightly, she leans for me.” The reference to lean has a double-meaning here. In the more obvious (depending on your point of view) reference is to lean on someone, use them as a crutch, physically or emotionally. However, this can also be seen as a reference to the popular southern drug also known as Purple Drank, or “lean;” this is another example of the weaker feminine portrayal. Jay continues: “Now that feelin’ got you trippin’, you no wanna feel no differently; said lust has got you itchin.’” This line again represents male hegemony where the feeling that he gives her has her losing control of emotions, which is seen as a pitiful characteristic. Her uncontrollable eagerness for more of the sensation makes her somewhat of a salve to the drug that is the male gender. Jay once again continues the male role of dominance in the second verse claiming “I am so dope! … Like every color Giuseppe’s, your guilty pleasure is me.” Here, Jay directly refers to himself as the powerful addiction causing agent and likens its grips to the typically-female obsession of shopping that is prevalent in our culture today. This is further evidence of the lesser role that females are boxed into in the song along with an example of our current day ideals of domestic sphere, which include shopping as a feminine chore. Jay exemplifies this argument with the claim that “It’s so much fun, you shun therapy … Shopping’s like coppin’, you constantly need it,” once again offering an example of feminine weakness, this time for shunning therapy and not being able to help herself.
Even when thoughts of better options reveal themselves, Jay, like withdrawals, reminds the female addict that she needs him:
I keep tryin’ to remind you, to keep tellin’ yourself; now your conscience is interfering like “Better yourself!” Like you better get help, but when that medicine is felt? We’re back together, don’t ever leave me. Don’t ever let ’em tell you that you’ll never need me!
This section provides strong evidence of the male hegemony that still exists in our culture today, essentially claiming that the females need a male counterpart to not only be happy, but also to simply even function. This segment also demonstrates clear evidence of silencing women’s voices which decreases the importance of the weak role already constructed for women in the rhetoric act. Jay-Z continues to demean women, calling her his “China White” which refers to the purest form of heroin, objectifying the female gender to a prized possession which can only be useful for emotions of pain-numbing ecstasy.
Aesthetically, Jay-Z is a master story-teller in his own realm. His use of metaphors is almost unparalleled today in hip-hop along with his uncanny ability to relate near any subject to his targeted audience and beyond. Throughout the song Jay makes references from hip-hop and drug culture to the material world of shopping and popular culture that allows close to any modern audience to relate to even the toughest subjects such as that of love, abuse and addiction. Another dynamic that leads to the overall experience is Jay’s choice of background for his story. Pharrell Williams crafted the perfect, laid back, instrumental for Jay to smoothly layout his sinister scenario of love and addiction in a way that only the self proclaimed King of New York could. And just as the song tells a tale of two sides, so does the music video which offers two separate accounts displaying both scenarios in cinematic form. The combination of symbols from both the video and song offer an experience that evokes strong emotional responses that any audience can truly feel.
Psychologically the song offers different benefits for different consumers. One state that “I Know” evokes is almost an emotional catharsis to which listeners can escape into another world where the troubles of love and addiction don’t matter because as Jay-Z describes it, “She want[s] those Heroin tracks … That Black Rain will take away your pain.” As Jay cleverly points out with his word play of terminology from both cultures, music and drugs both have that supernatural power to take us far away and leave the pain an eternity behind.
While the act may be lacking in morality and equality, it certainly displays a harsh, but truthful reality of love and society today. Jay displays the unfortunate reality of abusiveness and addiction that continues to create serious issues worldwide in not only relationships, but all aspects of life. Mimicking an abusive relationship, Jay plays on the idea of dependency where the weaker partner typically feels the need to be with someone stronger, in this case stereotypically confirmed as the female; and once again, almost mirroring the typical form of abusive relationships, he silences any attempt at rehabilitation and independence by reassuring his power and the reliance that his subordinate has for him.
Just as in the contemporary ideology of street life, the end result justifies the means by which it was obtained. This is not your average pop love song played on the radio where everything turns out well. But somehow it cracked the charts and as Jay eloquently puts it, when that medicine’s felt “you’ll never be down; I know where your peak is…” The harsh realities that Jay paints for his audience are not in any way decent or ethical, yet it works. And it works well. Jay-Z is the quintessential superstar today. Coming up through the drug game in Brooklyn to become one of the richest entertainers in America, is it any wonder that this formula works? As Jay’s long time protégé, Kanye West, once pondered:
Why [does] everything that’s supposed to bad, make me feel so good? Everything they told me not to is exactly what I would.
This is one of the most ancient questions of humanity going back all the way to the story of Adam and Eve, but as another significant New York rapper simply put it: “Joy wouldn’t feel so good, if it wasn’t for pain.” Jay-Z has created a genre of mood music for a generation of impoverished and damaged audiences around the world and somehow through it all, managed to send messages of hope and motivation to those who need it the most. While the gloomy truths that “I know” depicts may be seen as immoral and unsuitable for mass media by some, to others it offers the perfect balance of escapism and real world guidance to use as ammunition for continuing the unyielding battles fought in their own lives.
The rigid constraints of right and wrong rarely exist in American society. Instead, we as an entertainment-centered culture, focus on the end result for ultimate judgments. In the not-so-distant past, most of the ideas and beliefs relayed in popular music would have been considered immoral and unsuitable for mass broadcasts. While it is true that artists have always constructed messages of questionable morals in the past, these types of acts were no where near as visible to the public as they are today with the help of the internet and social media.
Today, American values could be considered highly immoral compared to past times and other cultures. Just looking at the way we present ideas and the messages we convey in entertainment is shocking to older members of our society and other cultures around the world. However, to the current generation of America, this set of beliefs and the strategies we use to express them are completely acceptable. Jay-Z’s single, “I Know,” demonstrates the progression of our society as more open. The issues of drugs, addiction and abuse would have most likely never made it on-air in our past if it wasn’t for the changes that the counter-culture movement and particularly the Rock ‘n’ Roll genre initiated. Today we openly accept the expression of the darker side of life. However, some of the same people who fought for the freedom of expression with genres of music like Rock ‘n’ Roll now see current trends in culture to be low-class in terms of morals. These changes are the natural result of an ever changing world.
As a result of these changes we have moved into a post-modernism view of morality. Morality is far more open-ended today than it has ever been; it is an increasingly individual issue. This idea of an open agenda is also supported by the current views on the feminine approach that I used to analyze “I know.” Today’s feminist movement strives for a focus on the individual needs and knowing one’s self worth. The same concepts of specialization and openness apply to the recent move in views on morality in our culture. While the advantages of having a more open-minded viewpoint on what is considered moral can be very good, it also has its drawbacks. One could argue that at this rate, the growing latitude of acceptance might never stop, carrying potential problems for society. However, regardless of where our views move in the future, there will always be a risk of evil outweighing good. We can not let the fear of that happening impede our road to greater acceptance and subsequently a more peaceful world. Instead, we must keep in mind that while acceptance is ideal, we must also strive for pure intentions and a moral end result.
This is just my take on the music video & what it says about our culture, society & morals. If you made it this far, I hope that means you enjoyed this and it made you think about something meaningful. Or just about girls & drugs, either way. The other work of art that I analyzed in the paper was Drake’s “Best I Ever Had“