There are dozens if not hundreds (maybe thousands) of rap songs that claim some version of “the ghetto” as a theme or conceit. The word has come to signify a set of communities, socio-economic statuses, and world views that have far less in common than their frequent conflation under a single term suggests.Â Rappers have had a field day redefining “ghetto” and its related terms only rivaled by their obsession with “nigga.” Physically proximate but markedly different places like Rakim’s Wyandanche, C.L. Smooth’s Mt. Vernon, Q-Tip’s Jamaica, and Nas’ Queensbridge are all “the ghetto”, so the “ghetto” cannot be interpreted as uniformly signifying one narrow set of circumstances.Â
Even when we take into account the transmission of cultural notions of identity and place that occurred when the adolescents of the early ’80s (new school rap’s first generation) visited their grandmothers for the weekend, we are faced with an inescapable truth. The “ghetto” of rap lyrics represents a subset of the larger African diaspora.Â The “ghetto” has been cast as everything from a socially constructed hell to a modern plantation to the locus classicus of modern black empowerment to the fondly remembered childhood haunt, and every gradation in between. This liminal space contains today’s topic – the ghetto as a shifting, ambivalentÂ psychological state that defies the borders of the inner city along with its upwardly mobile residents.Â
Black Sheep’s “Still In The Ghetto” describes such a state, avoiding the temptation to indulge in standard ghettocentrist romanticism. He also avoids equating a ghetto mentality with diagnosable psychopathology (see Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s “Ghettoes Of The Mind.”) Dres’ narrator is uneasy, perhaps a tad neurotic, but he is not stuck in aÂ dramatized past, choosing instead to express anxiety while indulging in slick bragadocio. Why the boasts?Â Clever bragging is his bread and butter – the one instance in which he dropped this mode entirely to speak on social issues, “Black With N.V.” feels just a bit too preachy for a Black Sheep song. On “Still In The Ghetto” Â Dres goes the fuck off from the beginning, giving rival emcees and assorted dickriders “headaches over headbangin’ beat breaks” and smacking fools with Street Fighter techniques.Â The first verse is wonderfully belligerent and flashy, virtuosic to the point of unfairness.
That is, until the last few bars where the overconfident voice who “gives less than a fuck” confesses to a day to day existence “beat in the city of scum.”Â Now, in this case, the narrator is not your typical suffering ghetto dweller. In another smart move, Dres employs a persona much closer to his adult self than some lamentable street urchin caricature. He speaks of an uneasy tension between freedom and constraint, but in terms of his lyrics, which he gleefully amplifies “across the border” — to ghettoes he has never visited that are likely experiencing the same social ills that run amok in his old neighborhood. As a rapper, he is inextricably tied to the ghetto. After all, the ghetto gave him his technique, his comportment, his rhythm. And more importantly, the ghetto will judge his worthiness as a representative. His bragging is slick and inventive because it has to be.Â
In the second verse, Dres’ confidence and neurosis increases simultaneously. He rhymes extra hard and extra clever, claiming to have seen Fritz The Cat when it was still playing in theaters (interpreted literally, this means he was the world’s toughest toddler). He wears his ghetto background as an indisputable badge of authenticity (“I go back like pitching pennies on a project step”) but is somewhat hesitant to glorify this association and laments the similarity of his cocky swagger to the divisive attitudes that destroy communities. He finds respite in the positive aspects of his upbringing, namely improvisational resourcefulnessÂ (“pull it off the cuff while we’re wearing short sleeves”) Â and a knack for versatile code-switching (“I’m sliding through the door / to Â kick it to the shorty with his eye on a Tec / kick it to the chick with a W.I.C. on her check”).Â
In the third verse, the narrator is still conflicted and even more defensive, yet somehow more resolute in his sense that he is in fact, “Still In The Ghetto,” at least figuratively. The sense of kinship, or at least obligation that he explores in the second verse is still present but he is noticeably wary about his kindness being mistaken for weakness. The wordplay gets more vicious (“now if it’s checkers, chess or soul survivor, I’m going to catch wreck like I was a drunk driver”) and the ambivalence loses some ground to urgent paranoia (“they hug you with your left and stab you with your right … loved by Astoria and blammed by Corona). The implausibility of pleasing everyone back in the ‘hood while being upwardly mobile is very real. The narrator is forced to master a balancing act – he must claim that his ghetto-bred swagger has allowed him to tour around the globe while insisting that globe-trotting in style hasn’t softened him one bit or made him inaccessible (“I’m still the same, I still got game in Barcelona”).Â
“Still In The Ghetto” does not end on an uplifting or poignant note. There is no particular moral to the narrative. Upward mobility is presented as an odd journey, and the identity politics associated with class and race are placed under the microscope. But all we know for certain is that our narrator is fixated on achieving a difficult balance and marrying outward appearance to good intentions as closely as possible. In the third verse he relentlessly insists that he is utterly incapable of falling off either as a seller of records or a genuinely concerned social commentator. He knows better. The two roles are mutually exclusive – we’re only temporarily convinced otherwise because he raps so damned good. If these contradictions are what makes him “ghetto”-minded or at least accessible to the ghetto by proxy in his own mind, so be it. We all gain from hearing a reluctantly honest, sort of self-serving take on the genre’s most explored topic.
Because we don’t help the situation by simplifying it. Â — Thun