Wednesday, July 29, 2015
TMFW 99 - 99 Problems, But Legal Scholarship Ain't One
(NOTE: today's TMFW is about a rap song that has some mature themes and lyrics. Reader discretion is advised.)
As of today, TMFW's got 99 entries, but so far Jay Z ain't one. Let's rectify that.
For the uninitiated, Jay Z (born Shawn Carter) is one of the most famous hip hop artists in the world. His Wikipedia introduction rattles off the accomplishments: a net worth of over $500 million, 100+ million records sold, 21 Grammy Awards, 3 records listed in Rolling Stone's 500 greatest list, more #1 albums than any other solo artist (passing Elvis Presley a few years ago), Beyoncé as his wife and partner, and a host of investments including a clothing line, record label, and real estate ventures. That's pretty good.
One of Jay Z's most famous songs is "99 Problems," from The Black Album. The song's lyrics are heavily autobiographical, and deal with some of the issues that Jay Z has faced. Much of the attention given to the song is to the second verse, which describes in detail a "Driving While Black" traffic stop in 1994. Jay Z was 24 at the time and was involved in selling drugs; he has said in interviews since (go to 33:09 for the relevant part, or watch this one) that the stop was real and happened in New Jersey while his car was in fact concealing drugs that he was transporting. So the stakes were high.
Jay Z and the trooper engage in some back-and-forth, with the trooper asking "do you know why I'm stopping you?" "are you carrying a weapon?" and "do you mind if I look around the car a little bit?" Jay Z for his part asks "am I under arrest," and declines to authorize a search, saying "my glove compartment is locked, so is the trunk in the back, and I know my rights, so you [are going to] need a warrant for that." The officer is temporarily defeated, but orders a drug dog to the scene. And then the verse is over. Though we do not learn the outcome of the stop, it seems that Jay Z gets away without trouble.
Because the verse details the stop so vividly, it has been the subject of much discussion, and in 2012 a law professor named Caleb Mason took that discussion to another level. That year, the St. Louis University Law Journal published a 19-page law review article that was a line-by-line, heavily-annotated legal analysis of the second verse. It's a very well-written and easy-to-read account, and it describes in plain language the legal reality of what is and is not allowed during a traffic stop.
Professor Mason finds at least two inaccuracies with Jay Z's account of the story. First, the officer ordered him out of the car, but Jay Z declined. That's a no-no. Professor Mason quotes in the paper a Supreme Court case that makes clear that - during any traffic stop - an order to exit the vehicle is per se lawful and must be obeyed. So by refusing, Jay Z may have given the officer a basis for arrest (failure to obey a lawful request by a law enforcement officer), which would have given the officer a right to search the car and he would have been toast. Second, Professor Mason describes that in fact the police don't ever need a "warrant" to search the glove box or the trunk of a car during a traffic stop. Instead, they need either "probable cause" or affirmative consent, each of which the cop tried (and failed) to bait Jay Z into with his questions. Other than that, though, the song was an excellent primer on how to behave during a stop; much respect to Jay Z for that.
So there's your TMFW for today: a song that features a repeated refrain of "I got 99 problems but a bitch ain't one" inspired a 19-page, 93-footnote, unironic, published law journal article by a professor. That's a good gag.
BONUS FACT: Other songs considered for this week's edition: Nena's "99 Red Balloons" (or "99 Luftballons" if you are a stickler for authenticity and/or speaker of German), TMFW 31 subject Prince's "1999," TMFW 23 subjects Toto's "99," and the sing-on-a-bus favorite "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall." Perhaps one of those will be a candidate for TMFW 199 (if not sooner).
BONUS FACT 2: As noted in the interview links above, in the real-life traffic stop the police officer who pulled Jay Z over eventually gave up on waiting for the drug dog and - without the ability to search the car legally - sent him on his way. Shortly afterwards, Jay Z saw a K-9 unit speeding down the other side of the highway, apparently on its way to sniff the car but just a few minutes too late. So quite literally, Jay Z had 99 problems but the K-9 bitch was not one. (Of course, if the dog had made it in time, it's likely that Jay Z's multi-million dollar career would have been over before it ever started.)
BONUS FACT 3: In response to Professor Mason's article, a law professor from Canada named Emir Crowne wrote an analysis of the verse from a Canadian law perspective. He found that the verse was more or less correct when applied against that standard.
BONUS FACT 4: 99 Problems is famously identified with Jay Z, but in fact it was originally done by Ice-T on his 1993 Home Invasion album. In the original (NSFW, language), though, the lyrics boast of Ice-T's various sexual partners rather than the more serious subject matter of Jay Z's version.
BONUS FACT 5: According to the producer Rick Rubin, the idea to remake the song as a more serious one by focusing on the "99 Problems" reference in the chorus came from the comedian Chris Rock.
BONUS FACT 6: For President Obama's first term, Jay Z performed at a post-inauguration ball for Obama campaign staff. During the concert, he did a version of the song with the modified chorus "I got 99 problems, but a Bush ain't one."
BONUS FACT BIBLIOGRAPHY: Vulture.com did a long and detailed writeup of 99 Problems last year that is the source of bonus facts 4-6 above.