In 99 PROBLEMS, released in 2004, US-American Rapper Jay Z (real name: Shawn Corey Carter; born 1969 in New York, USA) raps about his experiences with critics, a racist police officer and imprisonment. In the song, he condemns racial stereotypes and racial profiling. According to the Rolling Stone, 99 PROBLEMS is the second best song of the first decade of the 2000s (see “100 Best Songs of the 2000s”).
99 PROBLEMS was the third single released from Jay-Z’s eighth studio album The Black Album (2003), which was promoted as his last album, but in fact was not: Up to today, Jay Z has released another four albums. On The Black Album, the rapper collaborated with a number of producers including The Neptunes, Kanye West, Timbaland and Eminem. In a short documentary about the recording of 99 PROBLEMS, Jay Z says that he is a fan of old-school hip hop (see “Jay-Z, Rick Rubin recording ’99 Problems'”), which might be one of the reasons why he hired Rick Rubin as a producer for 99 PROBLEMS. Rubin is known for his work on hip hop-classics for LL Cool J and The Beastie Boys. His trademarks – guitar riffs and stripped-down beats – are all used in 99 PROBLEMS. The song was recorded at the Akademie Mathematique of Philosophical Sound Research in Los Angeles.
The lyrics of 99 PROBLEMS are inspired by Jay Z’s personal experiences. He grew up in extreme poverty in a housing project in Brooklyn. The second verse of the song refers to Jay Z’s confrontation with a police officer. As the rapper explained in a radio interview, there was a lot of drug traffic on the turnpike from New York to the South of the United States in the 1980s and 1990s (see “Jay-Z: The Fresh Air Interview”). During that time, based on racist presumptions, the police checked every car driven by an African American, as they were suspected to deal with drugs more frequently. As a young man, Jay Z had dealt with drugs himself. In his autobiography, he writes about how he was once pulled over by the police when he was carrying drugs in his car. Ultimately, the police had to let him go because it took too long to get the police dogs which were supposed to search his car (see Carter 2010: 59). In 99 PROBLEMS, Jay Z also reflects on other personal experiences, for example the trial he had to face in 1999 in which he was accused of stabbing record executive Lance Rivera (see “When Jay-Z Almost Ethered Himself”).
As racism and the police’s racial profiling practices are still intensely discussed topics in the USA, 99 PROBLEMS has retained its potential to encourage debates about these issues. It can therefore be argued that this song is an example of how hip hop artists are able to communicate social injustices to a wide audience.
Jay Z has called The Black Album an autobiographical album (see “Jay-Z, Rick Rubin recording ’99 Problems'”). Apart from the specific events of his life addressed in 99 PROBLEMS, Jay Z also raps about his mother and his late father in other songs of the record. In a review, the Rolling Stone states that on The Black Album Album Jay-Z lets the listener “deeper into his life than ever” (Toure 2003). Moreover, the record as a whole is supposed to be an inspiration for his fans, as Jay Z points out in the album’s booklet: “I have no regrets in my career, I’m very proud of what I’ve accomplished. I hope to serve as an inspiration to anyone who wants to be in the music business or any other business for that matter” (Carter 2003).
Jay Z stated that 99 PROBLEMS is a song which takes real events and reimagines them (see Carter 2010: 54). As the song clearly reflects on the rapper’s personal experiences, real person, performance persona and the character of the song seem to melt together. 99 PROBLEMS consists of three verses, each one dealing with different topics, and the hook “I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one”, which is repeated fifteen times. The hook is taken from Ice-T’s “99 Problems”, which was released in 1993.
In the first verse, Jay Z raps about his enemies, who want him dead (“Foes that wanna make sure my casket’s closed”). However, he does not name these enemies more precisely. He then goes on to respond to rap critics who say that he focuses too much on money in his lyrics. The rapper justifies this by explaining that he grew up without having any money and that it is only natural for him to rap about money now that he has it. In the last line of the verse, Jay Z says “I’m from rags to riches”, thus summarising his life by using the popular idiom. He stages himself as what Dietmar Elflein calls the prototypical figure of hip hop culture, namely the man born in a socially deprived area who openly addresses his economic rise (see Elflein 2014: 173). In the first verse, Jay Z also criticises rap publications which are eager to use his face and his fame to increase the prices for advertisements in their magazines. By calling the according publishers “fuckers”, he employs the rhetorical technique called “dissin'” (Rappe 2010: 26), which is frequently used in hip hop lyrics to insult opponents. Jay Z underlines his status as a talented, rich and famous rapper throughout the first verse and he verbally attacks people who criticise him or want to exploit him. After all, Jay Z’s confidence does not come as a surprise at all. He is immensely famed in hip hop culture, not only for his skills as a rapper, but also for his skills as a business man (see Elflein 2014: 171).
In the second verse, Jay Z retells an incident from his past, which happened before he became a successful rapper. He raps about a crime he committed in the past, while at the same time he raises awareness for the injustice of racial profiling. In his autobiography, he underlines that this incident is “based on a true story” (Carter 2010: 59). It is about the day he brought drugs from New York to the South of the USA and a police officer pulled him over. By slightly changing his voice and accent, Jay Z impersonates the police officer who asks him: “Son, do you know what I’m stopping you for?” Jay Z responds: “‘Cause I’m young and I’m black and my hat’s real low / Do I look like a mind reader, sir, I don’t know”. The Black Album’s cover shows a black and white image of Jay Z; his eyes covered by a dark cap he pulls deep down into his face with both hands. The expression in his face seems defiant and challenging. It could be argued that this is an illustration of what Jay Z looked like when the police officer stopped him. Jay Z is certain that he only got pulled over because he is black, as the police officer does not know that he is actually transporting drugs. However, he does not help to ease the tense situation with his answer. It quickly becomes clear that the police officer indeed stopped Jay Z’s car because of his skin colour. The police officer says that Jay-Z was pulled over because he was “doing fifty-five in a fifty-four”, i.e. because he exceeded the speed limit by one mile per hour. The police officer asks Jay Z to step out of the car because he would like to “look around the car a little bit”. He reveals his racist attitude by asking Jay Z whether he is carrying a gun because he knows “a lot of you are”. The “you” is referring to all black people. Jay Z knows his rights and says: “Well, my glove compartment is locked, so is the trunk in the back / And I know my rights, so you gon’ need a warrant for that”. In his autobiography, Jay Z comments on this situation saying that both his younger self and the police officer knew they were in the wrong and that this is why “they’re playing this cat-and-mouse game, taking sarcastic shots at each other, arguing over the law” (Carter 2010: 59). The verse ends with the officer saying: “We’ll see how smart you are when the K-9 come”. K-9 is a homophone of canine, the Latin word for dog and a term used for police dogs. In 99 PROBLEMS, the outcome of the police check remains open. The listener does not find out whether the dogs actually come or not and whether the drugs in the car are found. In 1994, when Jay Z was in the situation he raps about in 99 PROBLEMS, the dogs did not show up and the police officer had to let him go eventually.
The third verse of 99 PROBLEMS opens with a quote from Bun B’s opening verse of the track “Touched” by UGK (“Now once upon a time not too long ago, a nigga like myself had to strong arm a ho”). In this verse, Jay Z raps about a man who was bothering him “not too long ago”. Again, he uses the rhetorical strategy dissin’ to insult an opponent. Jay Z says about the man: “You know the type, loud as a motorbike, but wouldn’t bust a grape in a fruit fight”. The line “wouldn’t bust a grape in a fruit fight” is taken from LL Cool J’s “To Da Break of Dawn” and refers to Jay Z’s impression that the man he raps about might act strong, but is in fact a weakling. The next lines hint at a fight between Jay Z and the man, which results in Jay Z being imprisoned, as the lines “And there I go, trapped in the Kit-Kat again / Back through the system with the riff-raff again” suggest. Riff-raff is an expression for people with a bad reputation or for people of a low social class (see “Riff-Raff”). Here it refers to people in prison. By using this derogatory term, Jay Z distances himself from his fellow inmates. “Kit Kat” can be interpreted in two different ways. Jay Z might use the association of chocolate bars which “Kit Kat” evokes as a means to indirectly refer to the bars of a prison cell. He might also use “Kit Kat” as a reference to the Kit Kat Club in Manhattan where he stabbed record executive Lance Rivera in 1999. Lance Rivera most likely is the man Jay Z raps about in the third verse. Moreover, just like in verse two, Jay Z addresses racist practices in the US-American legal system. He says “Half a mil’ for bail ’cause I’m African”, thus criticising that the judge set his bail higher than usual because he is an African American. All in all, in the third verse, Jay Z alludes to the violent incident he was involved in at Manhattan’s Kit Kat Club in 1999 and he presents himself as a rough rapper who does not put up with men who bother him.
Each verse closes with the hook “I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one”. In each verse, “bitch” might refer to something different: in the first verse to critics, in the second verse to police dogs (“bitch” is the English word for “female dog”) and in the third to a man who annoys him. It is also in the last verse where Jay Z slightly alters the hook saying “I got 99 problems being a bitch ain’t one”, thus showing that he is not like the man he raps about in the verse. Jay-Z has been criticised for the usage of the word “bitch” in 99 PROBLEMS. This is discussed in more detail in the chapter “Reception”.
On the musical level, 99 PROBLEMS is characterised by the usage of numerous samples. This is typical for hip hop productions, which often focus on the reuse of material that has already been released (see Elflein 2014: 171). The song is built on two of the most sampled songs in hip hop history. The massive drum beat is taken from “The Big Beat” by Billy Squire. The two-chord guitar riff is taken from “Long Red” by Mountain.
The song starts with the hook performed a capella by Jay Z. To lay emphasis on it, the line “I’ve got 99 problems” is supported by another, lower-pitched voice. Jay Z’s rendition of the hook supports its defiant and potentially aggressive character.
Overall, the sound and mixing of 99 PROBLEMS has an industrial and aggressive feel to it. This is due to the pounding two-chord guitar riff taken from Mountain’s “Long Red” and the constant clapping sound on counts two and four (backbeat), which results in an impression of the beat being pushed forward. Another musical element, which is repeated throughout the song, is a cowbell. Although at the beginning of the song it can hardly be heard, this changes in the course of it. The cowbell is a sample taken from Wilson Pickett’s “Get Me Back on Time, Engine Number 9”.
In the first verse, certain lines are audibly highlighted through different techniques. For example, the line “whole asshole” is rapped with a lower second voice. Additionally, the line “They don’t play my hits, well, I don’t give a shit” stands out, because there is no sound on counts three and four. “Well, I don’t give a shit” is clearly emphasised as it is performed with hardly any accompaniment.
A high triangle sound is added to the general sound mixture in the second verse, which creates a nervous and unsettling atmosphere. The second verse is much longer than the first, which is also due to the amount of text that is conveyed in it. Jay Z’s rapping is especially fast in the lines in which he imitates the police officer, which adds to the ridiculous tone of the rapper’s imitation. Just like in the first verse, the background sounds are reduced in order to give priority to some of the lyrics („’Cause I’m young and I’m black and my hat’s real low / Do I look like a mind reader, sir?”). Towards the end of the second verse, the cowbell can be heard quite obviously for the first time. After the second verse, the hook is repeated and therefore it is twice as long as after the first verse. As a result, the hook’s importance for the content and structure of the song is underlined and the start of the third verse is delayed.
At some points, the third verse differs musically from the other two verses. For example, in the first part of the verse the guitar riff is used more frequently. This intensifies the presence of the blunt and harsh elements within the song. It seems as if it is used to push forward Jay Z’s opinion on the man he raps about. The lines in which Jay Z addresses his imprisonment are accompanied by a light and airy beat, which contrasts with the content of the rapper’s lyrics. In the second part of the third verse the cowbell is very prominent again. Moreover, just like in the other two verses, a line is highlighted by muting the background sounds (“Half a mil’ for bail ’cause I’m African”).
The song ends with the hook and an outro. The hook is accompanied by drums which sound louder and more intense than the drums which were used earlier. Additionally, in the last bar of the hook, the guitar riff is used on all four counts, which again has an affirmative effect and almost seems to hammer Jay Z’s lyrics into the listener’s head. During the outro, the cowbell is still very prominent. The hook is sung one last time. However, this time Jay Z almost whispers it and laughs after he has sung the line. The rapper’s laugh might be used to ironically undermine the seriousness of the lyrics. The outro ends with Jay Z praising the song’s producer Rick Rubin by saying “You crazy for this one, Rick”.
The musical production of 99 PROBLEMS translates Jay Z’s lyrics into rough and urban sounds. Moreover, different techniques are used to emphasise certain words and lines, which highlights the priority placed on the rapper’s lyrics.
99 PROBLEMS achieved widespread acclaim. It reached number 30 on the Billboard Hot 100 and won a Grammy award for Best Rap Solo Performance. It was also listed at number 14 on Pitchfork Media’s Top 500 Tracks of the 2000s (decade) and at number 24 on NME’s 150 Best Tracks of the Past 15 Years in 2011. The Black Album has sold 3.5 million copies as of July 2013.
The usage of the word “bitch” in 99 PROBLEMS has been criticised as misogynist. However, in his autobiography, Jay Z makes clear that “at no point […] [he is] talking about a girl” (Carter 2010: 54). As has been stated previously, the word “bitch” refers to different things in every verse, but never to a woman. Nevertheless, “bitch” is most commonly used as a derogatory term for women, and by using this term Jay Z does not renounce sexist notions. In a radio interview Jay Z criticises that people hear the word “bitch” and immediately dismiss everything else they hear in a song (see “Jay-Z: The Fresh Air Interview”). Furthermore, he says that he uses the word “bitch” on purpose to lead the listener down a wrong path and that everything has to be put into context before it can be criticised. In his biography, Jay Z explains that using the word “bitch” was meant to be a “deliberate provocation to simpleminded listeners” (Carter 2010: 53).
The hook has been used in many songs. In 2009, rapper Kid Cudi quoted it in the lyrics of his song “Soundtrack 2 My Life” (“I got 99 problems and they [sic] all bitches”). Eminem used the hook in “So Much Better”, which was released in 2013 (“I got 99 problems and the bitch ain’t one / She’s all 99 of ’em, I need a machine gun”). In 2014, Ariana Grande used the line in her song “Problem” (“I got 99 problems and you won’t be one”).
99 PROBLEMS has prompted the publication of a 19-page law review article, which analyses the second verse from a legal perspective. The article notes that the lyrics are incorrect when it comes to their representation of the law and that the police does not need a search warrant to search someone’s car (see Mason 2012).
In 2012, Jay Z performed 99 PROBLEMS at a Barack Obama election campaign event in Columbus, Ohio (see Chen 2012). He changed the hook of the song into “I got 99 problems but a Mitt ain’t one”. Mitt Romney was Obama’s challenger in the presidential election that year.
Vocals: Jay Z
Writers: Shawn Carter, Rick Rubin, Norman Landsberg, Felix Pappalardi, William Squier, John Ventura, Leslie Weinstein,Tracy Marrow, Alphonso Henderson
Producer: Rick Rubin
Sound engineering: Andrew Scheps at Akademie Mathematique of Philosophical Sound Research, Los Angeles, CA
Programming: Jason Lader
Mixing: Rick Rubin and Andrew Scheps
Label: Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam
Published: 27 April 2004
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About the Author
All contributions by Sebastian Danz
Sebastian Danz: “99 Problems (Jay Z)”. In: Songlexikon. Encyclopedia of Songs. Ed. by Michael Fischer, Fernand Hörner and Christofer Jost, http://www.songlexikon.de/songs/99problems, 03/2017.Print