No, seriously….The G.O.A.T. debate, regardless of the subject, brings out passion from everyone involved. But in no other arena do emotions run higher than in Hip-Hop. Whether the subject is “Who the greatest album of all time?”, “Who is the greatest producer of all time” or the most heated- “Who is the greatest MC of all time?”, the debate on the streets and on the web gets red hot. I once made a comment to someone on Facebook that I don’t like getting into the G.O.A.T. debate because at some point, “the guns come out”-or at least somebody wants to fight! In fact, I have personally seen this happen back in the day during the infamous Jay-Z vs. Nas beef.
You rarely hear the G.O.A.T. debate when the subject is the rap song. It’s understandable. With thousands and thousands of songs recorded since rap’s beginning in the late 70’s, how can we possibly come to a consensus on the top 10 greatest rap songs much less the greatest single one? Any fan’s list of greatest rap songs is totally different based his age/era, his region, his preferred style, and his favorite MC. There’s absolutely no way anyone can declare one rap song as the greatest of all time, right?
Can I Live is the greatest rap song of all time.
To understand how I could possibly make such a bold statement, allow me to put the claim in context.
I stated that a fan’s G.O.A.T. list depends on his age/era, region, preferred style or subgenre and favorite MC. Well, here’s my stats:
I’m in my 30’s-I just had my 34th birthday on 1.26.11. Jay-Z’s debut album, Reasonable Doubt, (where Can I Live appears) was released in 1996-my era. I was 19 years old when the album came out. Can I Live is my favorite song on Reasonable Doubt (Dead Presidents II being a close second). People in their 30’s may not agree with my rap song G.O.A.T. pick, but because they grew up in my era, they certainly understand where I’m c... oming from. My choice for greatest rap song is driven by nostalgia. If you’re in your teens or 20’s, you’re likely to see Jay-Z as an “old ass” rapper (as Lil Wayne would say) and your experience with his music is more Empire State of Mind than Can I Live.
I grew up on the east coast in the DMV area (DC-Maryland-Virginia). Though the DC area is the “where go-go music lives”, we’ve always been heavily influenced by New York Hip-Hop. Our region was one of the first areas to hear the new joints coming out of the Tri-State area before it reached others parts of the country.
In Where I’m From, Jay-Z says, “I’m from where niggas pull your card-and argue all day about, “Who’s the best MC- Biggie, Jay-Z or Nas?” If you ask most Hip-Hop heads from the east coast that are 30 and over who is their favorite MC, they’re likely to name one of these three MCs or someone else from the five boroughs that makeup the Big Apple.
It may be a little different now with the younger generation out here, but when I was coming up, it was pretty much a consensus in this part of the country that the best MCs were from the east coast, and the cream of the crop, the best of the best-came out of New York. Of course, Jay-Z reps “Planet Brooklyn”.
A former co-worker of mine is from Texas and he can’t stand Biggie, Jay-Z or Nas! He thinks most MCs from the east coast are wack! Keep in mind, we’re around the same age, but because he’s from the south, he identifies more with Southern MCs. He and I had a debate one day about MCs and he spent a hour ranting and raving about the greatness of some MC from Texas-I can’t even remember the rapper’s name, I thought my boy was crazy! When he told me he thought Jay-Z was wack, I almost had a heart attack! (Lol) Of course, someone from the east coast can love southern MCs (Scarface is one of my favorites) and a fan from the south can embrace east coat MCs, but fans generally prefer MCs who rep their region.
The truth is I have an east coast bias. I don’t deny it, in fact, I embrace it, just like my former co-worker from Texas embraces his southern bias-as you should embrace your bias because that’s apart of your identity.
I love all kinds of Hip-Hop but I’m a big fan of criminality rap ( artists like Biggie, Nas, Raekwon, Ghostface, etc.) when it’s used brilliantly to make insightful statements and observations about life and ambition as Jay-Z does on Can I Live. I get into this issue a little further down into this piece, but, for example, if you prefer the social/political subgenre over all others in rap music, the greatest rap song of all time through your perspective is most likely to be social/political such as Fight the Power by Public Enemy.
My Favorite MC:
I’m a long-time Jay-Z fan since the beginning of his career. He’s my favorite MC-hands down, therefore, that definitely plays a factor in my choice of greatest rap song of all time. If I’m going to pick one song, how can I not choose my favorite song by my favorite artist? Stating that the greatest song of all time is by my favorite artist is admittedly narcissistic. My opinion becomes fact. It’s hard to be objective when you have a horse in the race, sort to speak. I bet you’re the same way even if you won’t admit it.
If you’re ever in a G.O.A.T. debate with someone, keep in mind that the position they take is likely based on their age/era, region, preferred style and whoever are their favorite MCs.
Now, with that said, allow me to share with you why I believe Can I Live “murders” all other rap songs and is the best ever recorded:
In my book, I Will Not Lose! The blueprint for greatness when good is not enough (that is inspired by the song lyrics of Jay-Z), I write extensively on how Jay-Z’s lyrics about his life’s experiences have a connection to the experiences that we all have-his most insightful rhymes are words of wisdom and can serve as inspiration in our own personal lives.
In my opinion, the best rap songs are NOT social/political because ideology more often divides (or confuses) than unites. The best rap songs are NOT dance records because they move butts not ideas; lyrically they tend to lack skill and substance. The best rap songs are certainly NOT love ballads because most MCs seem almost incapable of expressing themselves honestly about romance and relationships. The best rap songs are NOT “gangsta tales” because they’re unrealistic and few can actually relate to scenarios that you only see in movies. These songs are pure entertainment- that’s it.
The best rap songs ARE the ones about undeterred personal ambition; songs that tell a compelling and balanced story of success and struggle, joy and pain, courage and fear.
No song tells that personal story that we can all relate to, better than Can I Live.
The “ambition song” connects with us and enables us to connect to each other regardless of our backgrounds.
Songs about personal ambition have a connection to listeners that are more vital and of greater importance than political views, dancing at the clubs, snuggling up with your boo or pretending like you’re Al Pacino playing the role of Tony Montana in the film Scarface.
Can I Live brilliantly tells a story that is inspirational and cautionary. The song is not merely about a hustler’s experiences in the illegal drug trade; it’s about a man’s relentless pursuit of success in order to fulfill his lofty ambitions. Be clear: Jay-Z rhymes about the in-and-outs of the drug game BUT in his words are principles about overcoming struggle and achieving success-that are universal.
Throughout my book, I take songs (over 90 of them) from Jay-Z’s catalog and go into detail, line by line, revealing how his words about his hustle can inspire and impact YOUR hustle. Let me take some of Jay’s most poignant lyrics from Can I Live and share with you how they critically relate to your life’s experiences:
Highlights from the 1st verse:
While I’m watchin every nigga watchin me closely
My shit is butter, for the bread they wanna toast me
In life, you better watch those who watch you-and I’m not just talking about your enemies. When you’re working hard-and smart, and having success, people see this and they’re not always in a celebratory mood. It doesn’t mean they want to do you physical harm, but you must be aware of people’s perceptions of your success. People can intentionally and unintentionally undermine your success. You must understand motive behind the words and actions of others-and adjust; managing and controlling conflict accordingly.
I keep my head, both of them where they supposed to be
Hoes’ll get you sidetracked then clap from closed feet
I don’t sleep!…
You have to stay focused on your hustle. Don’t allow yourself to be “sidetracked”, easily distracted by physical temptation or anything else that will keep you off your grind. You can get “clapped from closed feet” (both in the physical and philosophical sense) anytime you’re around certain people in a certain environment that’s counterproductive to your goals and ambitions. And of course this goes for both men and women.
When it comes to the hustle, any hustle: You can’t sleep!
At the time it never bothered me,
At the bar, gettin my thug on properly
My squad and me
Lack of respect for authority
Laughin hard?, happy to be escaping poverty
Once you get caught up in your success, you can lose perspective, especially if you come from a humble background. Your success will have you feeling like you’re invincible without fully realizing the potential roadblocks ahead in your life’s journey. It may seem as if you have “escaped” your afflictions but the truth is life is a continuous grind and full of highs and lows. If you don’t stay on top of your game, your success may be brief…
I know this game got valleys and peaks
Expectation for dips
We stack chips, hardly
Life itself is a game of “valleys and peaks”, ups-and-downs. You hope for the best but you should expect the worst. In your life you should always have an “expectation for dips” and in light of the expectation, you MUST be prepared for setbacks and failures. The genius in these lines is when Jay-Z uses the word “precipitation”. He’s stating that one day you can be on top and then fall-fast, abruptly and without warning, so you better be prepared. His wordplay is extremely clever here, but more importantly, very profound. This is one of the best lines I’ve ever heard. Period.
Lock my body can’t trap my mind
Easily, explain why we adapt to crime
I’ve always felt that with this one line Jay-Z pretty much summed up the criminal mentality, when a hustler is in “the game” strictly for profit. Jay tells us that being physically constrained doesn’t “trap” his mind from “moving” and being free-to conceive and plan new ways to get paid and become successful. But this same process doesn’t just apply to the illegal drug game and incarceration.
When you have the right mindset your physical environment won’t keep you from accomplishing your goals and realizing your dreams (living in a crime ridden and poverty stricken ‘hood but still determined to go to college or start your own business, for example). Your mind is your most powerful asset, not your body, and you can use the power of your mind to overcome any situation.
I’d rather die enormous
Than live dormant
That’s how we on it!
Every fan loves this line because it clearly resonates with how most of us feel when it comes to our personal lives. I was just a year out of high school when Can I Live came out and when I heard this line it struck a nerve in me instantly because these words were how I felt back then (and still do).
Hustling is a game of high risk/high reward. Many of us will take great risk and make what would be imaginable sacrifices in the eyes of most, in order to live enormous. Of course, the way you live is often the way you die.
Still, most of us prefer to play things “safe” but just because you’re living doesn’t mean that you’re alive. I don’t know about you, but I rather die knowing that I hustled hard and lived life to the fullest than to carry on without purpose, making little to no progress.
Don’t be fooled, my game is mental
The above line reveals the crucial “secret” to Jay-Z’s success. You can’t have true swagger without having true substance and this comes from personal development of the mind. Regardless of your hustle, you have to utilize your mind. You lead with your mind, not your physical. This line implies the advantage of having a strong intellect and mental toughness during the pursuit of success.
Let’s move on to highlight lyrics from the second verse:
My mind is infested
With sick thoughts that circle, like a Lexus
If driven wrong, it’s sure to hurt you
This is a rather cryptic line and like many of Jay’s lyrics, it can be interpreted in several ways, but from my perspective, this line ties back to the “Don’t be fooled, my game is mental” line in the first verse.
We all can have “sick” thoughts going through our heads at some point. It’s not really as sinister as it sounds. In the quest for success, certain shady thoughts and ideas may enter your mind. But if you act on these thoughts and ideas (“if driven wrong”), you‘re “sure” to face tough consequences. Basically, you can get yourself in trouble when you let your mind roam recklessly. Then, you’ll end up making crucial decisions in haste that can tragically change the course of your life.
When it boils to steam, it comes to it
We all fiends, gotta do it
Even righteous minds goes through this
I feel like these lines reflect one’s mindset and that insatiable hunger for success. People can be “victims” of their own ambition regardless of who they are. To be a “fiend” in this context is to be someone addicted to the pursuit of success, determined to achieve it at any cost. The mind can be constructive but it can also be corruptive. Ambition can compromise morals. I grew up in the church- believe me: “Even righteous minds goes through this.”
The streets school us
To spend our money foolish
Bond with jewelers
And watch for intruders
Jay-Z states that the “streets” provides a negative influence on how he and his crew spend money. “True this”, but the fact is society as a whole influences us all when it comes to financial matters and materialism. Many of us are “bonding” with the “merchants of excess” (such as jewelers) in order to keep up with the Joneses. In a way this line exposes the hypocrisy within society (preaching “substance” while practicing “swagger”) that affects us all, regardless of race or class, criminal or saint.
I stepped it up another level
Meditated like a Buddhist
Some of the most attentive listeners may miss the true point of this line, at least as it relates to you and I. In this verse, Jay rhymes about the dangers of success; the results of an ambitious yet reckless mindset. To prevent himself from being a victim of his own ambition, he “stepped it up another level”. He had to give much deeper thought to his hustle-and act decisively, in order to avoid the traps that so many others succumb to.
To meditate means “to think or reflect in a calm and deliberate manner”. You see where I’m going here? You may be ambitious, but if your mindset is reckless and unstable you’re defeating the purpose of your hustle. It’s hard for any true hustler, regardless of his hustle, to meditate because a hustler has trained himself to move fast, both in mind and body. This line actually tells hustlers to slow down a bit, because a steady, focused and refined mind can take any hustle to the next level.
Recruited lieutenants with ludicrous…
Who do you surround yourself with? Are the people in your circle truly down for success? The “lieutenants” Jay refers to in Can I Live are his partners in the drug game. But you have lieutenants in your life when it comes to your ‘hood, your career, your business, etc. Distance yourself from those who are unable to match the intensity of your ambition. Seek out relationships with those who share your will to make an impact-who can bring something of value to the table in terms of expertise and experience in the pursuit of a common goal: success.
And this goes for the significant other in your life as well!
Dreams of getting cream, let’s do this
It gets te-di-ous
So I keep one eye one like C-B-S
We all have dreams of being wildly successful in life but most of us aren’t ready, willing and able to deal with the “tedious” pursuit that is a MUST in order to make great things happen.
And, oh yeah, a true hustler never sleeps! He “keeps one eye open” not just on the lookout for trouble- he also does this so that he never misses an opportunity!
We just took a look at lyrics from one of Jay-Z’s classic songs and applied his words about the drug game to any hustle in the game of life. This is what I do in detail, song after song in I Will Not Lose!.
On Can I Live, Jay-Z shows swagger and substance. The song inspires yet warns us of the dangers we may face because of our ambition. The song takes the experiences of one of the most “despised” figures of society-the drug dealer- and reveals how his ambition closely resembles ours.
Right from the very beginning of the song, before he starts rhyming, Jay-Z talks about “hustling out of a sense of hopelessness”. He doesn’t sound too “hopeless”, he sounds determined. At that point the listener can sense that he’s about to hear something truly special. Jay sounds inspired on Can I Live. You can hear the hunger in his voice back then. Maybe you were just a kid when Can I Live came out, or maybe you weren’t even born yet. But if you’re truly ambitious, you can relate to the song’s swagger and its message, which is just as relevant today as it was in ’96. Hunger to succeed is timeless.
Lastly, Jay’s flow and the musical track for the song should be noted- the sample of " target="_blank">Isaac Haye’s “Look of Love” is pure soul yet jazz-like. Jay’s flow-the rhyme & rhythm, tone and cadences-in his vocals, perfectly fit the track. Its soulful sound and lyrics about the intense pursuit of success in the midst of constant struggle, makes Can I Live the musical embodiment of the black experience in America, but its timeless tale about undeterred ambition inspires and connects all points of the globe.
It’s the greatest rap song the world has ever heard.
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