On 25 Years Of “Knowing” About Drugs, BIG, Pusha & Nightmarish Black Excellence
Or…From “If You Don’t Know Now You Know” to “If You Know You Know”
In 1994, Christopher “The Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace emerged as a superstar emcee largely on the back of writing rap songs that exposed the everyday realities associated with being successful at selling crack cocaine. In 2018, Terrence “Pusha T” Thornton finally emerged via similar means. His Kanye West-produced “If You Know You Know” kicks off the seven-song, cocaine powder-laced shotgun blast of lyrical brilliance that was DAYTONA, his mainstream crossover moment into heightened levels of rap super-stardom. Pusha’s life as an epilogue to Biggie’s legacy represents one of 2018’s finest musical moments. Bittersweetly though, it may also showcase a nightmarish life after death for the trope of the super-dope drug dealing trapper-ternt-rapper.
There was something in the edutainment of Biggie’s verses that allowed him to juggernaut to immediate hip-hop stardom. “Juicy’s” hook of “If you don’t know, now you know, n*gga,” cautiously invites in the mainstream. Notably, 1994 was still a time wherein white folks using the n-word was a cause for significant alarm. Undoubtedly, its utterance would lead to some sort of retaliatory violence in mixed interracial company. Thus, the song’s blend of fear, fun, and triumph — the song’s beat is sampled from James Mtume’s “Juicy Fruit,” a sexy, 1983-released post-disco era R & B radio hit— is an invitation, n-word be damned, to hear (and likely recite out loud) every word. The words themselves, are a universally appreciable, yet defiant inversion of the American dream:
“To all the teachers that told me I’d never amount to nothin’
To all the people that lived above the buildings that I was hustlin’ in front of
Called the police on me when I was just tryin’ to make some money to feed my daughter (it’s all good)
And all the ni***as in the struggle
You know what I’m sayin’? It’s all good, baby baby”
Rap’s growth as an American pop cultural staple sound was directly after the similarly blue collar and American, yet remembered in culture as extravagant, pop-as-hair metal era. For as much as Bon Jovi’s tour videos were all about hot chicks and sold out shows, as a song “Livin’ on A Prayer” is about a failed rock singer-turned-longshoreman married to a waitress who are living on welfare. There’s really not much of a difference between Jon Bon Jovi’s protagonists and Biggie, except well, Biggie didn’t hock anything while holding his mother’s hand and praying to god. Instead, he decided to break the law. Unlike Tommy and Gina struggling to make ends meet, Biggie’s drug dealing earned him a Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, 50-inch television, leather sofa, three cars (including a limousine, expensive cellular telephone, a mink coat and Acura automobile for his mother, plus yes, comfort and freedom.
By 2018 we’re in a different, more culturally “knowledgeable” age. The n-word is probably said more by white millennials more than any other social grouping. Related, drug dealing is such a commonplace and largely unobjectionable profession that an ex-correctional officer named William Roberts can base his entire rapping persona from being a living representation of the successful life and times of a living and one-time incarcerated drug dealer whose birth given name is Rick Ross — Roberts’ rap nom de plume.
Into this space steps Pusha T’s “If You Know You Know.”
Similar to “Juicy,” Pusha T’s song is magnificent edutainment. Comparatively, it’s also told as a reflective ode. This is the perspective of a man who, according to the song, retired from actively dealing drugs ten years ago. Impressively, Biggie’s in the song in spirit, too. Pusha definitely mentions that Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs — then man responsible for “discovering” Biggie — was a “trapper,” which likely could mean that he was doing more than “dancing in the videos” at Biggie’s emcee height. What’s more telling than anything though, is that, though there’s still a desire to revel, as B.I.G. did, in success, the song opens the door to a bone-chilling something more.
“The trap door supposed to be awkward
If you know, you know
That’s the reason we ball for
Circle around twice for the encore
If you know, you know”
Pusha’s DAYTONA is best if regarded as a really entertaining cautionary tale about the commingling of hip-hop and drug culture. It’s unquestionably entertaining to rap ostentatiously about dealing drugs. However, two and a half years after releasing “Juicy,” Christopher Wallace was murdered in cold blood. As John Lennon sang in 1970, that, if you don’t stop and contemplate how impossible it is to constantly flout society’s laws without comeuppance, karma can knock you on the head and kill you in an instant.
More impressively, “If You Know You Know” is amazing because it’s the lead single of a song that is on an album where the cover is Whitney Houston’s drug paraphernalia-strewn bathroom. This opens the door to a a “double-knowledge” of sorts at play here that’s also worthy of consideration. “Juicy” is great, but we definitely don’t get any stories about those who let down their hopeful teachers, hustled in front of their apartment buildings, and were incarcerated for life in prison. “If You Know You Know” operates from a position of “knowing” that while African-Americans and whites use drugs at similar rates, the imprisonment rate of African Americans for drug charges is five-plus times that of their white counterparts. It also presupposes a level of “knowing” that for as much as artists like Michael Jackson, Prince, and the previously mentioned Whitney Houston brought magnificent beauty in the world via their music, they were also all felled by varying levels of drug use, abuse, addiction, and/or overdose.
“This thing of ours, oh this thing of ours” isn’t so much an allusion to some sort of “Ten Crack Commandments”-coded not-so-secret “Drug Dealers Anonymous” fraternity. Rather, in 25 years, drugs and drug-dealing have been as much defined by opulence and black economic excellence, as they have been defined by the frighteningly malignant ills and demise associated with abuse. After 25 years, we absolutely know. But also, we now must like with the nighmarish uneasiness of what happens when “knowing” stops being half the battle, but instead, has savagely won the war.