Despite the mogul Jay Z is now, things weren’t always as pleasant and glamorous, and that’s not something he’s ever tried to hide or even run from. In fact, he had to defend his past, as recently as this summer after “Drug Dealers Anonymous” stirred up a little controversy. With all of his success, Hov has never shied away from attributing part of his success to the trials that forged his character and the place where his story began, Marcy Projects. All the way back in 1997, he took the listening world back to his old stomping grounds through the song “Where I’m From.”
The track appeared on Hov’s second studio album, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, originally released 19 years ago on November 4, 1997. Back then, he wasn’t the rap lord he’s seen as today. He was still fighting to make a name for himself in the crowded space that was New York City’s extremely competitive rapper food chain. Part of becoming established meant he had to give people more than the tales from the top he shared on Reasonable Doubt. He had to take them back to the corners and benches where the story originated to help everyone truly understand how far he’d come.
At the time, Marcy wasn’t exactly the first New York City housing project that came to mind in rap folklore. Truthfully, it didn’t matter, because songs of struggle based out of the hood are often recognizable to listeners no matter the geographical location. These songs share commonalities that go beyond geography; they’re all filled with similar key figures and bit players, like hustlers and the cops, fiends and shady individuals, the kids trying to find a way and the innocent people just trying to stay out of harm’s way. They center around themes like the endless struggle to escape an environment, by hook or crook.
For Jay, Marcy was the place where he spent his formative years and, on the song, he plays the role of tour guide, taking the listener on a casual, protected stroll through the cracked sidewalks and rising buildings. Those surrounding buildings served the dual purpose of blocking out the rest of the world from seeing what’s going on inside, while also sometimes keeping the inhabitants from imagining there’s a world outside of them. And how could those people think anything existed outside the perimeter when so many things were going on inside it?
Through his rhymes, he creates the idea that everything one could want is going on right there in the neighborhood. “I’m from where the beef is inevitable / Summertime’s unforgettable / Boosters in abundance / Buy a half-price sweater new” he raps, letting the world in on how lively the place can be.
Above all, Hov’s perspective is that of the drug dealer, mostly because that’s the persona he wore best early on his career. Long before he became a one-man business, he was simply a businessman whose work involved pushing work in the neighborhood. Right there in the trenches is where he learned to navigate in a highly competitive environment, knowing that with each ounce sold he was working his way up to territory that was even more treacherous but just as rewarding. But, he had to make it first.