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.
“Where the drugs czars evolve, and thugs are at odds
At each other’s throats for the love of foreign cars
Where cats catch cases, hoping the judge R-and-R’s
But most times find themselves locked up behind bars…”
Jay came of age during the crack era, so when he speaks about being a product of Reaganomics, it’s not strictly for bluster. For every one rich drug dealer who made it off the street, many more were capture either by the courts or the jails. . For every one dealer, there were tens of hundreds of addicts created. And all of the aforementioned players left behind fractured families who were missing a member who they may never see again. Living in those circumstances caused so many to lose their way. To lose faith in the system and, for some, in a higher power. Jay spoke on the failure of the war on drugs epidemic in The New York Times, but he also spoke on it years ago:
“I’m from the place where the church is the flakiest
And niggas is praying to God so long that they atheist
Where you can’t put your vest away and say you’ll wear it tomorrow
Cause the day after we’ll be saying, ‘Damn, I was just with him yesterday’
I’m a block away from hell, not enough shots away from stray shells
An ounce away from a triple beam, still using a hand-held weight scale”
The pictures in his words are crisp enough for a listener to imagine without Jay breaking out every detail. Days are spent hustling to fund nights spent partying. And within that 24-hour cycle, there’s always a chance that life can be snatched away, either by design or chance.
In his 2010 memoir Decoded, Jay explains those lines in more detail. “I’m triangulating my location,” he said. “‘The block from hell’ is a double entendre: my block is in close proximity to the worst of the worst, but it’s also ‘the block from hell,’ like it emerged from a flaming pit. ‘Not enough shots from stray shells,’ means that where I’m from no one is really safe from a stray bullet.” In another section, he describes those same scenes as the equivalent to “the rapture.” He says, “Someone would be there one minute, and gone the next, bagged by the cops or the coroner, or off to another state to set up business.”
In Jay’s Marcy, the odds are stacked against success. Yet, he never gave up hope. He played the game long enough to parlay his way into a rap career. In ’97, the people and place he left behind weren’t as far away in the rearview as they are today. Not far enough to forget what he owed them. “One day I prayed to you and said if I ever blow, I’d let ’em know,” he rapped. “The stakes, and exactly what takes place in the ghetto, Promise fulfilled, still I feel my job ain’t done.”
Later, he explains those lines as a promise he made to God or maybe the man in the mirror. “This song is the promise’s partial fulfillment,” he said. “But the job wasn’t done — I kept trying to get deeper and deeper into the story from song to song.”
Now, of course, he’s adding new stories and chapters to his own story, which, in turn, is also part of Marcy’s story. Every new venture or success is another layer added for the people in his old housing projects to read and look up to as an example of the good that come from there. At the same time, Jay’s also still finding ways to tell their story, just in case no one else ever does.