“Ultralight Beam” – Kanye West (ft. Chance the Rapper, The-Dream, Kelly Price, and Kirk Franklin)

This week I will be looking at Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam” which is the introductory track to his seventh studio album, The Life of Pablo. The song features The-Dream, Kelly Price, Kirk Franklin, and Chance the Rapper, who in my opinion has the best verse on the song. After Yeezus, many were curious to know the direction Kanye would go in his new album. He decided to show them by opening up with a very spiritual song. Though I am a fan of Kanye West (especially his older stuff), I am not one of those people who thinks all his music is like sent from God. I must say this song really did have a profound effect on me though. I am not one to typically discuss my religious beliefs because I see it as very personal, but this song took me on a spiritual journey of self-reflection that I feel must be acknowledged.

The song begins with the hook that is Kanye speaking to god about how he is struggling to keep his faith. He begins by acknowledging appreciation for his blessed life so far. He then moves on to ask for peace and serenity using similar words to the prayer of Saint Francis.

The next verse is sung by Kelly Price and begins by questioning God as many do. She asks why he would create oppression instead of blessings. She says that he persecute’s the weak because it makes him feel strong. Many religious people struggle because they feel as though if God does exist then why would he create such bad things like cancer and natural disasters. There are so many bad things that exist in the world and it can be hard to keep going but when she has trouble she just looks to god because she knows he will look out.

The next verse is sung by Chance the Rapper. He begins by saying that when people challenge God and his existence he will stand by God and defend him. Around the time of recording this song Chance had his daughter but there were complications and she wasn’t supposed to live. By a miracle she turned out fine and because of this Chance rededicated himself to his religion. He says that he will continue to fight all his demons now and be a better person. He wants to be a leader now in doing positive things and hopes others will join him in his path. He talks about his new album (that hadn’t been released yet) and speaks of how it is difficult to win Grammy’s so he has to make sure it reaches the maximum audience by making it free. He ends by saying “you cannot mess with the light// look at lil Chano from 79th” which means that you can’t mess with God and if you just believe in him he will bless you as he has Chance.

To me this song isn’t just about religion. Its a song of hope that challenges its listeners to keep believing. As tough as it may be and as pointless as it may seem sometimes you have to just believe. Life can be hard and things don’t always work out in our favor but you can’t let that hold you back.

“Mr. Nigga” – Mos Def

This week I will be looking at Mos Def’s song titled “Mr. Nigga” that appeared on Mos Def’s 1999 album Black on Both Sides. I recently began listening to the album in attempts of learning more about earlier hip hop, and quickly realized that it is full of socially conscious lyrics. Many of the songs touch on topics that are still prevalent 18 years later. This song really stood out for me because it talks about how “successful” African Americans are still perceived as threatening in the eyes of many including law enforcement. The song’s title is meant to reflect how some people perceive blacks under the surface.

The song begins with the hook that is sung by Mos Def and Q-Tip. The hook talks about how successful African Americans are looked at oddly when they enter high class establishments. Most of the wealthy in this country are white which means that many of the higher class establishments have a customer base of predominantly whites. When Blacks enter these elite circles they are not often met with the most gracious welcome.

The Mos Def’s first verse begins by talking about how he achieved success before he reached the age of 30 which is very rare. He also talks about how he could now buy expensive designer clothes and pay to do whatever he wanted. He says that despite his money and fame he still was not respected by law enforcement. One line reads “‘We got a problem officer?’ Damn straight, its called race.” This line really speaks to the troubles that many black and brown communities face. There is a distrust of law enforcement that is prominent in many black and brown communities and it does not matter your economic status. Many communities of color feel targeted by the police and Mos Def is speaking to his experiences of feeling targeted.

In the second verse Mos Def begins by talking about the usage of the word N word by whites. He says that though they may not say it loud and in public settings, they may say it under their breath or amongst close friends. He then talks about how even if they may not say the word, there are many who are racist deep down and it is not hard to pick up on microaggressions. He then goes on to tell a story of his experience traveling in first class. He boarded the plane and sat in his first class seat, but was soon asked to show his ticket to prove he belonged there. After showing his ticket she quickly apologized and later even asked him for his autograph which is pretty ironic. He also talks about how when he travels he is constantly searched in greater detail due to his darker complexion. Customs officials assume that he is transporting drugs and will commonly arrest him and subject him to various tests.

In the last verse Mos Def points out the double standards that exist within our culture. He criticizes the justice system for the mass incarceration of colored people. He talks about how blacks and whites are not given the same treatment under the law which we see to this day. He then goes on to say that he just happened to be lucky with his talents which led to his fortune. Many of America’s elite have money that goes back to slavery as opposed to the money he earned himself. He ends the song by saying that he will use his money to provide for his family but he know at the end of the day he’ll still be looked down on for his complexion.

I think it is amazing that 18 years later this song is still so relevant. As much as we like to think things have changed, we see that communities of color are still fighting the same old societal stereotypes.

“Ambition” – Wale (ft. Meek Mill and Rick Ross)


This week I will be looking at Wale’s song titled “Ambition,” which his second studio album is named after. The song features Rick Ross and Meek Mill who grew up on a street very close to where I grew up in Philadelphia. The song talks about how the rappers struggled to make ends meet and had to sell drugs to survive.

The song begins with Meek Mill talking about his experiences growing up in Philadelphia. He begins by talking about how he felt that the only way he could make a living was selling drugs on the streets of North Philly. He says that his mother taught him “never steal and never tell on folks” which says that she instilled good values but also didn’t openly discourage the illegal actions that were occurring around them. This also could have been due to the unofficial “no snitching” policy that is instilled within communities with high crime. Typically those who “snitch” are targeted and can sometimes lose their lives. Meek talks about how he was “raised by the stop sign” which refers to how he spent much of his early life on the corner selling drugs. This lifestyle was lavish and came with respect on the streets. He stopped when he had a bad experience with the people he thought were his friends. This led him to the rap game. When he began rapping it was hard to get signed but now that he is successful and many of the places who rejected him regret their decision. Now he uses his “mind as a weapon” as opposed to his drug dealing life style where he needed a gun.

The song then moves on to the chorus where Wale claims that his Ambition is what got him where he is. He says that it is “easy to dream a dream, though its harder to live it.” This refers to how it is easy to have goals but its harder to actually fulfill them.

Rick Ross then talks about how he grew up watching his mother struggle to make ends meet while suffering from health problems. He began selling drugs to help her with rent and the bills. He recalls waking up to no electricity in his house. When incidents like this occurred he realized he had to go out and sell to help out, especially considering his father had been absent in his life since he was young. There were few job opportunities for people from the projects like him. This led him to be attracted to the luxurious lifestyle that selling drugs brought. At the end of the day his ambition helped him to get out of that rough situation.

Though it appears that this song glorifies drug dealing, it is an insight into the motivations that lead people to the lifestyle. What people fail to realize is that these rappers rap about what they have seen their whole lives. When you are surrounded by cycle of poverty that many people are, the first opportunity to make money you take. Legal or not.

“Bigger Than Me” – Big Sean

This week I decided to discuss a very recently released song that really spoke to me as soon as I heard it. The song is called “Bigger Than Me” and appears on Big Sean’s album I Decided which was released last Friday. Big Sean talks about how he realized that the purpose of his life is not just to make himself happy but also to be a leader for his community.

The song begins with Big Sean talking about his desire to make his city proud. He realizes that he is not the only one invested in his life. Now that he is globally known for his music, he brings hope and pride to all the people from his hometown of Detroit. He is an example that just because you are born into a bad situation, does not mean you have to stay in that situation. Not only is Big Sean important to the people of Detroit but he also is important to the friends and family that he helps support. Typically when people come from low income families and are successful they are given the burden of having to support their family as well. This just contributes to Big Sean’s feeling that it is not just about him anymore.

The first verse begins with Sean talking about his hope that more people will be able to get out of the city and move on to successful lives instead of continuing the cycle of poverty. Sean then goes on to talk about how in his youth he recalls the constant sounds of sirens and car alarms which allude to the heavy crime that he was surrounded by his youth. He refers to the streets as an ongoing war that people step into every day. He talks about how at the age of 14 he witnessed his first dead body. This moment put the pressure on him to want to get out and began the work ethic that he shows to this day. He feared that if he did not get out of the hood he would be the next one to lose their life in the streets of Detroit. When he got out he thought that he accomplished everything he set out to but he realized that now it was his time to give back to his community that made him.

In the second verse Sean talks about how he came back home to find a lot of people in the same place they were 10 years ago. He says that it is pathetic and he believes that you can get out of tough situations if you just put the work in. Big Sean believes there is no ceiling to what you can achieve but it requires you to put in the work. He references himself as someone who can not spend his whole life looking at the same ceiling fan meaning that he has a natural desire to reach higher.

This song really stuck out to me because I am at a point where I am being blessed with an amazing education when most of the people in my neighborhood didn’t even graduate high school. I feel like the reason I am here is to learn everything I have to, to then go back to my community and be a leader. The reason I am here at Penn State is a lot bigger than me.

“Same Love” – Macklemore and Ryan Lewis

The song I have chosen to analyze this week is Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Same Love” which was the third single released from their 2012 album The Heist. The song was made during a campaign in Washington in favor of Washington Referendum 74 which legalized same-sex marriage in the state. The cover of the single is a picture of Macklemore’s uncle John Haggerty who he mentions briefly in the song.

Macklemore begins by talking about the stereotypes of the LGBTQA+ community that existed and talks about how at a young age he questioned his sexuality because society deemed certain things “gay.” His opening lines are “When I was in the third grade, I thought that I was gay//’Cause I could draw, my uncle was, and I kept my room straight.” Children are in a fragile place during the early years of their lives and are still learning about themselves. When I was a child in Philly if you did anything that was not seen as something “a man” would do then you were called gay as an insult. Macklemore uses this example of his childhood to show that has created these negative feelings towards the LGBTQA+ community through little comments of sharing false stereotypes.

Macklemore then goes on to talk about how some right-wing conservatives believe that being homosexual is a decision that can be changed by things like “conversion therapy” and religion when it has been proven to be a scientific disposition. Macklemore then goes to say that the phrase “God loves all his children” is commonly referenced but many Christians use their religion as an excuse for their homophobia.

Mary Lambert then goes on to sing the hook which is states “And I can’t change, even if I tried, even if I wanted to.” This is how many members of the LGBTQA+ community feel and it really sucks that not everyone understands that. Macklemore then goes on to talk about how hip-hop is not very inclusive and even though hip-hop was founded from the same oppression. His words sum it perfectly when he says:

“Its the same hate that’s caused wars from religion

gender to skin color, the complexion of your pigment

the same fight that led people to walk-outs and sit-ins

It’s human rights for everybody, there is no difference.”

This part I feel is essence of the song overall. When people talked about LGBTQA+ issues they fail to realize that the issues are a matter of human rights. In communities of color homophobia is common even though POC should understand the most what it is like to be marginalized. Macklemore stresses that regardless of sexual orientation you can still be an advocate for change.

The song ends with the famous Bible quote “Love is patient, love is kind.” Though I did not go into depth with the lyrics, I think the song is pretty straight forward and it is the overall message that is important. Though the song directly calls for the legalization of same-sex marriage, which has now been legalized in the entire country, I believe the bigger message is about sticking up for the LGBTQA+ community and helping them to be seen as people just like the rest of us.


“Summer Friends” – Chance the Rapper

I’d like to start this semester with one of the most slept-on songs on Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book mixtape that was released in May of last year. This mixtape gained Chance a lot of hype but much of the attention was paid on the more upbeat music. This is one of Chance’s slower songs and talks about the crime that has been occurring in Chicago which is where Chance was born and raised.

Chance begins by setting the scene of his childhood. He talks about how he used to be a troublesome kid and many of his friends were too. He says that none of them had a father figure in their lives leading them to a childhood filled with petty crime. He goes on to talk about how in his childhood gang violence began to rise. He remembers having to come in before it got dark due to the high risk of crime that occurred on a nightly basis.

He then went on to talk about how things get even worse in the summer when school lets out. Due to the large volume of teens not in school and the warm temperature, more people were out and up to no good. He talks about how most teens ended up in jail or lost their lives. The large amount of gang related deaths ruined the summertime for most people that lived in Chicago. Instead of ice cream and swimming pools, people in Chicago are just exposed to a constant war zone.

The main line of the chorus reads, “Summer friends don’t stay.” This was the unfortunate truth for Chicago children. At any point you could lose your closest friend which is something I can’t even imagine. I come from a rough part of Philadelphia but the violence does not go to the same extent as Chicago.

Chance then goes on to talk about the strong work ethic that was instilled in him from a young age. He talks about how his mother would do people’s hair on the side for extra money in addition to the long nights his father would work to provide for the family. Seeing how hard his family worked prompted him, to adopt a good work ethic at a young age. He would mow loans for extra money which treated him well financially. His drive to work hard still remains with him today as he spends long nights every day working on his music.

At the end of the song Jeremih hops on to talk about his youth in Chicago. He had a very tight knit group of friends that looked out for each other. They were so close that they felt like a family and losing any of their friends was like losing a blood relative due to how close they were.

This song just really hits me because I think of the reality of so many young people in Chicago on a daily basis. Growing up in a rough neighborhood you see a lot of things and have many experiences, but I know that my experiences are nowhere near the experiences of young people there.

“Crooked Smile” – J Cole


This week I have decided to look at J Cole’s song titled “Crooked Smile,” which appeared on his second studio album, Born Sinner.  I really appreciate this song because it discusses a topic that is frequently overlooked, especially in Hip-Hop, and that is the topic of appearance. This song stresses appreciating your inner beauty despite what you may look like.

The song starts with J Cole sharing some personal experience on the issue. He talks about how now that he has money, he began to consider getting his teeth fixed because he has a “crooked smile.” He says that he was considering the change but he thought about it and considered how far he made it with the appearance he has. He decided to keep his teeth how they were to prove a point to all the kids that regardless of how you look, you can achieve whatever you set out to do. Even though they may not be the most attractive person he still has intelligence, money and the attention of females which is all most people can ask for in life.

He then goes on to talk about how hard it must be for women to have the constant pressure to look attractive. He references the societal norm of women wearing heels and makeup regardless of the extra energy required of them. Cole says that they do not need makeup because there is “no need to fix what God already put his paintbrush on.” He continues in the next verse to talk about how hard it must be to find a good man and what it does to the woman as she has different experiences with trusting men throughout life. He talks about how women should not feel as though they are not beautiful just because they can not find a boyfriend. He stresses that a man does not define a woman. He says to be strong and if they ever are struggling and need a friend, he will be there to pick them up.

In his last verse Cole brings up some larger societal issues while still keeping the theme of the song. He says that though you may not look like the people on TV you have the right to chase your dreams and achieve whatever goal you set. He says that if you think that your smile isn’t perfect, “look at the nation, thats a crooked smile braces couldn’t even straighten.” He then goes on to talk about some of the problems in the nation. The first problem he addresses is mass incarceration by saying that “it seems like half the race is either on probation or in jail.” This is just talking about how much mass incarceration effects mainly minority communities. He says that this system causes you to question why you would even want to live in a world that you will soon be a prisoner in. He then goes on to talk about white privilege by asking his audience if he would sell more if his skin was white.

Cole calls on law enforcement to reform and let out all the people serving time that should not be. He says that if officers just did a better job at preventing crime, especially in low income communities, then there would be less crime.

This song is great because it has a positive message and is uplifting to whoever listens to it.


“I Can” – Nas

The song I have chosen to examine this week is “I Can” by Nas. The song appeared on Nas’ sixth studio album, titled God’s Son. The song was released in 2003 when I was 4 so I wouldn’t say it is the most recent but it does have a timeless message.

The song begins with the chorus that is sung by Nas and a group of children. The chorus says “I know I can be what I want to be. If I work hard at it, I’ll be where I want to be.” These words guide the entire song. The song is meant to be inspiration to kids to show them that they can accomplish their dreams as long as they work for them.

Nas begins the first verse with a story of a woman he knew who was an up and coming singer. He talks about how she began to hang with the wrong crowd which led her to drugs like coke and heroin. Nas warns that she risked dying at a young age and now looks old and unattractive due to her substance abuse. The moral of this story is to warn kids about the friends they keep. There is an old spanish saying that translates to: “Show me who your friends are and I’ll show you who you are.” This basically means that your friends are a reflection of the person you are and it is important to keep good ones.

In the next verse Nas talks to the little girls first warning about acting older. He warns that though your body may have developed earlier, you should still give yourself time to develop. He warns that they should not be attracted to older men just because they have wealth due to the many other risks associated with older men including STDs and rape. He says that the best thing that they can do is act their age and wait for their time.

Nas then moves on to talk to the young boys. He says that life is not about smoking weed and buying fancy jewelry. He warns them that if they stay on that path they will end up in their 30s and illiterate. He says that smart boys turn to men and move on to achieve whatever they work for.

In Nas’ last verse he looks at black excellence in history. He says that before blacks came to this country they were kings and queens, not the porch monkeys they were referred to as. Blacks had advanced civilizations that many other civilizations came to for education. He talks about the gold they had before the Europeans came in and took everything. After robbing the resources dry they decided to build ships to take the last of what Africa had, its people. He talks about how black faces were etched in mountains before Africans were taken to America to be viewed as lesser which still occurs. He says that just because you grow up in a bad neighborhood, it does not mean you have to be a gangster. It is most important to believe in yourself and if you do that you will succeed.

“One Man Can Change the World” – Big Sean (ft. Kanye West and John Legend)

The song I have chosen this week is “One Man Can Change the World” by Big Sean featuring Kanye West and John Legend. The song appeared on Big Sean’s third studio album, Dark Sky Paradise. The song is dedicated to Big Sean’s grandmother who passed away and was of his biggest inspirations. Throughout the song he uses her words to empower his listeners as she did for him.

The song begins with the hook that is composed of words Big Sean’s grandmother had said to him. These words are what pushed Big Sean to work so hard to achieve his goals in life. His grandmother would tell him all her hopes for him in life including surviving on his own, meeting the girl of his dreams, and attaining economic stability. She always would remind Sean that “one man can change the world.” When Sean repeats these words it sounds to the listener that Sean is talking to them, which is powerful to hear. These words are especially important because they are uplifting words that most of Big Sean’s listener probably do not hear.

Big Sean starts his first verse talking about how all he wanted when he was a kid was to have lot of money and have a beautiful wife to share it with. He talks about how he would stare up at the ceiling at night trying to figure out how he will accomplish his goals in life because he felt as though they were unachievable for someone from his economic class. He says that his step-brother used to sell coke outside his house so he was exposed to drug dealing at a very young age. This is very relatable to his audience because some people have very little degree of separation between them and the drug world much like Sean.

Sean then moves to talk about the difficulties he faces when gaining the money that he does. He fears that he will get caught up in the fame much like other rappers who have gained popularity but then lost all their money. He also talks about how it is up to the listener to create goals for themselves much like he did. He says that he realized that there was not much different between him and the people he looked up to. He says this because he wants to inspire his listeners not to think that their dreams are unattainable.

In his second verse he begins with a quote from his grandmother that inspired him to leave a legacy: “If you write your name in stone, you’ll never get the white out.” He talks about how this pushed him to go from the streets of Detroit to performing at the White House. He talks about the struggles growing up in the conditions he did but then says that in comparison to his grandmother he had it light. His grandmother was one of the first African American women to serve as captain during WWII which Sean commends her for. In addition to her time in the military, she also raised her children and grandchildren which is one of the hardest jobs there is. He ends the verse by saying that he hopes that when they are reunited in heaven and appreciates that she always looks out for him like a guardian angel.

“Be Free” – J Cole

Link to performance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ytjFlay4cOQ

This week I have chosen to analyze a song that J Cole performed on “The Late Show with David Letterman”. This version is slightly different from the audio single he originally released. This is one of the most powerful performances I’ve ever seen so I think it is very important to share. J Cole performed this in December of 2014 when the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri had the countries attention in the fallout of the killing of Michael Brown. I have seen various spoken word and hip hop presentations but none have effected me like this one did. Though the performance was from almost 2 years ago many of the words still remain true.

J Cole starts by saying that he is one of the many Americans who cannot believe the blatant racism that occurs in this country. He says that it doesn’t take much to see through his smile that he puts on for the cameras. Though he is at an elevated status, he realizes what is going on in local communities and it pains him to see.

J Cole then moves on to the chorus where he says “All we wanna do is take the chains off. All we wanna do is be free.” This quote is very important and is repeated various times throughout the song. Cole is stating the feelings of many blacks who simply want to be seen as equals to whites. The chains are a reference to not only slavery but the constant chains of oppression, brutality, and injustice that minorities, especially blacks, face on an everyday basis. The desires of african americans are the same as they have always been, to live in a country where they are free to live as equals to everyone else. There is no denying that inequality exists and it is about time that we move away from that and towards a country where people are truly equal.

Cole’s second verse contains two different messages. The first is a message of frustration when Cole asks, “Can you tell me why every time I step outside I see my people die?” This can be seen as a reference to the many police brutality cases that occur, especially those that end in fatalities. His second message is one of resilience when he says that there is no gun that can kill his soul. He is saying that he will continue to talk about the issues present and there is no one who will take that fight for a better future out of him.

The third verse was added by Cole specifically for his performance on Letterman. In it he talks about how excited the African American community was after Obama won. He jokes that they celebrated his victory as if he was going to finally get reparations for blacks. He then goes on to say that Obama’s victory was a false hope of change. He says that though Obama may have had good intentions, he was unable to accomplish much especially in regards to racial equality due to the flaws of the system. Cole then goes on to say “They let a nigga steer the ship and never told him that the ship was sinkin'” which is one of my favorite quotes because I believe it sums up the Obama presidency perfectly.

Cole then goes on to talk about how there needs to be more positive role models for blacks not just NBA players and rappers but people with degrees. This song is very powerful and I believe this performance needs to be seen by more people because of the effects it can leave on a person.