How Hip-Hop Humanizes Struggle Through Hunger

“You don’t work, you don’t eat.”
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“I wanted Trap Muzik to make people care about drug dealers and see us as human beings.” —T.I., interview with Noisey

Everybody’s gotta eat. Hunger is the common denominator of humanity, and the pursuit to fill your plate is the common denominator of hip-hop. We all want to survive, thrive, and do right by the people who rely on us, but access to survival has always been limited. Fifteen years ago, T.I. made Trap Muzik because he wanted to humanize the survival tactics of the trap. He wanted to give hip-hop fans a real look at the causes and consequences of trying to eat as a Black man in a rigged system.

So much of rap music focuses on the literal act of eating, wherein eating stands for our base needs as well as opulent desires. Before and long after T.I.’s second album, survival has been the image used to ground systemic struggle in layman’s terms. Eating is the tool of the humanizer—it appeals to our carnal impulses, and in that way is understood as universal. Thus, hunger becomes a throughline for all of rap. The sphere of eating in hip-hop holds intergenerational and multi-genre weight.

Take Isaiah Rashad’s “Free Lunch,” rap duo Armand Hammer’s “No Days Off,” and Lupe Fiasco’s “Gotta Eat,” three sonically diverse songs that seem to be in conversation with each other and with the greater trap ecosystem. These tracks do not flow into each other, they unfold and weave together from the verse to the bridge, telling a broader story of struggle in the most honest way possible. We’ve all got to eat, true, but sometimes it is easy to forget that eating often comes at a price with compounding interest. Hip-hop does not allow us to forget.

On the topic of eating, Isaiah Rashad’s 2016 single “Free Lunch” is quite literally about getting free meals at school. It’s also about his brother selling drugs. One does not occur without the other. 

“As far as the title, ‘Free Lunch,’ there are four numbers that I remember, which is the last four digits of my social,” Rashad told Genius. “That’s because I had free lunch at school. Literally a free lunch, a real meal ticket… The whole song is also a reference to selling drugs.”

To qualify for the free lunch program at school, a younger Zay had to meet the government-approved Income Eligibility Guidelines. Meaning, his household income had to be low enough to justify the school providing him with a free meal. That same low income, of course, is why Rashad’s brother is in the streets dealing drugs. In the same moment that Isaiah Rashad gets to eat because of a lack of access, his brother is dealing drugs in an attempt to get the family’s foot in the proverbial door. Yet, were his brother to get caught in his pursuit of eating, the family’s ability to eat would once again be null. Zay’s “real meal ticket,” then, is a symptom of his hunger, not a remedy for his hunger pains. We have the common saying “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” and quietly “Free Lunch” showcases the grim depth of the phrase. For Isaiah Rashad, and others in his and his brother’s position, the price of eating is not only the opportunity to keep eating but freedom itself.

On “Free Lunch,” the cycle of eating and hustling are painted as truly insidious through a simple AB structuring of the hook. First, we get the meal ticket, then we get the “powder pack,” then the ticket, then the drugs. One informs the other until one cannot exist without the other. This is why the song is entitled “Free Lunch” as opposed to “Drug Dealing,” because the act of eating is central to dealing, and it is also more widely understood. Struggling and fighting for a meal is more human to listeners removed from the trap and acts as a mechanism for humanizing the trap.

The beauty (and multiplicity) of eating as an anchor is that “Free Lunch” is not a trap song. The Sun’s Tirade is not a trap album. Yet, neither song nor album has to be for eating to be a resonant and understood thing. T.I. wanted to humanize drug dealers, and the trope of eating makes every hip-hop space a stage to do just that.

Which brings us back to the complementary images of “Free Lunch” cycling into themselves in a mechanic fashion, nearly as mechanic as the working-like hook of Armand Hammer’s “No Days Off”: “You don’t work, you don’t eat.” Again, “No Days Off” is not a trap song, and Paraffin couldn’t be more polar to typical trap music aesthetics, yet eating allows the song to converse with the greater trap ecosystem, with “Free Lunch,” and with the thoughtful listener.

With that, we could easily layer much of “No Days Off” into the hook of “Free Lunch.” The product would be an even fuller story of hunger and the opportunity cost of each and every meal. “They said they still selling that same kilo of cocaine / Way I see it, we all sell pain,” billy woods spits as a damn near addendum to Rashad’s admission of dealing and popping pills to gain his bearings before we cycle back to images of Zay and his free lunch.

Then we have the mindless drone of the hook on “No Days Off” showcasing the cycle of eating as both encultured to appear innate, as a means of social control, and also that said cycle is nothing if not draining. The exhaustion of risking your life to sustain your life, the mental and physical weight of attempt to eat, is deadening. The density of the repetition, too, implies this cycle is inescapable by design. To which Elucid replies, “That’s problematic in itself,” on the second verse. “No Days Off” extends into a commentary on the tar-trap of labor and how the void of living wages devolves workers into chattel. Disparaging late-stage capitalism, the track staves off inaccessibility because it hinges on hunger. “No Days Off” is able to play as an unlikely companion to “Free Lunch” because the two use eating as a bridge to humanity.

Work on “No Days Off” is never defined as it is on “Free Lunch,” yet the throughline of eating and hunger give us grounds to value and sympathize with all types of labor. Putting the tracks in conversation dissolves the categories of “honest” and “dishonest” work, “skilled” and “unskilled.” “No Days Off” makes things simple and inarguable, and keeps Isaiah Rashad’s brother from being vilified. Taken together, the tracks pose a question to the listener: “Well, what exactly did you want them to do?” Listeners are left with few avenues for an answer because we all know that death follows starvation.

All of this brings us to Lupe Fiasco’s “Gotta Eat,” the final talking head in this hip-hop story of hunger. Through the lens of fast food, Lupe reminds us that there is yet another price to be paid to eat: the lives of addicts. “Gotta Eat” reminds us that eating can never be consequence-free, that lives are at stake from meal to meal. Zay and his brother are risking more than their lives when they pay for their free lunches, much like billy woods alludes to everyone dealing drugs really dealing in pain. Pain, of course, brought on by generational trauma, government systems, and the like, evidencing itself in the same cycle of a kilo for a meal.

The statement made on “Gotta Eat,” the one that completes the conversation started by “Free Lunch” and “No Days Off,” is not dissimilar from Pusha-T’s DAYTONA album cover: a photo of Whitney Houston’s bathroom at the peak of her addiction. The casualties of hunger are multiple, but often they are swept out of sight. Addicts, dealers, and people living below the poverty line are all treated as subhuman. Hip-hop reframes these essentials conversations with eating as appealing to our pathos, to our human sensibility. 

No matter who you are, you can understand the terror of hunger pains.

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