Incarceration is not a joke. It is a resolute institution set in place to constrict the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. with a parachute filled with holes known as rehabilitation on the back end. I've seen it destroy people, and not just those doing their time, but the people around them. With all the ills surrounding the institution, we have somehow grown accustomed to romanticizing the idea of it through various platforms - from social networks to scripted shows. There are numerous programs shedding light on the harshness of imprisonment and although they may be entertaining, this subtle glorification has always given me pause.
We sympathize (sometimes ignorantly) with those around us and those who inspire us with clever hashtags and trending topics, but how does it translate? Is it just what’s popular at the moment? Do people really care?
Imagine if D-Roc wouldn’t have taken the gun charge for Big? Imagine if Snoop would have been convicted on that murder charge while working on Doggystyle? Imagine if prosecutors had wanted to make an example out of Jay Z after the Un Rivera stabbing incident? Hip-Hop history as we know it would be totally different, and sadly incarceration has been a consistent theme for Hip-Hop artists and fans over the years. It's a force that's both made and broken careers, and some have never fully recovered from time spent in prison.
For example, Slick Rick, who may never get his due in the ears of younger listeners but during the mid-to-late '80s, he sat at the top of Hip-Hop’s elite. His debut album, The Adventures of Slick Rick, gained various accolades, most of which come in the form of praise from other rappers. His storytelling ability and Queens English annunciation set him apart from others, while keeping his own sense of originality. Although he gained much praise, his career was changed after being charged with attempted murder in 1990. He did six years, and never regained the successes or influence of his previous work. Rick was able to solidify himself with some classics, but his career remains a "what if?" Just like what happened towards the end of the '90s when one of Bad Boy's newest artists found himself in legal trouble as well.
Shyne was supposed to be Bad Boy's next big artist (wait, how many times have we heard that?) after his on-the-spot signing by Diddy. His self-titled debut album, Shyne, which included the memorable Barrington Levy collaboration “Bad Boyz,” remains memorable, but he is more known these days for a shooting in December 1999, in which his boss Diddy and his then-girlfriend, Jennifer Lopez, were involved. As he tried to enjoy the success of his album, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Upon his release, he stayed in the mainstream for all the wrong reasons, dissing any and every rapper he could to stay relevant, and has now largely disappeared.
While prison ended Shyne's career before it even started, others were backed with street credibility and commercial success before prison and are making their own attempts at continuing to legitimize themselves as elite after being releases.
Lil Wayne was arguably the best rapper alive during the mid-late 2000s in a variety of facets, not to mention selling over one million copies of Tha Carter III in its first week. He was charged with criminal possession of a weapon following a concert in New York in 2007, the legal battle held up for two years, until he was sentenced to a year in prison in March of 2010. Although he has continued to garner mainstream success with his recent projects and his Trukfit clothing line, there is no denying his popularity took a hit during his time in jail. One of his fellow collaborators also had a nice following before his stint in jail, and is currently working his way back.
Similairly, T.I. was the self-proclaimed King of The South, a proclamation many agreed with due to his articulate delivery coupled with his charismatic persona. With a run of five platinum albums Tip had ascended to the top of Hip-Hop’s elite, but stints in jail during the latter part of the 2000s has taken a longterm toll as his albums don’t seem to impact the culture with the same enthusiasm. With a family reality show and a new album on the way, hopefully he can regain his once coveted place in Hip-Hop hierarchy.
Wayne and T.I. had the world on their shoulders at one point, but for lesser known artists the road to recovery and a winning restart remains to be seen.
Remy Ma was the biggest female emcee during the mid-2000s, after a stellar verse on the smash summer hit, “Lean Back.” Her album, There's Something About Remy, didn’t achieve great commercial success, but received outstanding reviews from various magazines. After her departure from Terror Squad, she had deals on the table from a handful of labels, but all these conversations were cut short after she was involved in a shooting and sentenced to seven years in prison. She was recently released, and hopes to continue the work she initially set out to do. The road ahead, however, seems an uphill battle.
The aforementioned artists have all come out of jail different; regardless of what argument you can make about their post-prison recovery, they've all taken a step back from their past glory. Having the ability to do time and come out stronger, from the standpoint of one's music career, takes a special kind of person, a special kind of artist.
Tupac Shakur has long been lauded for his passion and discussion of thought provoking topics in his music. Although at times critics have judged him for negativity in his lyrics, the overwhelming majority of listeners place Pac atop of Hip-Hop’s Mount Rushmore. As his fame began to reach heightened levels, he was charged with sexual assault and sentenced to 1½–4½ years in prison. His albums pre-prison had been respectable and he had been cast in memorable roles in Juice (Bishop) and Above The Rim (Birdy). He was well on his way, but still not quite there yet. During his time in jail though, he released Me Against The World, achieving commercial success and noted for its “reflective” and “soul barring” content. He would go on to release a litany of albums which achieved great commercial success, most notably All Eyez On Me, which reached the coveted diamond (10 million copies sold) certification.
Categorizing Tupac as a rapper has a way of marginalizing his reach, as he meant much more to the culture for his ideas and representative mindstate. Perhaps this is why he was able to navigate his way out of the jail so successfully while it's proven to be a curse that has has plagued so many other rappers.
Perhaps the confining nature of the prison system also confines creativity? Spending seemingly indefinite amounts of dead time constricted to one way of living must take its toll on creatives. Whether rapping about the struggle or finding success, things change and further provide new content. No matter how much we glorify it, there's nothing creative about spending time locked up. Sure, an artist could write verses, songs, even whole albums, but while incarcerated the physical prison takes its toll on the mind in ways only these artists can articulate and comprehend. Or maybe the culture simply moves so fast that being out of spotlight for even a few months can prove fatal.
With so much on the line with a budding career, I’m always frustrated when rappers find themselves behind bars. Artists must let go of certain things in order to ascend to greater heights. There’s no need to carry the gun or drive the car; there are people willing and able to do these things (not condoning criminal activity whatsoever). While on the road to greater success, it’s easy and sometimes necessary to lose sight of the bigger picture, but everyday small thoughtless decisions have a way of becoming major hiccups.
Which brings me to Meek Mill. I’ve followed Meek since his national emergence on XXL’s 2011 Freshman Cover, copping his mixtapes and applauding his signing to Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group. I worried he would fall into the same lane as DMX, as the memes and gifs parodied his enthusiastic delivery, but it all changed once the first track of Dreams and Nightmares played through my speakers. I remember losing my mind when I heard “Intro” for the first time, it was perfect – a symbol of his growth, yet hunger for more. He’s reached levels (no pun) up-and-comers would die to reach, but he has only scratched the surface of his potential. Due to some alleged “questionable behavior” while on probation Meek was sentenced to three to six months in jail.
The ball is in Meek’s court. With his ability to use the streets of North Philly as a vessel for his own change in the beginning of his career, will it prove to be a road block at this point? Only time will tell, but history tells us he's got a very difficult road ahead.
[By Greg Stowers, Non Nobis Solum Nati Sumus. This is his Twitter.]