This is an embarrassing thing to admit, but the first rap album I ever owned was Beware of Dog by Lil’ Bow Wow. In my defense, I was young and that “Puppy Love” video was lit. But I still cringe thinking about it — my early insistence that Shad Moss was the GOAT — especially when I think back on the incredible musical environment that I was raised in. I had a brother who played DJ Screw from the stereo in his bedroom and neighbors who opened their trunks to blast Fat Pat on the street and a local radio station that played UGK before “Big Pimpin’” was even thought of.
All that syrupy greatness in my orbit — living down the street from Bushwick Bill, having Paul Wall show up after school to pick up his manager/my middle school P.E. teacher — and I still didn’t listen to much rap. Not even the legendary, glorious, chopped (never slopped) Houston rappers who propped up the genre, going on to influence the Drakes and A$AP Rockys and half the other artists playing on your Spotify. I knew what I needed to know to not be the lame kid in school, but I was good with a couple bars at the end of a Destiny’s Child record here, a lil’ "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It" at the school dance there.
I guess it was partly because my mama wouldn’t let me listen to half of it, changing the station whenever she heard cuss words or “booty” too often. But beyond that, hip-hop didn’t seem to want me as fan anyway. The predominate rap music around me was for the syrup sippers and slab swangers; those who fancied themselves ballers and shot callers, 20-inch blades on their Impalas. I mean, don’t get me wrong, ‘cause by senior year I was dating a guy who had a solid gold grill with a different letter of his nickname etched into each tooth, but I never felt quite as connected to the surrounding culture as my older brother — the aspiring producer — and my younger sister — who looks like one of the girls Drake be rappin’ about — had been. I was corny as fuck, watching Degrassi reruns on Friday nights and reading the morning announcements at school and throwing a Spice Girls themed birthday party once. There wasn’t much on Rap-a-Lot for me to relate to. At least not on the surface.
But of course, all that changed, on a Saturday afternoon during my junior year of high school. I had been tasked to clean the living room, and my mom was like, “you better not half-do it this time.” So I was down on my knees — my knees! — spraying Windex on the far corners of the coffee table, even taking the magazines and coasters off instead of just trying to wipe the spaces the around them. Though I was cleaning up for real that time, I had one ear open for the TV in the den.
I needed — needed! — to learn the dance break at the end of Maya’s “My Love is Like…Woah” video and had everything set up to press record on the VHS player if it came on while I was cleaning. I kind of tuned out every song that didn’t start with “see baby, I know you done had your share of girls…” but a couple of seconds into some other rap song that was playing, and both of my ears perked up. I nodded my head a little but kept on cleaning. It wasn’t Mya, but it was pretty good. I liked the drums and the soulful vocals in back and DID HE JUST SAY SOMETHING ABOUT DELTAS?
Now, I ain’t no Delta. But at the time, as a 16-year-old southern girl whose uncles were branded and whose godmothers were her mom’s line sisters and who was obsessed with A Different World, I was definitely was going to be a Delta. What the fuck did this rapper know Deltas?!
I ran into the living room, dropping the roll of paper towels and letting it unspool across the hardwood, standing in front of the television and clamoring to press record.
He mentioned Emmitt Till and was rapping about seat belt safety and telling a story in between the chorus and the verses and was that Chaka freaking Khan on the hook?! My life changed that day, standing in my mama’s living room. Here was some rando from Chicago with a weird name, relating to me in a way that HAWK and Pimp and Big Moe hadn’t.
Later on I became a sincere fan of those guys, embracing my Houston rap lineage and appreciating them one thousand times more than I had as a kid. Like, for real, you should see me when Z-ro’s “Mo City Don Freestyle” come on. But it’s honestly all thanks to Kanye West. Men could listen to it and women could listen to it and so could street niggas and SAT niggas. You could be The Wire and A Different World. He’s a little less of what I always loved him for now, but I’ll always be thankful to him for opening my eyes to the world’s greatest genre, and making me feel like I could be part of it too. All that rappity-rap for me after all. Even though it wasn’t, I like to pretend that his debut was the first rap album I ever owned.
Jada F. Smith is a crop top wearing, trail mix eating, bobby pin collecting writer who often feels like she's Brad Jordan. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and TheRoot.com, and she has been a guest commentator on NPR. She also writes short stories about passing out at music festivals and getting kicked off the metro on her blog, CasualTuesdays.com.