On the Ghetto

People, don't you understand? Jaheim doesn't need your helping hand — being in the ghetto is fine with him. Over the course of three albums recorded and produced at Miami's own Hit Factory studio, 'Heim has dedicated his brand of R&B to reclaiming the word ghetto from those who use it as a putdown (as in "That's so ..."). This, however, makes the title of his latest album, Ghetto Classics, a misnomer. It's not that Classics lacks quality or mass appeal (indeed for the latter, it debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 in February) — it's that his gangsta-with-a-heart-of-gold pride is decidedly un-classic when compared to the way ghetto has been portrayed for years in R&B and hip-hop. Below are some examples of ghetto representation in soul and hip-hop — not all of them believe the hood is all good.

The ghetto as cinema: Bobby Womack, "Across 110th Street" (1972): The theme of the blaxploitation flick of the same name, "Across 110th Street" portrays Harlem, "the capital of every ghetto town," as a one-stop shop for debauchery. Over strings fit for Moby, Womack moans about pimps, junkies, hookers, and pushers, but you get the feeling he also knows just how titillating the scenery is.

Telling lyric: "Look around ya, look around ya, look around ya, look around ya."

The ghetto as hell: Stevie Wonder, "Village Ghetto Land" (1976): Don't let that sweet, baroque melody fool you: Wonder's ghetto is torture. Beggars eat from garbage cans, robbers terrorize residents, children are riddled with sores, and babies die. To accompany Stevie's bleeding heart is an impoverished arrangement — just him and a synth that's tuned to sound like a set of strings it foolishly aspires to.

Telling lyric: "Some folks say that we should be glad for what we have/Tell me, would you be happy in Village Ghetto Land?"

The ghetto as intoxication: Rick James, "Ghetto Life" (1981): Ebullient, horns-and-all funk underscores James's seemingly autobiographical take on his coming of age. In the ghetto, he was young, lazy, dumb, and crazy, so "Ghetto Life" reveals itself as a hoax: There's no way the prolific James could possibly have held on to the kind of complacency the song celebrates.

Telling lyric: "One thing about the ghetto/You don't have to hurry/It'll be there tomorrow/So, brother, don't you worry."

The ghetto as no man's land: Naughty by Nature, "Ghetto Bastard" (1991): A grim update of Donny Hathaway's 1972 classic, "Little Ghetto Boy," "Ghetto Bastard" supplants hope (Hathaway's promise that "Everything has got to get better") with mocking (the "Everything's gonna be all right" of the chorus, sampled from Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry"). NBN frontman Treach is so used to dead-end streets he even turns the song into one.

Telling lyric: "If you ain't live it, you couldn't feel it, so kill it, skillet/And all that talk about it won't help it out, now will it?"

The ghetto as a binding tie: Ghostface featuring Mary J. Blige and Poppa Wu, "All That I Got Is You" (1996): Manipulative through and through (the strings will tug at your heart's), this recounting of Ghostface's childhood nonetheless is very real in its sadness. If the roaches infesting his three-bedroom, fifteen-person apartment don't get you, Blige's maternal moaning will. When she sings, "All that I got is you," she isn't exaggerating.

Telling lyric: "I remember this, moms would lick her fingertips/To wipe the cold out my eye before school with her spit."

The ghetto as greener grass: R. Kelly, "I Wish (Remix)" (2000): In what might be the most complicated spin on the subject, R. Kelly's reminiscing takes him back to his ghetto past, when all he wanted to do was get out of there. "It's all good now, we out the hood now," he says, pouring out lyrical liquor of homies he lost, before coming to the conclusion that all he has is "these ghetto memories." The underlying message may be trite, but it's a brilliant depiction of wanting what you can't have.

Telling lyric: "Sometimes we'd cry, cry, cry/Askin' the Lord why, why, why/They tearin' down these projects."

The ghetto as the other woman: Teedra Moses, "You'll Never Find" (2004): You can take the ghetto out of the man, maybe, but Moses can't get her man out of the ghetto. Instead of hugging her, he's hugging blocks. She calls it a "ghetto love affair"; instead of "Till death do us part," her object of agitation pledged he'll ride or die with the hood.

Telling lyric: "But when the money and the fame came/Oh, could it ever really change?"

The ghetto as a party: Young Jeezy, "My Hood" (2005): "The streets love Jeezy and I love them back," delivers the rapper in "My Hood," and it shows in the song's boisterous, necessarily cheap production. Even when the cops bust him and his hustling peers, the incident is presented more as a game of hide and seek than a dangerous situation. It's like nothing can get him down. He should invite Jaheim over for the 24/7 party.

Telling lyric: "It ain't nothin' — we hear shots all night."

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Rich Juzwiak