ain't no need to get down, I'm already low
July 23, 2013 9:40 AM   Subscribe

Please help me compile a list of rap songs that clearly illustrate what it is like to grow up and live in poverty -- for example, Brother Ali's "Only Life I Know" [YouTube, SoundCloud, lyrics] or The Coup's "Underdogs" [YouTube, lyrics].

I am specifically not looking for songs about how the artist used to be poor as a child or young adult but continued grinding until they became wealthy and successful. Rather, I am looking for songs that describe the sense of weariness and desperation that accompanies years spent parceling out your pennies and listening to your stomach growl until the next welfare check comes, and songs that talk about how difficult it is to get your foot in the door anywhere when you come from the projects. I was raised up in this environment and it is profoundly cathartic and affecting to hear to songs and stories written by people who have the same background.

Bonus points for a strong sense of melody and a nimble flow. Ostensibly "underground"/independent rappers are strongly preferred.

Thank you!
posted by divined by radio to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Perhaps Run DMC's It's Like That.
posted by phunniemee at 9:45 AM on July 23, 2013

Ghoastface Killah's "Whip You with a Strap"
posted by shortyJBot at 9:47 AM on July 23, 2013

Can-o-Corn, by Coolio. "That's all the fuck that we had in the kitchen."
posted by Flunkie at 9:50 AM on July 23, 2013

Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.D. city album
posted by ghharr at 9:55 AM on July 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Nas ft. AZ "Life's a Bitch".

Fuck who's the baddest, a person's status depends on salary
And my mentality is money-orientated
I'm destined to live the dream for all my peeps who never made it...

Now some resting in peace and some are sitting in San Quentin
Others such as myself are trying to carry on tradition
Keeping this Schefervescent street ghetto essence inside us
Cause it provides us with the proper insight to guide us

It might not be as "forward thinking" as you are wanting, but this verse tries to explain why those brought up in the project are concerned with keeping on with their traditions, rather than looking out at alternatives. The weariness isn't explicit, but it's certainly an attitude, and it's a very self-reflective piece.
posted by SollosQ at 10:15 AM on July 23, 2013

It's not very "underground," but this instantly brought to mind one and only one song from my youth: "Ghetto Bastard" by Naughty by Nature.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:27 AM on July 23, 2013

Talib Kweli's Get By comes to mind.
posted by stellaluna at 10:33 AM on July 23, 2013

Ghetto Bastard by Naughty By Nature
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 10:40 AM on July 23, 2013

The Message of course
posted by kanemano at 10:50 AM on July 23, 2013

So this is a Korean pop group G.O.D. that did an homage to 2pac's Dear Mama called To Mother (어머님께) in 1999. I've linked to the music video with English subtitles. The specifics are about growing up poor in Korea, but the sentiment is universal.
since i was young, our house was in poverty
there wasn't one time where i could show something off to others
my mother was never home because she had to work at the construction site
i was always at home alone cooking ramen
but then i became sick of ramen
i complained that i wanted to eat something good
so my mom reluctantly took out
the hidden emergency money and ordered
one jja jang myun, i was so happy
but my mom didn't eat any
my mother said that she didn't like jja jang myun
posted by spamandkimchi at 10:54 AM on July 23, 2013

Killer Mike's Willie Burke Sherwood, which includes a comparison of his own childhood to Lord of the Flies.
posted by mannequito at 10:57 AM on July 23, 2013

Childish Gambino, "Outside"
posted by dlugoczaj at 11:07 AM on July 23, 2013

Dead Prez, W4
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 12:08 PM on July 23, 2013

Tracy Chapman Fast Car. Oops, missed the rap caveat. Sorry!
posted by saucysault at 1:59 PM on July 23, 2013


When I first read your question, I thought that it'd actually be really easy to come up with a list of songs that cover the topic that you're talking about. However, after scrolling through my mental tracklist, I realize that such songs are actually quite rare. A lot of rappers will reference their impoverished youth on a track but it's only infrequently the sole focus of a track. On the occasions where it is the focus, the topic is usually on the endless circle of violence and not so much on the more immediate aspects of poverty like hunger and uncertainty about the future.

When violence is more of a focus, here are a few tracks that come to mind. We'll start off with some classics:

Notorious BIG - Things Done Changed
2pac - Changes and Brenda's Got a Baby (not violence on Brenda's Got a Baby)
Big L - Lifestylez Ov Da Poor and Dangerous (this one toes that line between describing and glorifying that kind of lifestyle though)

Some tracks from the promising new generation:

Chance the Rapper - Pusha Man / Paranoia (Paranoia is the track with the topic you want, it's technically the last half of Pusha Man but a lot of people count it as a separate track)
Joey Bada$$ - Hardknock and Righteous Minds (He goes all over the place but the trials of poverty are heavily featured in both tracks and others on his mixtape 1999.
Kendrick Lamar - I STRONGLY second the entire album good kid, m.A.A.d city. The entire album is a running narrative describing a young man's experience growing up in Compton, and there's a reason the subtitle for the album is "A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar." If you're looking for one track off of it that encapsulates what you're looking for, it would probably be "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst."

The Talib Kweli tracks that are coming to mind deal more with the intellectual aspects of poverty as opposed to the physical ones. Jay-Z never touches on this topic unless he's also talking about how he overcame it, and Kanye usually deals more with institutionalized racism as opposed to poverty specifically. Other rappers I can think of who would be the type to have tracks like this I don't think came from very impoverished backgrounds (Common, Kid CuDi, and Lupe in particular).
posted by C^3 at 12:02 AM on July 24, 2013

Eminem, "If I Had"
posted by missjenny at 4:16 AM on July 24, 2013

Seconding Chance the Rapper - Pusha Man / Paranoia Here's the track(s) on his soundcloud page & you can get the whole thing at
posted by u17tw at 5:38 AM on July 24, 2013

I should add; For a bit of background on the Chance track here's an excellent little piece on it by Jesse Thorn from his ever excellent Bullseye radio programme.
posted by u17tw at 5:43 AM on July 24, 2013

Ghostface Killah, "All That I Got is You"
Check it, fifteen of us in a three bedroom apartment
Roaches everywhere, cousins and aunts was there
Four in the bed, two at the foot, two at the head
I didn't like to sleep with Jon-Jon he peed the bed
Seven o'clock, pluckin roaches out the cereal box
Some shared the same spoon, watchin saturday cartoons
Sugar water was our thing, every meal was no frills
In the summer, free lunch held us down like steel
And there was days I had to go to Tex house with a note
Stating "Gloria can I borrow some food I'm dead broke"

posted by Gortuk at 11:15 AM on July 24, 2013

My favorite in this genre is G. Dep's "Everyday." "Had a cigarette for breakfast, just for beginners / pride for my luncheon, sleep for dinner." Certainly not "underground," though.
posted by YoungAmerican at 2:47 PM on July 28, 2013

I'd also add a somewhat more positive, but nonetheless melancholy favorite, Scarface's "My Block."
posted by YoungAmerican at 2:51 PM on July 28, 2013

"We Don't Care" by Kanye. It's kinda funny in a way but so accurate that my sister and I sing it to each other when we're feeling particularly downtrodden. There's a sense of perverse pride (of course, it's Kanye) as well.
posted by stoneandstar at 4:45 PM on September 1, 2013

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