ERIN I. KELLY
The payback attitude heard in gangsta rap sounds like a call for retribution. As 50 cent puts it, “Nigga you play around, I lay you down / That's how it's goin' down.”1 Justice as retribution echoes the feeling that vengeance is sweet, redeeming those who've suffered the humiliation of being wronged. This appeals to many people. It fact, it seems to express the attitude many law-abiding citizens would direct at gangstas themselves. Yet the desire for retribution that some rappers express isn't proposed as a legitimate basis for a system of punishment. To begin with, the situations they portray are sometimes way outside of the law, as Nas depicts in “Every Ghetto”: “Circle the block where the beef's at / And park in front of my enemy's eyes / They see that it's war we life-stealers, hollow-tip lead busters.”2
Behind rappers' desire to settle the score often lies a firm belief that the law does not, and doesn't aim to, protect them. If the law doesn't protect you and won't deliver justice, you may have to protect your own honor and reputation by seeking vengeance against your enemies. In Dr. Dre's words, “And if motherfuckers come at me wrong / I straight put my .44 Desert Eagle to his motherfuckin' dome / and show him why they call me the notorious one.”3
1 50 Cent, “Rotten Apple,” Guess Who's Back (Full Clip, 2002).
2 Nas, “Every Ghetto,” Stillmatic (Sony, 2001).
3 Dr. Dre, “Nigga Witta Gun,” The Chronic (Priority, 1992).