Moral Psych 101 — Listen to Tupac

David Pizarro (aka @peez) is a social psychologist at Cornell University who studies moral judgment and the influence of emotions on judgment. He is currently spending a semester at Duke University at the Kenan Institute of Ethics and at the Center for Advanced Hindsight.

I also work with a great team of people doing psychology/behavioral economics research at BEWorks, and co-host a podcast with a philosopher [Editor’s note: personal friend of this blog Tamler Sommers] which is called “Very Bad Wizards“. 
 Word up Peez, glad to have you on the show. So, Moral Psychology and the Rap Music? The mic is yours, start spitting boy.

One of the things I love about studying morality and emotion is that these topics cannot really be understood without looking at work across many areas. Because of that, I’m lucky enough to have regular opportunities to talk to smart people who work across a wide variety of fields such as philosophy, behavioral economics, neuroscience, marketing, and law (to name a few).

This means that a lot of the time I am the dumbest person in the room. But I find that far more enjoyable (and far less boring) than being the smartest one. I am, however, usually fairly confident that I am the smartest person in the room when it comes to rap music.

I fell in love with rap in elementary school (my first cassette tape was Run D.M.C), and have loved it longer and deeper than I love most things. So in what follows, I mix business and pleasure by listing five of my favorite rap songs of all time, and writing a bit about them from the perspective of someone who studies what I study.

But mostly, I just am happy that the Science Rockstars are letting me talk about rap.

Nas “Memory Lane (Sittin’ in da Park)”

The song is a wonderful example of the emotion of nostalgia — Nas raps with wistfulness about friends, drug deals, dice games, criminal violence, and abusive cops. The joys and pains of project life blur together into a bitersweet memory in what are some of the most poetic lyrics in all of hip hop (“no sign of the beast in a blue Chrysler [the police]/I guess that means peace for niggas/no sheisty vice to just snipe you”).

Yet unlike a lot of the rap music of the era, Nas seems less concerned with condemning the ills of project life or celebrating its pleasures than he is in simply communicating a feeling: what it was like to grow up where he did, when he did. Sure, good and evil are part of the tales he tells (cops are bad guys, friends are murdered for their coat, judges give unfair sentences), but the tale is not about right and wrong.

Nas doesn’t rap about what life ought to have been, but about what life was. So knife fights and gunshots are spoken of with the same nostalgia as dice games and weed-smoking. And as hopeless as some of the lyrics may seem, the song is a celebration of life — the good parts, the bad parts, and the blurry gray parts that fill up the rest.

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Mos Def “Mathematics”

While equally poetic (and also produced by DJ Premier), this song from Mos Def (now Yasiin Bey) is all about moral condemnation. In this case, the bad guy is not a local cop or criminal, but a system that has been put in place to keep people (Black people in America, specifically) oppressed and ignorant.

The clever use of numbers in this song is a technique borrowed from the Five Percent Nation of Islam (an offshoot of Farakhan’s Nation of Islam that has had a large influence on hip hop). Members of the this religion believe that there is a “supreme mathematics” that helps uncover truth, and they use numbers to illustrate basic principles of their teachings, often with clever wordplay.

Here, Mos Def does something similar to expose the truth he believes is hidden from the masses. While flirting with conspiracy theories and bordering on paranoia, it is nonetheless a brilliantly structured song: 
 “It’s a numbers game, but shit don’t add up somehow/ Like I got, 16 to 32 bars to rock it/ But only 15% of profits ever see my pockets like/ 69 billion in the last 20 years/Spent on national defense but folks still live in fear/ Nearly half of America’s largest cities is one-quarter black/ That’s why they gave Ricky Ross all the crack/ 16 ounces to a pound, 20 more to a Ki/ A 5-minute sentence hearing and you’re no longer free/ 40% of Americans own a cell phone/ So they can hear everything that you say when you ain’t home…”

A Tribe Called Quest “Sucka Nigga”,

Especially when there’s an idiot who’s acting up — a “sucka nigga.” I suppose the greater point being conveyed is that feeling of knowing that we probably shouldn’t say or do some of the things we say or do, but for whatever reason we find ourselves doing it over and over again.

“See, nigga first was used back in the Deep South/ Falling out between the dome of the white man’s mouth/ It means that we will never grow, you know the word dummy/ Other niggas in the community think it’s crummy/ But I don’t, neither does the youth cause we em-/ Brace adversity it goes right with the race/ And being that we use it as a term of endearment/ Niggas start to bug, to the dome is where the fear went/ Now the little shorties say it all of the time/ And a whole bunch of niggas throw the word in they rhyme/ Yo I start to flinch, as I try not to say it/ But my lips is like the oowop as I start to spray it…Sucka Nigga”

Public Enemy “Can’t Truss It”

I credit this song for doing what no history course was ever able to do, make me actually feel a small measure of the pain felt by countless Africans who were taken from their homes and sold into slavery. Chuck D.’s booming voice makes the poetry all the more powerful:

“I can only guess what’s happenin’/ Years ago he woulda been the ship’s captain/ Gettin’ me bruised on a cruise, what I got to lose/ Lost all contact, got me layin’ on my back/ Ugh, rollin’ in my own leftover/ When I roll over, I roll over in somebody else’s/ 90 damn days on a slave ship/ Count them fallin’ off 1, 2, 3, 4 hundred at a time/ Blood in the wood and it’s mine/ I’m chokin’ on, spit, feelin’ pain/ Like my brain bein’ chained/ Still gotta give it what I got/ But it’s hot in the day, it’s cold in the night/ But I thrive to survive, I pray to god to stay alive/ Attitude boils up inside”

Tupac Shakur “Changes”

His song “Changes,” released posthumously, is a perfect example of what he did best — saying exactly what he meant. There are no clever tricks or gimmicks to the song, no particularly noteworthy wordplay, and the rhyme scheme is as simple as you get in rap nowadays.

But this song is notable, in that it represents the best of “good guy” Tupac — the son of a Black Panther who was concerned with his community and wanted desperately to change the world for the better. Again, there is no lack of moralizing here. The bad are told that they are bad. (Needless to say, he was a complex character, and many remember him more for his songs with…more colorful lyrics).

It is also notable in that he eerily foreshadows his death by gunshot in the very last verse. If you haven’t heard it, you really should listen. My favorite line references the Black Panther Huey Newton:

“It’s time to fight back, that’s what Huey said/ 2 shots in the dark, now Huey’s dead”

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Originally published at on January 24, 2014.