Breaking Beats: Songs about getting locked up, or just feeling like you’re in prison

By Skyler Rodriguez

Musicians have sung hits about getting locked up since the earliest days of the Billboard charts. Tracks like “Jailhouse Rock” and “Folsom Prison Blues” brought prison into the mainstream, and maybe even made incarceration seem like a symbol of cool thuggishness. Prison regained attention in the late 80s and early 90s with gangsta rap tracks by artists like 2Pac, Snoop Dogg and Public Enemy. Through the years, some have sung about their personal experiences, while others have used prison in metaphorical terms to describe loneliness or heartache.

The Supreme Court this week heard arguments about whether juveniles can be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. It’s a serious issue that brought to mind songs in our lexicon about incarceration, some also serious, some not so much. Every week I’ll be bringing you a music playlist inspired by a news event. Here’s my incarceration playlist:

Akon — Locked Up ft. Styles P

“They won’t let me out, they won’t let me out, (I’m locked up)”

Akon told reporters that he served a three-year sentence between 1999 and 2002 and was at one point “facing 75 years.” In reality, the singer only spent a few months in county jail before prosecutors dropped all charges against him. This track is still a banger even if Akon’s whole “Konvict Muzik” label branding is more of a marketing ploy than based on reality.

Sam Cooke — Chain Gang

“Can’t you hear them singing, mmm (Hoh! Ah!)
I’m going home one of these days
I’m going home, see my woman
Whom I love so dear
But meanwhile I gotta work right here”

I had to put one throwback in the mix! The song was inspired after a chance meeting with an actual chain gang of prisoners on a highway, seen while Sam was on tour. Sam Cooke makes something so depressing so danceable.

R. City — Locked Away ft. Adam Levine

“If I got locked away
And we lost it all today…
Tell me honestly…
Would you still love me the same?”

While this is R.City’s first major hit, the brothers have written and produced major tracks for artists like Nicki Minaj (“Only”), Rihanna (“Pour It Up”), and Miley Cyrus (“We Can’t Stop”). “Locked Away” draws inspiration from the duo’s experiences of dealing with their father’s absence during his five-year jail sentence. I doubt Adam Levine had a similar experience…

50 Cent — 21 Questions ft. Nate Dogg

“If I got locked up and sentenced to a quarter century
Could I count on you to be there to support me mentally?”

I love that the girl from Cousin Skeeter plays 50’s love interest in the music video. This early 2000’s mid-tempo jam is an all-over cut.

The Weeknd — Prisoner ft. Lana Del Rey

“Maybe I’ve been always destined to end up in this place”

Lana and The Weeknd?! This is a match in sad boy/sad girl Tumblr-heaven. Not actually about prison, the “Can’t Feel My Face” singer sure does build a convincing metaphor with “I’m a prisoner to my addiction, I’m addicted to a life that’s so empty and so cold.” Feel the pain y’all.

Vince Staples — Norf Norf

“I ain’t never ran from nothin’ but the police”

“Norf Norf” explores the good/bad of Staples’ life growing up in Long Beach. This bumpin’ beat is coated with clever lines like, “Knowin’ change gonna come like Obama and them say/But they shootin’ every day ‘round my mama and them way,” portraying both the collective culture of growing up in the mid 2000s while also staying accurate to Staples’ personal history. Moments like this are all over Staple’s sophomore album, Summertime ‘06.

Lock Up — B.C. Kingdom

“I’ll kill you

I’ll do it in Versace”

Kingdom is a producer and collaborator for electro R&B queens like Solange and Kelela. This track opens Solange’s Saint Heron compilation. Slow and sexy, this laid-back cut by B.C. Kingdom is a little more asylum than prison. If beats could kill.

2pac — 16 on Death Row

“Dear Mama, these cops don’t understand me
I turned to a life of crime, cause I came from a broken family”

2Pac is one of the few artists on this list who can say he’s been through the system. While serving a sentence on sexual assault charges in 1995, his multi-platinum album “Me Against the World” went No. 1. In this personal track, 2Pac raps to his mom about his struggles growing up as part of the system.

Here’s the whole playlist: