Do not cross
First things first: I don’t much like Papoose. He raps in a clumsy, scattered bray, ignoring the beat half the time and throwing five-dollar words around to make up for it. His puns are just howlingly awful more often than not. There’s no nuance or confidence or humor in his stone-faced shout. His cameo on Jeannie Ortega’s “Crowded” is the worst rap verse on a teenpop song in recent memory, and that song didn’t exactly need any help to suck. A 45-minute Papoose mixtape has the potential to give me a bigger headache than the Mary Higgins Clark books-on-tape that my sister insists on listening to whenever I’m on a long car trip with my family. Papoose might’ve just signed an obscenely lucrative major-label contract, but that says more about the drought of talent in New York’s mixtape leagues than anything else. I just don’t have a whole lot of nice things to say about him. And as a piece of music, “50 Shots,” the new Papoose song about the NYPD’s fatal shooting of the unarmed 23-year-old black man Sean Bell this past weekend in Queens, is pretty bad. It starts out with the gorgeous swirling pain of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” but then it locks into a clanging, trebly helium-soul beat, the sort of track that New York rappers should’ve stopped using years ago. The track is right now circulating in a satellite-radio rip with Kay Slay yelling bad advice over the intro: “Ninjas gotta get gun licenses! They run up on your car, give it to them!” Papoose raps the same way about this shooting as he does about New York being his hand or mixtape DVD guys needing to get their cameras away from him or whatever. Aesthetically, the song is a mess. It’s also the most clear-minded and righteous example of political rage set to music that I’ve heard all year, and I’m extremely happy that it exists at all. (Idolator has the mp3.)
If you’ve lived in New York anytime over the past five years, the Bell shooting is the sort of thing that makes you shake your head in anger and exasperation and recognition, another disgraceful example of an unjustifiable NYPD murder. It’s biblical in its tragedy. Bell was leaving a club with a couple of friends early Saturday morning. He’d been having a bachelor party; he was going to be married that day. After reading a ton of news accounts of the night’s events, I still have no idea how all this happened, but undercover cops staking out the club thought they heard someone saying something about getting a gun. When they approached the car Bell was in, the driver tried to get away, bumping a police minivan a couple of times in the process. A group of five mixed-race police officers opened fire on the car, emptying fifty shots into it, killing Bell and injuring two of his friends (all black, like you even needed to ask). Mayor Bloomberg has been quick to call the shooting unacceptable, and the public’s response has been almost unanimous in its disapproval, and I still can’t think about it without getting sick. I can only imagine how much worse I’d feel if I wasn’t white, if I really felt like the police department of this city posed an immediate personal threat to me.
“50 Shots” isn’t built to last, and it won’t. But the track is coming out just a couple of days after the shooting, and it’s a strong and direct encapsulation of the rancor and frustration that millions of New Yorkers must be feeling right now. More to the point, it’s fiercely local in its scope, calling out guys like NYPD union president Patrick Lynch and New York Post columnist John Podhoretz even though Papoose could concievably run into either of those guys on the street. Pap’s reaction is immediate and complete. He’s looked at the news reports and the officers’ excuses, and he asks one, “Think we dumb? If your clips was loaded to the top / And your gun jammed, how you fire thirty-one shots?” He guardedly approves the mayor’s reaction, comparing it favorably to Giuliani’s response to the Amadou Diallo shooting: “Some say he spoke illogically / He got some better manners, but let’s see if we get some better policy.” And he’s done enough research to know that there’s no way the NYPD can justify the shooting no matter how they spin it: “The law states that a cop is not permitted to shoot at a moving car / It don’t matter if it’s coming straight at him / Cuz if they shoot the driver, a 4000-pound car could cause more drama.”
The Internet and mixtapes and satellite radio aren’t always great for music, but they do create opportunities for short response-times; Jim Jones can fire back at Jay-Z’s dis track the same day that track leaks, for instance. But this song puts all that nonsense in perspective. Papoose actually uses those structures for good, not for petty name-calling. After a sickening attack that demanded a swift and scathing retribution, Papoose delivered. I might not like him as a rapper, but right now I love him as a person.