The deceased Colombian drug kingpin continues to have a commanding presence in hip hop.
On the cover of Reasonable Doubt, the tilted brim of Jay-Z’s hat hides his features, cloaking the intentions of Marcy Houses’ famous son. But the carefully clenched cigar, sharp silver screen suit, and pronounced pinkie ring tell the story of a sophisticated street hustler. The iconic image paints a picture of grit and determination, one bathed in the black and white intricacies of transforming street drama into crime story epics, full of high class and expensive taste. Hip hop’s love for Mafioso embellishments is no secret; the pseudo-mafia tendencies of the East Coast’s hardcore rap movement during the 80s and 90s was an energizing force that spawned some of the genre’s most compelling records. Jay Z has invoked his stint as a teenage drug dealer throughout his discography, particularly on early tracks such as “Can’t Knock The Hustle” and “Dead Presidents II.” Kool G Rap’s innovative narratives found a home on “Fast Life” featuring Nas (“A team from Queens plottin’ up a scheme to get the seven-figure cream”) and influenced albums such as Reasonable Doubt and Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. Nas’ tales of urban warfare on tracks like “N.Y. State of Mind” and “Street Dreams” solicited the far-reaching extremes peddled by other artists such as The Notorious B.I.G. (“Last Day”), Big Pun & Fat Joe (“Twinz”), Raekwon (“Wu-Gambinos,” “Incarcerated Scarfaces”), and The Firm & Dr. Dre (“Phone Tap”).
Although artists are prone to dramatic renderings, their stories more often than not stem from a real place, and are not simply the product of some fictional script. Establishing criminal bonafides as a means to build street credibility was once a required move from every prospective emcee. At its core, the music is still designed to be a form of entertainment. However, beneath the inscrutable wordplay and euphemisms lie songs that simultaneously boast their underlying ventures while hiding the explicit meaning. It’s a tactic that carried the “crime family, well-connected, Jay-Z” and his Mafioso rap brethren to the luxurious heights espoused by the criminals that they sought to emulate: Frank Costello, Al Capone, John Gotti, and even Hollywood’s Michael Corleone and Tony Montana.
But as the genre evolved to reflect the growing regional disparities of the mid to late 2000s, archetypal Mafioso rap was transported south to Atlanta and Miami where the stylistic characteristics took on a life of their own under a new guise. Rick Ross built his entire 2006 debut album Port of Miami around the idea of being the biggest coke dealer in town. The work of Clipse offered a forensic eye for detail, while Jeezy’s skill as a “salesman” prompted critics to christen a new subgenre of "cocaine rap." Ultimately, the cinematic nature of the Mafioso rap canon was recontextualized to portray the ominous underbelly of the flourishing narco lifestyle. And when it came to incomprehensible wealth, aesthetic of grandeur, and charismatic swagger, no one better embodied the narco mindset than Pablo Escobar.
In 1989, Forbes magazine estimated that Escobar had a personal net worth of close to U.S. $3 billion, while his Medellín Cartel controlled 80% of the global cocaine market. For many who lived under Escobar’s bloody reign of terror and managed to avoid getting caught in the crossfire, he was a hero, popularized and adored for his charity work that contributed to the of building of schools, hospitals, a housing project, and even a soccer stadium. Yet at his peak, Escobar was one of the most wanted criminals in the world: according to some estimates, he was responsible for more than 4,000 deaths, a horrifying figure that continues to haunt Colombia. Wiz Khalifa’s 2017 visit to Escobar’s grave sparked outrage after the rapper posted pictures to his Instagram apparently paying tribute to the famed drug lord. Medellín’s mayor, Frederico Gutierrez, was not pleased with Khalifa’s Escobar-themed photo tour, calling the rapper a “scoundrel" and demanding that he "offer an apology to the city." In a recent interview with Ebro on Beats 1, native Colombian J. Balvin made clear his distaste for hip hop’s reverence for the divisive figure: “He stopped people’s dreams. And now we’re trying to erase that past, and make people believe in dreams again.”
Since Escobar’s death in 1993 in a rooftop shootout with U.S. Navy Seals and a Colombian military unit, he has been the subject of numerous movies, TV shows, documentaries, and songs. Even if some voice their disapproval, most have come to accept the tendency of hip hop to idolize drug culture and thus the violence that often drives it. Escobar, who rose from the impoverished streets of Medellín, Colombia to create one of the largest drug empires the world has ever seen, is now one of hip hop’s favorite controversial name drops. Dating back to Wu-Tang Clan’s “Break Ya Neck” in 1992, the mythos of Escobar is potent. Nas first introduced his “Escobar” moniker in 1995 on Mobb Deep’s “Eye for a Eye"; Jay-Z would later dispute the provocative surname on his “Super Ugly” diss track aimed at the Queensbridge rapper. In recent years, hip hop’s obsession with the tale of the cocaine “Robin Hood” has become nothing short of extraordinary. The vast majority of Escobar’s mentions in rap lyrics are inevitably drug-related: Migos’ “Narcos,” Jeezy’s “Escobar,” Tory Lanez’ “Old Friends x New Foes,” Gunplay’s “Bogota,” Pusha T’s “Untouchable,” The Game’s “El Chapo,” and Rick Ross’ “Hustlin’” are all fueled in part by the memory of Escobar’s heyday. But it was his ambition, lawlessness, and lust for power that are the stuff of hip hop legend: Kanye West’s “No More Parties In LA,” Jadakiss’ “Shoot Outs,” Gucci Mane’s “Pablo,” Big Pun’s “I’m Not a Player,” Rich the Kid & Migos’ “Trap,” Future & Young Thug’s “Group Home,” and Lil Wayne’s “Vizine” are but a few notable examples celebrating Escobar’s calculated accumulation of the rewards of the fast life.
The scope of Escobar’s infamy led to hip hop’s eventual embrace of narco tropes, as the glitz and glamor of the Mafioso past were hastily carved away and discarded in favor of the more grave and exacting flavors of kingpin fancy. His careful cultivation of a ruthless public image and persona allowed him to become a distinguished part of hip hop’s modern vernacular, and has granted him a wide-ranging appeal that has been captured throughout the entertainment industry. Escobar exuded an air of brutality and hubris that would lead to his demise and the unraveling of his violent enterprise, but his now rampant pop culture legacy offers enticing morsels that are the very lifeblood of hip hop's quest for immortalization.