Have you ever seen the panic in a mother’s face when her 2-year-old struggles from her grip and runs out into traffic? Sometimes I have that kind of panic when I’m about to hit the “publish” button. This will be one of those times because I’m going to be exposing part of my dorky side.
In my last book review, I said that I would use Ted Turnau’s method of asking yourself five questions of critical thought when engaging in popular culture. I shared that as I was reading his book, Popologetics, I began thinking particularly about my “workout” playlist of songs. I’m not one to feel like I have to be listening to Christian music all the time. I enjoy many different genres and am a regular participant in popular culture in general. Even so, the song I want to critique is a little embarrassing for me to admit to enjoying. I could play it cool and share my passion for Grace Potter, or the Avett Brothers, and you would probably respect me more. But there is a particular song that kept popping in my mind as I was reading. Mainly because I wonder why I like to listen to it so much when I’m working out. What can I say, It gets me pumped. It’s also pretty nostalgic, as it was a hit during my high school years. You may think less of me on this one, but what the heck, it is definitely considered popular culture, so here goes.
I can always run harder, do more push-ups, and take it up a notch when LL Cool J’s Mama Said Knock You Out is on. Terribly cheesy, I know; but true, nonetheless. What is it about this song for me and the two million people who bought it in the early 90’s to like it so much? There is a reason that it resonated with so many people. Turnau refers to the good reasons as “shards of grace.” But popular culture is kind of tricky. While our entertainment can have much common grace to be treasured, it is mixed with idolatrous lies as well. So I will use his guide of 5 questions with my motivating work-out song. Keep in mind, this is a condensed version for the sake of my genre of a blog:
Question #1: What’s the story?
What is this song about? Well, first of all, this song was written after LL Cool J (yes, I feel dumb just typing his name) was experiencing a low in his career. His last album was a bomb, and the critics were all ready to write him off. His grandmother (“Big Mama”) told him to “knock out” all of them. And that is just what he did with this song. LL Cool J uses the language of street warfare and boxing to metaphor his rap career. It’s personal, hard-edged, and confrontational. His opening line, Don’t call it a comeback, I’ve been here for years, begins convincing you of the well-known of the chorus, I’m gonna knock you out, Mama said knock you out! The lyrics of the song are coming at you full force as he foretells the victory that will surely be his.
Question 2: Where am I? What world is this text taking me into?
Well, this is kind of the embarrassing part. We are entering the world of rap music. Rap music uses poetry and lyric, beats to the rhyme. It’s kind of funny when you think about it—associating a bunch of musical poets to tough guys. But there is definitely a street anthem going on in much of the rap genre. Much of the content is associated with street life. And it certainly isn’t a formal language. As rappers use the spoken word, they communicate with slang. It’s gangsta meets boogie. And bass, plenty of bass.
Question 3: What’s good and true and beautiful about it?
Everyone likes the story of an underdog. LL Cool J tells us not to call it a comeback, but that’s exactly what it was. We love to hear about someone who appears to be defeated, and then prevails victorious. Why do you think that is? I’ll save the answer for question 5.
Rejection stinks. LL Cool J moves past the critic’s rumors, and saves his career. We even like to hear about victory in battle, so the metaphor of a fight lends well. Much of our lives involve personal struggle and it is good to be motivated toward a future win.
But most of all, I like what Big Mama said. Quit looking to please or compare yourself to other men—just be good at what you do. Get cracken’; go be who you are. And I don’t mean this in the narcissistic, “believe in yourself” kind of way, but in a “man up” kind of way. And when I say “man up,” I don’t mean in a hyper-masculine way, but in a “don’t be a baby” way. Plus, it’s always good to listen to mamma.
Question 4: What’s false and ugly and perverse about it (and how do I subvert that)?
Yes, I’m aware that the song has the “D” word in it, but I don’t think that’s really the ugliest part. LL Cool J’s response to his critiques is full of boast and insult. “Mama said,” in a sense, to be good enough at what he does that his critics would be silenced—knocked out. But LL can’t help himself. He just keeps comparing his talents to his competitors. And even though he thanks God for the strength to rock hard (pathetic, I know), he is rapping about the man of the hour—himself. He “mans up” in the hyper-masculine way. In fact, someone with a hyper-masculine proclivity probably shouldn’t even listen to this song. If you’re one of those, maybe you should work-out to something like Pat Benatar’s Hit Me with Your Best Shot. But seriously, salvation in LL Cool J’s rap song is an untouchable career (and crazy biceps). His meaning and value are placed in his “nine” of lyrics that “are easy to load.” But a perfect career and respect from your peers will not deliver the satisfaction that he is longing for. Even if everyone around him says, “Well done,” at the end of the day LL Cool J is still going to be left unfulfilled.
Question 5: How does the gospel apply here?
Big Mama made a good point about vocation. LL could rap, so he needed to quit sulking and use his talents. Use your gifts to serve others, not to gain approval. Yet we all long to hear that “well done.” We want to know that we are good enough. But this doesn’t come from over-confident false bravado. We will have much more fulfillment in our work when we know that we are not doing it to earn favor, but to serve others with our gifts. The Christian is free to do this, as we know that we are already accepted by the only one who can give us true meaning and value. Our value is found in Christ, who earned the “well done” on our behalf. Looking anywhere else for this is sinful.
Do you know that Paul spends what has been broken into 6 whole chapters and 11 verses of the book of Romans on doctrine before he gives one exhortation? And what is the first thing he tells them to do? Reckon, consider, deem yourself, count on it. Here’s the argument:
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you must also consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ (Rom. 6:5-11).
Jesus became the so-called underdog to save those who truly were dying in their sin. He even laid down his very life. At first, it looked like he had been defeated. But he arose! My savior has already won the victory in the hardest battle of my life—the battle of sin and death. And because Christ has already earned what I could not earn and paid what I could not pay, I can now be confident of my identity in him. I can freely serve for the sake of others, not for my own boasting. I can love my enemies because God loved me in Christ when I was his enemy. I don’t need to throw out insults. Paul continues his argument:
Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under the law but under grace (Rom. 6:12-14).
We may experience rejection and failure here, but Jesus has achieved victory for us. Knowing this, I am pumped to keep fighting the spiritual warfare that is prevalent in my life as I wait for my consummation. Sin no longer reigns in me; I am under the reign of grace! All sin can do is shadow box. It is grace that delivers the true knock out punch, and one day sin will be silenced. Now, go be who you are!