The final track from Freddie Gibbs’ 2012 Baby Face Killa Mix Tape is entitled Breaking Bad. As a huge fan of Breaking Bad — which has three episodes to go before its finale — I was wondering if Gibbs was going to name check Walt, Jesse, Skyler, Hank or maybe explain how he’s the rap game’s Heisenberg. Gibbs does toss out pop culture references occasionally (there’s a song called Freddie Soprano off his ESGN album that’s full of them), but that wasn’t the case here. The song, like many of Gibbs’ creations, is more about the brutality of crime, drug dealing and poverty in the Rust Belt slum of Gary, Indiana than my favorite ongoing TV show. But while the song doesn’t actually reference Breaking Bad, it made me think about the relationship between Breaking Bad and Gangsta Rap and how Walter White and Gangsta Gibbs could probably find a lot to talk about.
I do have to say that Breaking Bad is a very white show — right down to the name of its protagonist. Apart from the magnificent Gus Fring, the portly Huell, and the cool, yet incidental DEA Agent Gomez, pretty much all of its major characters (besides insane villains like Tuco, his uncle and inhuman cousins and the Mexican Cartel as a whole) are Caucasian. The show does explore the minority experience occasionally — there’s the touching relationship of Andrea and Brock that shows the struggle of a single Hispanic mother in an area full of drugs and violence — but it’s mostly concerned with characters who are white, suburban and middle class or — with the addition of Todd and his Neo-Nazi pals — white, rural and lower class.
But Walter White’s rise to kingpin still feels like something out of a Gangsta Rap song. He’s forced to go into crime because of poverty, which anyone growing up in a housing project or a hopeless rural area would be familiar with. He feels the endless need for wealth, the capitalist drive to acquire all the money and power that he can, which is a theme of countless rap songs. He takes pride in his accomplishments and enjoys extolling his power and the fear he causes (inviting other crime lords to ‘say my name’) which is usual criminal bravado. He coldly deals with his opposition through violence, knowing that it’s killed or be killed, as everyone operating in the underworld understands.
Walt despises snitches, arranges rats to be killed and wouldn’t dream of going to the police when he gets in over his head. And yet, despite his apparent confidence, he still feels the hints of guilt on the things he has to do in order to be successful. That guilt is also a constant theme of Gangsta Rap. “It’s easy squeezing the trigger, but I’m dying inside,” Gibbs explains in the song Breaking Bad. “I brush it off like its nothing and get high in the ride.” This may seem like breaking the Cardinal Rule of Not Getting High on Your Own Supply (one of Biggie’s Ten Crack Commandments), but that applies only to harder drugs, such as Walt’s Meth — which Walt and Gibbs would never touch. Even though Walt wouldn’t touch marijuana (he even leaves the cigarettes to Skyler and only gets drunk in one scene) you can still see the guilt he feels when (spoilers) he realizes that Jesse has to go. Jesse, on the other hand, (who, at least in earlier seasons, always sports the baggy jeans and oversized sweaters of hip-hop fashion) frequently seeks relief from his endless guilt and heartache in drugs.
By the way, when it comes to those Ten Crack Commandments, Walt follows One through Six to the letter — but Rule Number Seven, about keeping your family and work separate, he completely breaks. He also breaks number nine– don’t be seen near police — as well, which is why Hank is a constant thorn in his side. Jesse pretty much breaks them all. It’s also important to note that most Gangsta Rappers, with the occasional exception, don’t reach Walt’s level. They start as low level hoods, dream about getting bigger, and stay at that low level. However, while Walt does amass that huge pile of money (and buy sports cars, a very Gangsta Rap thing to do) and gain power, he seems to have lost it all — and everything else he cares about — if the flash-forwards are anything to go by.
Is Breaking Bad a white, suburban version of Gangsta Rap — offering an easy avenue for white audiences into the criminal world without the same stigma that Gangsta Rap possesses? That may be the case, but I do think that Breaking Bad and Freddie Gibbs are addressing similar problems of an overall American decline into poverty and hopelessness. Gibbs’ world — of slums, closed factories, heroin, long established urban gangs and crack — and Walt’s world — of health problems, debt, cartels and Aryan Nation gangs, and meth (the supposed white man’s drug) — have their racial, class and geographical differences, but they share similarities of poverty, lack of government support and the willingness to embrace an illegal lifestyle in order to survive. I do feel that Breaking Bad deserves credit for showing how close the seemingly average, law-abiding citizen is to the murderous drug dealers described in so many Gangsta Rap songs. Both the show and the songs are examinations of social pressure and crimes in the new millennium — pressures which affect us all and may turn any of us from Walter White into Heisenberg. Maybe, Breaking Bad proves that the amorality of Gangsta Rap isn’t that far away from white suburbia after all.