This lyrics analysis is an abstract from our PDF Gangsta-rap Songwriting.
TUPAC & DR DRE – CALIFORNIA LOVE – Lyrics analysis, explanation & meanings
Sometimes things are clear straight away. Take any hip-hop fan before 1995 and play the sample of these two words sung in this sharp, mannered voice, and ask him whether it’s gangsta-rap, and the answer will be a sarcastic laugh: “Rap sending love, hm ??” will retort any gangster among your friends.
In short, Dre and Tupac have announced the color: this song will establish a new style, freed from the depression and heavy negativity of black ghettos, and they will party under the same Californian sun as the hippies of the previous generation.
In other words, already well enriched at the time by their activities in show business, the two rappers have decided to get social, and not to let anyone at least in California ignore that they are now part of the musical scene and that they are happy to celebrate the American Dream, equal with the whites.
California, knows how to party
Straight away, we can see that this song defines a new style of rap:
- All previous songs began on the verse, the voice of a gangster who tells the essence of his message in a chorus-slogan. But here, we open on a chorus.
- Straight away, the voice is tampered with electronics, and reminds very mainstream styles like the Dance music of the time.
- This chorus is super catchy, dancy, positive, funky, and invites the audience to party. We are far from the hostile, aggressive, or sinister choruses of gangsta-rap before its breakthrough to the mainstream.
California : as often in songs, the singer defines his audience by naming it and adressing it directly.
- This definition of this rather wide audience shows how hip-hop has made progress in pop culture, because we remember that the angry guys from STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON only claimed their streets of Compton – despite their ambition they were far, Dre said later, to imagine that they would have a success other than purely local; yet, 7 years, many hits and millions of dollars later, from Los Angeles Tupac & Dre now aim to seduce all of California. They have become more confident and ambitious than the original little street gangsters.
- But California, people know what it is all over the world. California makes the Americanized masses dream, long-time prepared by a century of Hollywood cinema and California culture, largely to the glory of local icons :
- Cowboys and sheriffs
- Mickey Mouse and the rest of Disney and cartoon culture
- Beat Generation writers
- Cops (LA Police Department is one of the most famous police of the world, through movies and series…)
- Evoking California is an easy choice for a Californian artist, it’s a safe bet, because the public has already been conquerred for generations by the many charms of the Wild West. Compare: Could the criminal lives of young Pakistanese or Algerian or Russian males have touched the world as much as those of young Californians? No, because the world audience would not be prepared to take it into consideration.
- In fact, this song marks the entry of hip-hop into cultural capitalism, the moment when it asserts itself as a mass product, the moment when the gangster, withdrawn from dangerous business, prefers to bank his public image, and the bank of the time in the world of music is MTV, the main prescriber. Conquering the world via MTV, robbing the whites with seduction, using the gangsta spirit to make it a super sexy ad for the American Way of Life, reviewed and corrected by the new black elites – because Dre and Tupac are already Millionaire stars, gangsta studio, far from the misery of the street – this is more or less the landline of this song.
California, knows how to party
In the city of LA
He will mention LA, then two neighborhoods or peripheral cities marked with a black majority or identity, knowingly forgetting a big city like San Francisco, or obviously, the rich cities like San Diego, Santa Monica…
In the city of good ol’ Watts
In the city of Compton
We keep it rockin’, we keep it rockin’
This line sounds surprising in the mouth of rappers. They rock, they do not rap ? This illustrates the choice to expand the audience of this song to make it an indisputable hit, a strategy that worked very well. The American audience of the time still runs on rock. So, Tupac and Dre play it rock.
Verse 1 – Dr. Dre
Now let me welcome everyone to the Wild, Wild West
Now let me welcome : this oral formula can usually be found in the mouth of presenters – and here, with the mention of the wild west, it recalls the presenters of folklore shows. This could be said by a fun tour guide. But WILD, WILD WEST also was the title of a famous american television show in the 1960s, telling stories from the end of the 19th century. It’s like Dre is playing cowboy a century later, as if the gangster and rappers were a new form of this old myth: the californian outlaw. The same formula also recalls Dr. Dre’s role as MC (Master of Ceremonies, party spokesman) in the NWA hits, giving voice to his lead singers.
Everybody: so the song says it’s for everybody. As in the evocation of California as theme and audience, here it is about a wide, mainstream, even global audience, not at all limited to afro-american ghettos.
A state that’s untouchable like Eliot Ness
The Wild Wild West, a state… : this identifies California as exactly the same as the Wild Wild West, which is not quite true – the Wild West also covered Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Oregon, Washington State, etc. But California is the most populous, the richest, the most known and the most representative of these states.
Untouchable : the term can have multiple meanings,
- untouchable because full of pariahs (poor, excluded people) as in India,
- untouchable because California is the most extreme and authentic area of the Wild West, its reputation is well established and indisputable,
- untouchable also because it is the heart of the West Coast rap, which Dr. Dre and Tupac come to represent in front of the global audience
- and untouchable as in the movie THE UNTOUCHABLES, in which a group of nine U.S. federal law-enforcement agents led by Eliot Ness chase the Chicago gangster Al Capone. Elliot Ness is part of American mythology and so it is another safe bet.
At this stage of the lyrics, we have laid a clear and seductive background, California and some of his new Heroes, the gangsta-rappers, heir to the cowboys.
The track hits ya eardrum like a slug to ya chest
This beautiful metaphor implicitly refers to the singer himself, since he is the producer and composer of this track. And she describes him as a gangster who, therefore, shoots the audience with his track that hits like a bullet.
Pack a vest for your Jimmy in the city of sex
The verse takes up the previous metaphor, but… by metaphor: the beginning, pack a vest, invites the audience to put on their bulletproof vest, as if to protect themselves from the track / bullet, but in fact this vest designates a condom. Even if the allusion remains light, Dre and Tupac know that Eazy-E died of the consequences of AIDS a few months earlier…
We in that sunshine state with a bomb ass hemp beat
We in that sunshine state : the formula has two meanings and two possible grammars :
- Either we understand “We, in that sunshine, state” (that…), where state is a verb, and that would mean: we, under this sunny sky, establish (that…)
- Either we understand “We, in that sunshine state“, where state is a name, and that would mean ” We, in this sunny state “.
with a bomb ass hemp beat: this is a disguised allusion to californian weed (bomb ass hemp). This association between music and cannabis will last long in rap lyrics, especially when Dre sings with Snoop Dog.
The state where ya never find a dance floor empty
We reconnect on the theme and the set of California, which makes it again the hero of the song.
Dance floor: the indication of genre is clear, since through this allusion the rappers admit that they do Dance music and no longer just rap.
And pimps be on a mission for the greens
This verse evokes the world of delinquency, which is part of the decor.
This mission for them greens is also the mission of our rappers, who thus appear as pimps, men exploiting prostitutes. 50 Cent in his song IN DA CLUB will give an echo to this provocative self-assertion as a sex-slavist.
Lean mean money-makin-machines serving fiends
The verse sounds nice because of its amusing sound beauty.
These money machines also metaphorically represent our two rappers, ex-gangsters now engaged in show-business.
The term fiends is strong, and ambiguous. It means monsters or demons or addicts depending on the context. Here, one can think that it designates both slot-addicts as well as cynical operators of human vices: both are some kind of monsters, driven by the demon of gambling.
I been in the game for ten years making rap tunes
Half way, exactly at the 9th verse on 16, after a long introduction, the verse now changes theme, and the singer finally speaks at the first person, “I“.
He claims his seniority in rap – this assertion of himself as a kind of experienced Godfather of a musical genre takes over gangster stories.
Ever since honeys was wearing Sassoon
Honeys : usually it’s singular. Using this sweet word sounds ironic to the audience, but kind, correct. Dre no longer calls women “bitches“. Indeed, misogynistic insults could have compromised the commercial success of the song in the clubs of the Western world…
Sassoon is a famous hairdresser who reinvented the bob cut, shorter.
Now it’s ’95 and they clock me and watch me
Funny pun, between
- the verbs to clock, to measure time, and to watch,
- and the nouns, a clock and a watch.
The meaning of the verse is “I have become a star they admire“.
Diamonds shinin’, lookin’ like I robbed Liberace
Diamonds shinin’ : note the effectiveness of this style of writing, in collage of strong expressions, without having to put everything in grammatically well structured sentences. More dense, stronger!
Liberace : allusion to a famous virtuoso pianist with a very kitschy image.
It’s all good, from Diego to the Bay
It’s all good also means, “With my wealth, everything is fine for me“. We are far from the original misery, gangsta-rap has learnt to male money and now lives in luxury.
From Diego to the Bay : this brings us back to the fast initial panorama that mentioned LA, Watts and Compton, but expands to two rich, white-majority cities: San Diego and San Francisco (whose famous bay was sung by Otis Redding).
Your city is the bomb if your city making pay
Double meaning : this is a potentially true generality, and it is also concretely the case of Dre, who has greatly enriched by selling the name of his city, STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON.
Throw up a finger if ya feel the same way
Ambiguity again, since this finger in the air, sign of revolt and distrust, becomes a sign of gathering, usable to get socially accepted, a code which is prescribed, almost required (otherwise, you’re not cool like this rapper).
Dre putting it down for California Yeah
One last double meaning for the road:
- to put it down, it is to mark a try, in American football.
- to put it down is also to note something by writing it down.
- So Dre marks the try for California by sharing his notes about California with us.
California (California) knows how to party
California (west coast) knows how to party (yes they do)
In the city of LA
In the city of good ol Watts (good ol ‘Watts)
In the city of Compton
We keep it rockin! We keep it rockin’ (come on, come on, come on)
Shake it shake it baby
Shake it shake it, shake it baby
Shake it shake it mama
Shake it Cali
Shake it shake it baby (that’s right, uh)
Shake it shake it baby baby, shake it shake it mama, shake it Cali
These “shake it” (who? your ass!) also show that CALIFORNIA LOVE is a song made to seduce the clubs and mainstream audience with festive and sexy injunctions.
Verse 2 – Tupac
Out on bail fresh outta jail, California dreaming
Out on bail fresh outta jail: this is literally true, since this song and the entire album were recorded immediately after Tupac was released from prison with the help of Death Row producer, Suge Knight.
California Dreaming: this is the title of the famous song by the Mamas and Papas, the hippie band.
The juxtaposition of the two elements, the gangster autobiography and the hippie hit, sounds funny. It seems to mean that the singer has turned back directly from prison to the Californian dream – or more precisely, to a music studio in California where he’s singing rap while smoking local weed, like a hippie.
Soon as I stepped on the scene, I’m hearing hoochies screamin
To step on the scene is precisely what he just did when he began his verse, imposing himself on the auditory scene.
I’m hearing hoochies screamin: it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, a performative phrase, since in fact Tupac is talking about that to make it happen. The singer who wants people to love him sings “People love me“…
Fiendin for money and alcohol
A misogynistic thought in passing… those women would be hoochies, hysteric and materialistic…
The life of a west side player where cowards die
The life is a lot to say, given the little he has just told us about himself.
A west side player: a player is someone who plays with life, chance, women, pleasure. This self-portrait illustrates the hedonistic turn of gangsta-rap.
Where cowards die: by deduction, this implies that Tupac describes himself as brave, as he is still alive. The bad piece of news is that he will be murdered in LA about a year after the registration of this song. Which shows that, coward or brave it doesn’t matter, everyone dies all the same in the west.
And its all war
In the west side, it’s war:
- cowboys Vs horse-thieves, settlers Vs the Indians
- blacks Vs whites and vice versa, and of any ethnic minority Vs the others
- police Vs crime and vice versa
- gangs Vs gangs or the population
In short, it is true that it is a very conflictual place.
Only in Cali where we riot not rally to live and die
Nice play on sounds, repetition of the i and li.
Cali: this way of designating California brings it closer to Cali, the city of the famous Drug Cartel (dealing cocaine).
we riot: allusion to the terrible riots of Los Angeles in 1992.
The portrait of California continues, showing that this state and its fauna are the central theme of this song.
In L.A. we wearing Chucks not Ballys (that’s right, uh)
Chucks are Converse shoes, a brand appreciated by popular youth, and not too expensive. Bally shoes are much more expensive and are appreciated by the upper class.
These mentions of brands of clothes are not insignificant because the people of Death Row and hip-hop obviously had some business ideas, and over the years we have seen more and more rich rappers invest in the industry (textile, real estate, cannabis…), and create brands.
Dressed in Locs and khaki suits and ride is what we do
Locs : glasses like those of Eazy-E…
These verses sound like an ad for the textile industry: clearly the rapper promotes his “streetwear” style which will be the big new niche of “fashion” in these years 1990-2000 – anything that comes out of the ghetto will become popular and massive, replacing the style of the previous wave of fashion, rock, hippie music and punk.
Ride is what we do: to ride means to ride a horse or another rideable animal, but also to drive, a car or a motorcycle or a bicycle. A whole culture stands behind this verb, to ride is also being cool at the wheel, being a Hell’s Angels on a motorcycle, driving a luxury or fancy car, etc. And so in fact what Tupac means here is that in California they have this culture of motorized coolness, which has become a second nature, “it’s what we do“.
Flossing but have caution we collide with other crews
We collide : a play on words, in harmony with the ride, as if clashing with other groups was the result of riding.
Famous ’cause we program worldwide
The blatant bragging of this verse, affirmation of success and ambition, is part of the movement of empowerment of the African-American population and of rap music, perfectly in step with the standard values of the White America, where people are judged by their celebrity, as if it were a good in itself. (This is a false value, because Hitler, Stalin, Charles Manson, Marc Dutrou, are also famous, so what?)
It’s not to piss Tupac admirers off, but this verse is almost a lie. Tupac and the Californians are not “famous because they program worldwide“. Tupac is not an intellectual and his knowledge about his society seems weak, which is logical given his futile interests (clothes, cars…)
Californians succeed and reach fame, not because of their ambition, but because…
- they stole an entire continent after having genocided its inhabitants,
- they exploited millions of slaves during 500 years,
- they exploited nature in complete freedom, devastating their environment within one century, cutting forests, drying rivers,
- they were the bankers who helped european countries to fight each other in the 2 World Wars and took profit of it,
- they are one of the most populous states in the United States, which became the world’s exploiter in the 20th century
Born Californian rather than African or Chinese, Tupac inherits stolen privileges. If he would have been born in Nigeria or China, Tupac could have had all the global ambitions he wanted, he would not have succeeded at all as an artist. It’s an easy illusion to take personal credit for the power of the society you belong to…
The rappers themselves are famous also because they stole the money that was used to promote them and without which they would have remained obscure in the street. This is the case of the Death Row label that produces this song: it was initially financed with money extorted by Suge Knight to the white rapper Vanilla Ice.
In short, we have a rapper who ignores critical and historical knowledge, and who prefers to give a conscienceless excellent image of his native region. He becomes its advertiser, selling California to the world, who already loves it and drinks it every day like Coca-Cola. Artistic risk-taking amounts to zero, and from someone who pretends to live dangerously, it sounds like hypocrisy.
Let’em recognize from Long Beach to Rosecrans
We continue to make flattering nods to the inhabitants.
Bumping and grinding like a slow jam, it’s west side
Nice pictorial description of the mythical Californian traffic jams, in a State that likes to burn oil massively.
So you know the row won’t bow down to no man
Very nice assonance, repetition of 6 times the sound “o” or “ow”.
The row = probably the death row.
Say what you say
But give me that bomb beat from Dre
Compliment to Dre, this verse also participates in the logic of empowerment that permeates the song.
Let me serenade the streets of L.A.
Another direct adress to the Californian audience.
Serenade : the use of this term rather than another is remarkable. The basic meaning of the verb in this verse and this context is to sing. Singing the serenade is a way of singing for one’s darling when one is in love – so one can decode the metaphor as follows: “Let me sing the serenade to my darling, my darling being the streets of L.A.” French rapper Booba has exploited this same pretty idea in his song TOMBÉ POUR ELLE, which is a love song dedicated to the allegory of the street. Here, this term once again marks the will of Tupac and Dre to make a public hit, well beyond the borders of gangsta-rap and black ghettos.
From Oakland to Sactown
Oakland, city of San Francisco Bay, near the famous University of Berkeley.
Sactown, slang nickname of Sacramento, administrative capital of California.
From Oakland to Sacramento, it’s a drive of less than 2 hours, from the coast to the inland.
The Bay Area and back down
From San Francisco Bay to “back down”, we can think we reach the Los Angeles area, and it is a much longer journey then, 7 hours.
Cali is where they get their mack down, give-me love!
Bam! This verse is sincere and truthful, because indeed this is what Dre and Tupac did in this tube: to exchange guns against commercial success and the love of the audience. They had it.
California knows how to party
California, knows how to party
In the city of south-central LA
In the city of good ol ‘Watts (uh, that’s right)
In the city of Compton (yup, yup)
We keep it rocking!We keep it rocking (yeah, yeah now make it shake, c’mon)
Shake it shake it baby (uh)
Shake it shake it, shake it baby (yeah)
Shake it shake it mama
Shake it Cali
Shake it shake it baby (shake it Cali)
Shake it shake it, shake it shake it mama (west-coast) shake it Cali
Outro – Dr. Dre / Tupac
Uh, yeah, uh, Long Beach in the house, uh yeah
We take again the soliciting of the cities.
Long Beach, small city near L.A.
Oaktown, Oakland definitely in the house
Frisko is the slang nickname of San Francisco.
Hey, you know L.A.is up in this
Pasadena, where you at
Pasadena, small town east of L.A.
Yeah, Inglewood, Inglewood always up to no good
Inglewood, a small town southwest of L.A.
Even Hollywood trying to get a piece baby
Hollywood: L.A. neighborhood, capital of the cinema industry, factory of the California dream. It’s funny to show Hollywood trying to “get some” Californian love given by this rapper. Tupac reverses the balance of power, acts as if he were the master who gives sugar to this poodle state, when in reality, he’s flirting with Hollywood – in total Tupac Shakur has been an actor in 10 movies.
Sacramento, Sacramento where ya at? yeah
Throw it up y’all, throw it up, throw it up (I can’t see ya)
Let’s show these fools how we do this on that west side
’cause you and I know it’s the best side
These verses contributes to the war Tupac wanted between East Side and West Side rappers, a conflict that he will feed with his hit HIT’EM UP, and which will perhaps lead to his assassination in 1996.
Yeah, that’s right
West coast, west coast
Uh, California Love
Did you notice? No bitch, no nigga, no fuck you, no I’mma kill ya. Gangsta-rap really changed style.
CALIFORNIA LOVE did not change the history of rap by the quality of its lyrics: they sound rather boring and poor, neither Tupac nor Dre being known for their literary talent. Tupac has charisma, confidence, phrasing, and Dre always signs a stylish, innovative, impeccable music. But neither of them is a poet like Ice Cube, Coolio or Notorious B.I.G., so much richer in their wordings, metaphors, puns, and their dramatic constructions.
The very type of this song, a festive, clubby, dance song, accepts superficial, light, understandable lyrics – and CALIFORNIA LOVE still is written better than a thousand other stupid dance hits.
Nevertheless, it has a profound meaning that is particularly important, as it testifies to the adherence of these stars of the African-American ghettos to the American culture imbued with the constitutional “right to happiness”. The American Constitution states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Dre and Tupac have signed a gangsta-rap version of this claim to the right to happiness, in the great tradition of a militant song like I GOT LIFE by Nina Simone, the black woman who, in the 1960s was singing about having nothing but her body to enjoy life.
Basically, what is affirmed here under the pen and in the voice of these happy, richer and calmer, more seductive and less aggressive rappers, it is the aspirations of the African-American community finally fully endowed with its civic rights reconquerred in the years 1960-70, and their move to join the standard values of the American society, to get normalized and accepted at equality.
22 years later, the election of the first black president of the United States, Barack Obama, largely supported by the world of hip-hop, will confirm this collective evolution towards social integration.
This was an abstract of Gangsta-rap songwriting. Wanna read more?