It’s one of the most famous rap songs of all time and it’s also one of the few that reads as much as a traditional folk song as it does a hip-hop track. But what does it all mean?
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Indeed, “Tha Crossroads,” which is also something of a harmony-driven barbershop quartet creation, features lasting lyrics, characters, and images. From the deceased Uncle Charles to questions about death and the afterlife, the song hits on some of life’s most important topics.
Despite the song’s popularity, the meaning of the track and of each verse might not yet be clear, even to one who has heard the song countless times since the ’90s. So, for that reason, we wanted to dive into the song’s lyrics.
The Crossroads in Music History
In blues culture, the crossroads is often the place where aspiring musicians go to meet the devil. According to lore, Satan is often in some sort of a tree where two roads meet—as if musician, Robert Johnson, goes up to the devil and trades his soul for the skill to play the guitar (or another instrument), or even sing like no one ever on Earth. Johnson wrote a song, “Cross Road Blues,” that he released in 1936, adding to his devilish mythology.
60 Years Later
Six decades later, in 1996, the Cleveland, Ohio-born hip-hop group Bone Thugs-N-Harmony released their sonic version of the mythical lore. Dedicated to rap icon Eazy-E and other fallen friends, the song hit No. 1 on the Billboard chart for eight consecutive weeks. And in 19997, the track won a Grammy for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group.
In the opening stanza, two lines stick out most: When judgment comes for you? / Now tell me, what ya gonna do?
Like all great blues songs, whether performed in rap or on an acoustic guitar, the subject is loss and often death. But in order to have hope in such a sad reality, there is often also the concept of an afterlife or judgment day. Some higher power determines how you lived your life. In “Tha Crossroads” that is no different.
This first verse, from Bizzy Bone, talks about the group’s fallen friends. The song is a remembrance of them, those who lived their lives well. The song also is something of a document of friendship between the living.
Layzie came to me Told me if he should decease, “Well, then please / Bury me by my Gran Gran / And when you can, come follow me.
Then comes Layzie Bone, talking about the importance of a higher power. And how Satan, despite the song title, is not the answer at all: God bless you workin’ on a plan to Heaven / Follow the Lord all 24/7 days / God is who we praise / Even though the Devil’s all up in my face.
Krayzie Bone is next, slightly less discerning than Layzie, saying he has love for each and every person. Now follow me, roll stroll / Whether it’s Hell or it’s Heaven / Come let’s go take a visit to the people that’s long gone, they rest.
And then Krayzie thinks of his own mortality: Exactly how many days we got lastin’? / While you laughin’ we’re passin’ passin’ away / God, rest our souls.
Wish Bone also laments those he’s lost, offering the most memorable line of the song, Why’d they kill my dog? / Damn, man, I miss my Uncle Charles, y’all / And he shouldn’t be gone / In front of his home, what they did to Boo was wrong.
The remainder of the song continues along the lamenting lines. The remorse at a hard life, the sadness of loss and death. And then the message gets a bit more poignant, talking about American society’s ills and racial targeting. Along with a general wonder at all the killing in the world, in general. A sort of human fertilization with murder.
What’s up with that murder, y’all?
See, my nigga cousin was hung
Somebody really wrong, anybody wanna test us, dawg?
And Ms. Sleazy set up Eazy to fall
In the end, the song has no answer. It’s a series of losses and questions. But no answer. Perhaps then, the question is the only answer. To be self-aware and remorseful is to be human. We are constantly at the crossroads of life and death. Our own judge, jury, temptation, and divinity.
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