“Headed up to the Rooftop / ridin' the D train,” rapped Biz Markie, “when the man sittin' next to me was so profane. / He'd stick his finger up his nose / then do a drain.” That’s the MTA for you. It’s not always picturesque, but countless rappers have ridden its hallowed tracks, dreaming up lyrics. Whether you’re waiting on a desolate G-train platform or crossing the Williamsburg Bridge on the J, it’s easy to let your mind wander. Eventually, you can’t help but wonder: if this line was a rapper, who would it be? As you can see, it snowballs from there.
sweepin’ thru an alley in New York, a stray kitten / Dog chase a couple of
blocks, shocks, tough being a fox.
—Slick Rick, “Top Cat”
Slick Rick grew up in the Bronx, where the 1/2/3 begins before winding its way down to Brooklyn. Known as “hip hop’s greatest storyteller,” Slick Rick uses a variety of voices and accents in his songs, changing personas faster than the 2 train goes from Lincoln Center to Pelham Parkway. Everyone, from a Jamaican shaman to the leader of an Upper West Side mommy group, can find something to bob their head to in his songs.
Take my crown
to the grave, I'm an underground king / And I do it for the city, cause you
know the city love it.
—Drake, “Underground Kings”
Drake is a curious portrait of highbrow and lowbrow. He’s won the critical admiration of his peers, but at the same time, he can never shake the fact that he was once Wheelchair Jimmy on Degrassi: the Next Generation. Not to mention that he popularized the acronym that will live in cringe-worthy infamy: YOLO. Like the 4/5/6, he can traipse through the upscale East Side, but there’s no denying his occasional foray into fratboy douchiness (i.e.: Murray Hill). And yes, Drake is Canadian and not a native New Yorker, much like the hordes of commuters pouring in from Grand Central.
Back in the
days, they was sleeping on us / Brooklyn keep on taking it / Manhattan keep on
making it / Trying to leave Queens out.
—Nas, “A Queens Story”
Nas may have been born in Brooklyn, but he grew up in Queens. Like the 7 (aka the best train overall), Nas has always been well-respected and consistently at the top of best-of lists when it comes to MCs and lyricists. Despite this, he still manages to get in the occasional beef with Jay-Z or Al Sharpton — much like the 7 train makes no qualms about refusing to make room for a pregnant woman during rush hour. These two titans just don’t back down, and they don’t have to: they’re legends.
trick? No sipping me / I'm on E, I'm gonna take a leak on you.
—Kanye West, “Perfect Bitch”
The E train may have new cars with slick seats and fancy maps, but keep in mind it shares its route with the C train: the rat-infested scourge of the MTA. We’re sure Kanye can find beauty in this line, with its split personas. After all, he did once confess that he “could have … a good girl” but “still be addicted to them hoodrats.” Spanning Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, the line is all over the place — just like Kanye, who's done everything from music to fashion to reality TV. Who is he? Perhaps he needs a couple of hours on the E train to contemplate that.
I'm droppin' shit like a pigeon / I hope you're listenin' / smackin’ babies at
—Notorious B.I.G. “Where Brooklyn At”
I like to think B.I.G. would’ve appreciated this humble line’s journey from his hometown of Clinton Hill to the glitz and glamor of Rockefeller Center. After all, his career had a similar trajectory (with an unfortunate re-route to the West Coast). Hailed by The Source as “the king of New York,” Biggie, like the the Sixth Avenue line, is both hefty in size and reputation. Not to mention that the D train makes cameos in songs from everyone by Bob Dylan to the Beastie Boys — just as Biggie’s legend is inescapable in today’s soundscape.
them Brooklyn boys / You know how it be when you start living large / I control
my own life. / Charles was never in charge.
—Kid Cudi, "Soundtrack 2 My Life”
Like so many of the tastemakers who ride the L, Kid Cudi is a Midwestern transplant. He likes his pants tight and his glasses big. And his collaborations bigger. He’s partnered with everyone from Snoop Dogg to Shia LeBeouf to the cast of One Tree Hill. In terms of style, he can transition from upscale Manhattan chic to hipster Brooklyn grit smoother than your favorite Instagram filter. Like the L train, he probably never goes above 14th street — and who would need to when all your friends live in Williamsburg and Bushwick?
Raw is how
I'm inflicting this / It's that G type slang that makes this real sickening.
—Ol' Dirty Bastard, “Protect Ya Neck II In the Zoo”
The G train is a fickle creature. Waiting for it to arrive can take anywhere from two minutes to two hours. Its seats are a shade of a 1975 conversion van, and its marble-mouthed conductors all have a distinctly gloomy sense of humor. Only an unabashed whackjob like ODB could truly embody such a beast. Here’s a rapper who warns his enemies he likes to “get into shit” and “let it out like diarrhea,” while he assures his lovers, “got burnt once, but that was only gonorrhea.” Why bother putting on airs? If there’s anyone who knows you can’t dress up a turd, it’s the G.
ride that Wayne train / So I’mma bag her like baggage claim.
—Lil Wayne, “All Aboard”
Some people can live in New York for years without even knowing the Z train exists, but just wait: it’ll pop up when you least expect it. Lil Wayne has the same effect, making unexpected appearances on singles everywhere, from Usher to T-Pain to Weezer. In service since 1893, the down and dirty J/Z has undergone several incarnations. You could say the same for Weezy, who always uses a prison release to reinvent himself and release a dozen or so mixtapes. It’s that kind of dedication that keeps him and the Z train around.
But if a man test my Stuy / I promise he won't like
my reply / Boom bye bye / I'm a Brooklyn boy I may take some gettin' use to.
—Jay-Z, “Brooklyn (Go Hard)”
Though he was named after the J/Z line, Jay-Z’s career arc is best exemplified by the vast N/Q/R. Hitting stops in downtown Brooklyn, Times Square, and his precious Barclay’s Center, the Broadway line is a majestic force that other routes bow down to. The trains themselves might not always be pretty, but good luck finding a more stunning view of the skyline than from the Q train as it crosses the Manhattan Bridge. The Q also had the good fortune to be visited by the man himself, on his way to Barclays. It just goes to show: even if you write an obnoxiously overplayed song about the city, it will still love you back.