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March 22, 2017

Jackie Joyner-Kersee: A popular name-drop in rap lyrics

I’ve caught the rap bug again. From researching the top 50 songs with running in the title and thinking about Eminem on a treadmill, I’ve fallen back into a rap wormhole. It’s not a bad place to be and it brings me back to a little bit of research that I was previously doing.

I was once working on an article with a fellow writer trying to come up with numbers behind all of Kanye West’s sports references in his studio albums. We were on a time crunch an unable to turn around the piece in time for the release of Yeezus. What I do remember from my notes was listing some of the athletes that he called out: George Foreman, Charles Barkley, O.J. Simpson, Barry Bonds and many more. The one that stood out was Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

The five-time Olympic medalist is referenced in “Two Words’ on The College Dropout. “Turn y’all rap n—- into two words, fast runners / Like Jackie Joyner, you better sleep with your burner.”

(Watch below from 2:58)

On some rap lyrics websites, it gets spelled out as “Jackier Jurner” but that’s because what it sounds like when Freeway is rapping. It’s the first reference that I caught but within the rap community, Joyner-Kersee has become a synonym and an easy analogy for fast in many ways.

It’s a little perplexing because you figure that a millennial audience wouldn’t catch the reference unless they followed the sport or its history closely. You’re better off using Usain Bolt’s name for their personification of fast but Bolt’s three syllable name doesn’t have as much of a snappy rhythm as Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

That hasn’t ruled out any references to Bolt in rap songs. Pusha T used Bolt in the “Speakers Going Hammer Freestyle.” Wale did it in “Black Heroes/Outro About Nothing.” There was one in “I’m So Paid.”

The earliest reference to Joyner-Kersee that I could find in a rap song was “Oh my God, funky with the style, Lord have mercy / I hurdle over rappers just like Jackie Joyner-Kersee” in Lords of the Underground’s 1994 hit “Funky Child.”

What’s great about referencing Joyner-Kersee in songs is not only that she can be used as a synonym for athletic speed but she did it all as a heptathlete. By the time that “Funky Child” came out, she was a two-time gold medalist in the multi-events. Luckily for Lords of the Underground, they picked an event from the heptathlon that Joyner-Kersee won. The song would not have been the same if they referenced Romania’s Liliana Năstase, who finished .01 seconds behind her in the heptathlon 100 hurdles at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

Ahmad, best known for his nostalgia-inducing “Back in the Day”, also had a 1994 reference in “The Jones” when he says “Kick it, I’m back, never can lose, I’m the man when I want to / Might gruff on rappers get ran like Jackie Joyner.” It’s not as good of a song as Funky Child.

The 90’s gave way for more Joyner-Kersee references after 2000:

2000: “Sport my old Force MD furs in the 80’s Nat Turners wit burners, Jackie Joyner-Kersee Taught y’all n—– how to rap, reimburse me” – Ghostface on Wu-Tang Clan’s “Protect Ya Neck”

Just a little namedrop and the first of a Joyner-Kersee and burner reference, which is re-visited in the aforementioned Kanye West song. There’s lots of track and field references in Wu-Tang Clan songs. This one has two with RZA coming in later with a strong verse of: “Run on the track like Jesse Owens / Broke the record flowin, without any knowin / That my wordplay run the 400 meter relay / It’s on once I grab the baton from the DJ / A athlete wit his iron cleat in the ground / Wildest n—- who sprint off the gun sound / The best time yet still 7.0”

2010: “I love fast women / Jackie Joyner-Kersee” – Childish Gambino

I remember listening to Childish Gambino’s early mixtapes and was fascinated by the subtle references that he would sprinkle throughout for witty punchlines. This was one of them and fast has a negative connotation here. It would quickly be adapted by other rappers of his era.

2011: “Lord have mercy but we be having that jersey / Flowin’ so hungry, rappin’ that thirsty / Think fast, fast women like Jackie Joyner-Kersee” – Lupe Fiasco on “I’m On”

Enjoy the “Return of the Mack” sampling. Here it sounds like Lupe Fiasco is referring to suffering from speed goggles but I don’t think that’s the case.

2012: “My n—- say she fast like Jackie Joyner-Kersee” – J. Cole on Green Ranger

The previous line has J. Cole wishing that this woman that he’s interested in doesn’t have an STD.

2012: “Rapping rapidly ain’t nobody be lapping me / Jackie Joyner 26 paces in back of me” – Chris Webby on Until I Die

I’ll give Chris Webby props for a Survivor reference on this song but this track reference falls pretty flat. I guess maybe he could be rapping from the perspective of one of the women that finished ahead of Joyner-Kersee in the heptathlon 800, which was not her best event.

2013: “Half my clique jack boys, they run up and attack boys Turn n—– to track stars, when we get thirsty We have these n—– running like Jackie Joyner-Kersee” – Lil Boosie on Lay It Down

I have to applaud Lil Boosie for releasing music while serving jail time. In this particular song, he comes out swinging. Usually in some of these other tracks, the Jackie Joyner-Kersee reference doesn’t come until the third verse. Boosie wants to let you know that his buddies have no problem sending you running, if you get in his way. Don’t get in Boosie’s way.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee dropped out of the USATF presidential election last year and lost to Vin Lananna but she’ll always have him beat in the number of rap references. That is…until rappers realize they have an easy rhyme for banana.

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