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Pop Psychology: Lil Wayne and Birdman's "Always Strapped"

Just two reciprocating stunnas.  Courtesy xclusivezone.net.

Although it may be number 65 on the Billboard Hot 100, Lil Wayne’s latest collaboration with Birdman has garnered little interest from most radio stations. And probably for good reason. In all honesty, it’s a rare miss from rap’s King Midas. The song sounds stilted and cluttered, while also lacking the driving beat that usually characterizes Wayne’s work. "Always Strapped" is probably a throw-away track on Tha Carter III, but for the increasingly irrelevant Birdman, it’s the first single off his fourth studio album, Priceless.

So while “Always Strapped’ will probably have short-lived commercial success, its’ chorus promulgates one of the most eternal truths of biological life: a system of faithful reciprocity is the best strategy for dealing with other organisms.

In between slightly disappointing verses, Lil Wayne provides the song’s refrain, reproduced below:

Always strapped when I hit the club

N&%@$#s give me dap

Bitches give me hugs

And since I’m paid

N&%@$#s be muggin’ me

You know im muggin’ back

N&%@$#s be muggin’ me

You know I’m muggin’ back

Always strapped when I hit the club

N&%@$#s give me dap

Bitches give me hugs

And since I’m paid

Bitches be lovin’ me

They know I love em’ back

Bitches be lovin’ me

They know I love em’ back

The clear theme here is one of equality. Lil Wayne promises to treat everyone the exact same way that they treat him, no more no less. It’s reciprocity in its most thuggish form. By the way, I should note here that “mug” is not meant literally in the sense that people are forcibly taking money from Wayne. Rather, as urban dictionary tells us, to “mug” someone can also mean to “stare at someone; give someone a dirty look.” In other words, Wayne promises to return all of the facial hate he receives while also giving back any dap and love his fans may pour on him.

In biolgical terms, Wayne and Birdman are playing a simple game of iterated prisoner’s dilemma. While perhaps overly simplify things, this is another way of saying that the two rappers are in a situation where they will be having numerous interactions with the same people— interactions that have potentially beneficial or deleterious consequences. In the club, Bridman and Wayne have two possible behaviors (give dap/love or mug), meaning that there are four possible combinations for each encounter they have:

a) Give dap/love to someone who gives them dap/love.

b) Mug someone who mugs them.

c) Give dap/love to someone who mugs them.

d) Mug someone who gives them dap/love.

Obviously, options c) and d) should be avoided, as they could cause serious embarrassment, injury, or worst of all, missed sexual opportunities. So Wayne and Birdman should be striving to have as many a) and b) interactions as possible. Here, we also have to assume that Wayne and Birdman will be running into the same people in these clubs repeatedly. The question then becomes what is the best strategy to adopt so that the two rappers are giving the right people love and the right people mugs?

The answer is simple: just do whatever the other person did the last time. This system of behavior, known as Tit for Tat, was first formally “discovered” by Anatol Rapaport and Robert Axelrod in the early 1980’s. After holding a series of computer simulations that pitted basic prisoner dilemma-solving strategies against one another, the two biologists found that, in the long run, systems using Tit for Tat had the best rate of survival and greatest genetic fitness. In his seminal book The Selfish Gene, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins goes on to describe how species of sea bass and vampire bats have utilized similar systems as those of the two Cash Money millionaires.

It's not just human beings that strive to scratch each other's backs. The law of reciprocity is ubiquitous in our natural world. It can be found in the jungle, the desert and especially the club.

***Sidenote: Many of the posts in this series have attempted to explain pop songs by using the assumptions and research of evolutionary psychology. Recently, the field of evolutionary psychology has gone under a bit of a media attack. In the latest Newsweek, Sharon Begley chronicles the supposed “fall of evolutionary psychology.” Similarly, in today’s New York Times, David Brooks describes how “evolutionary psychology had a good run.”

While each piece does a commendable job of discussing evolutionary psychology’s flaws as well as the power of culture in human development, there still exists a mountain of evidence (a fraction of which I have discussed here) that illustrates how our thoughts and behaviors today evolved with from the worlds inhabited by our ancient ancestors. I agree that ignoring the impact of culture is myopic, but so is overlooking the conditions that human beings have lived in for 99% of their existence. The final answer to this problem will probably be it’s least satisfactory: both evolution and culture play invaluable roles in shaping the human mind. It’s just up to us to find out how these two forces make us who we are.

For a more even-handed discussion on the faults, merits and future of evolutionary psychology, I recommend a series of essays organized by the Templeton Foundation, which can be found here.

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