The concept of jail or prison is a complex one. On the surface, it seems to do society good, but when you peel back the layers, you reveal an unseemly system that preys on the poor and disenfranchised. Not to be outdone, there’s also mental jails and prisons that we place ourselves into that can be just as problematic. So in this article, I’m going to provide you with ten songs about jail (or prison) that I love—many of which talk about literal jail or the mental prisons we cage ourselves in.
Rap Songs About Jail
Let’s begin this section with a Kanye West song, which is off his Donda album.
Jail by Kanye West
This song begins with a man saying, “take what you want, take everything,” as if he’s being robbed. This could be an allusion to Kanye’s recent divorce, and how he feels like his entire life has been stolen from him. He says he has prior convictions and if he gets pulled over, he’ll go to jail. “Jail” in this song appears to be a reference to hell, and Kanye West is repenting throughout the lyrics.
He says God will post his bail as if he’s trying to trust that things will work out even if he doesn’t understand them. He admits that he’s a liar and has flaws “I’ll be honest, we all liars (let it go).” It’s as if he is trying to accept himself the way he is while simultaneously projecting that onto others. He is bothered by his mistakes, though seemingly not enough to change himself.
There’s another version of the song featuring DaBaby and Marilyn Manson, who are both known for being problematic. This could be an artistic choice, as he put them in a song about asking God for forgiveness. The premise appears to be that everyone has made mistakes, it’s about what you learn from them and how you react that matters.
Mama Cry by YNW Melly
Many artists have made songs inspired by jail and the concept of being stripped of your freedom, but few have legitimately been an inmate. YNW Melly is an exception to this, and Mama Cry is about him apologizing to his mother, hoping she can forgive him, and saying that she doesn’t deserve to cry about mistakes he’s made. The song’s music video features a clip of him singing this song whilst in jail in 2017.
Melly has been incarcerated multiple times and is currently in prison for two counts of first-degree murder. Whether these most recent allegations and/or charges are true or not, the song makes a good commentary on the justice system: “cold shower, cold slab, cold food, cold bath, only makes a cold heart.”
Murder Was the Case by Snoop Dogg
In Murder Was the Case, Snoop Dogg is a shooting victim. He sees himself waking up from a coma, getting a second chance at life, only to commit a crime and then get murdered in prison. The song is subtitled “Death After Visualizing Eternity.”
Light Up Verse (Recorded From Jail) by Lil Wayne
Lil Wayne is unfortunately no stranger to being caught up in the machine of the justice system. But it has never stopped him from making music. His verse on Drake’s song Light Up (remix) was recorded on a phone call between the two. “Behind bars but the bars don’t stop.” So, if you’re looking for some songs recorded from jail, it probably gets no more authentic than this Drake song featuring Lil’ Wayne.
These Walls by Kendrick Lamar
In this song, Kendrick details having relations with a woman who has children, and the father of her children is in prison for murdering Kendrick’s friend. To him, he’s getting revenge on the man who murdered his friend. But still, he feels regret and is sorry for how he has behaved.
He thought it would help to get rid of the resentment he feels, but it only made him feel worse. Now he feels like he’s imprisoned by these nasty feelings. The title, “These Walls,” is in reference to the phrase “if these walls could speak,” and what would happen if this situation were public.
He says, “if these walls could speak, they’d tell me to swim good.” Essentially, he knows what he did was wrong and now things are going to be a lot worse for him because he couldn’t accept the way they were.
Other Songs About Jail or Prison
Let’s begin with a well known Johnny Cash song.
Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash
Now if you’re looking for songs with prison in the title, then this Johnny Cash song fits the bill quite nicely. Cash wrote this country-rock song while serving in the Air Force in 1953. He was a morse code interceptor, and was successful, being the first to interpret the news of Stalin’s death. Despite his achievements in the Air Force, music was still his dream. He used his first paycheck to buy his first guitar and tape recorder.
The song itself is about an inmate at Folsom Prison wishing he could escape and live another life. Though he’d never been an inmate at a prison, the lyrics paralleled to Cash’s life. He had fallen into drug addiction and issues with his mental health and marriage.
As his music career was on a decline because of his depression, he performed Folsom Prison Blues, amongst other songs, at Folsom Prison. The performance was recorded and quickly made its way to the top of the charts and became one of his most well-known albums.
Hurricane by Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan’s Hurricane tells the true story of Rubin Carter, a boxer who was convicted of a triple murder in 1966. He insisted he was innocent, and his arrest seemed to be racially motivated on top of false evidence. He was eventually released, due to being wrongfully convicted. He spent almost twenty years behind bars.
The rhythm of this song is chaotic, with many direct references to Carter, whose nickname was Hurricane. Dylan says that Rubin “Hurricane” Carter could’ve been the champion of the world if he hadn’t been forced to wrongfully spend twenty years in prison. Eventually, a movie about Rubin’s life was made starring Denzel Washington (“The Hurricane”).
Jailhouse by Sublime
Sublime’s Jailhouse is about the youth fighting against oppression and getting stronger. It was originally a Bob Marley song, many of Sublime’s songs are in fact, covers. They do an astounding job at restoring a sound and making it their own.
The song refers to someone named Rudy throughout the lyrics. Rudy, (rude-boy or “rudie”) is a reference to anyone who’s a fan of ska music. “Rude boys” were rebellious people that influenced the change of music in Jamaica. So, Rudy refers to the general population and not one person. The jailhouse gets empty, Rudy gets taller, and the baton stick gets shorter.
There is power within numbers. As “Rudy” becomes empowered, those in authority lose more and more of their own power, and the rebellious ones get the chance to flourish.
Jailhouse Rock by Elvis
Oh, you thought we wouldn’t add this one, didn’t you?
Certainly one of the most well known songs about prison or jail, this song is probably one of the more upbeat songs you’ll ever find about being behind bars. On this track, Elvis makes it know that the warden “threw a party in the county jail,” and that the prison band showed up so that the inmates—everybody in the entire cell block, in fact—could dance “to the Jailhouse Rock.”
This is definitely one of the most fantastical songs about being behind bars, but if you’re looking for something a bit more light and fluffy (considering this is a pretty heavy topic overall), you might want to give this song a spin.
Prisoner by Miley Cyrus
Many of us have not actually been to prison, but most of us have probably felt like prisoners in our own minds. In this song, Cyrus feels like she’s been trapped because she can’t stop thinking about a certain someone. He is stringing her along, and in their on-and-off relationship, she feels like her hands are tied.
In an interview, Cyrus commented on this emotion when talking about her ex-husband, Liam Hemsworth. “It was almost like a pacifier. It was that thing I needed not because we were in love anymore but because [of] the comfort and my brain said, ‘oh this feels better.’ But actually, knowing that I was giving in to an addiction made me feel way worse.”
For many artists, especially ones that have had legal trouble, writing songs about jail can be cathartic. Some draw from their own experiences of being incarcerated or having a great deal of empathy for those who have spent time behind bars. And for others, jail is simply a metaphor for feeling constrained in relationships or one’s inability to break out of an unhealthy, self-imposed daily routine.
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