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This is an essay examining the work of Hip-Hop artist Nas and his album Illmatic. While this seems unrelated to cinema, Hip-Hop is a culture that has been disseminated through film (such as 8 Mile, a film I also wrote an essay on which is posted right above this one!)
Author: Alberto D’Onofrio
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At first glance, Illmatic by Nas features cover artwork of an African-American child juxtaposed with a photograph of a street-block. The child is Nas himself, or more appropriately, Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones, at age seven (Cowie, 2) and behind the young boy is a gritty New York City block (Juon, 1). The significance of the photograph, especially at this early age, is explained by Nas in an interview with MTV:
[The picture on my album cover] is me when I was 7 years old. That was the year I started to acknowledge everything [around me]. That’s the year everything set off. That’s the year I started seeing the future for myself and doing what was right. The ghetto makes you think. The world is ours. I used to think I couldn’t leave my projects. I used to think if I left, if anything happened to me, I thought it would be no justice or I would be just a dead slave or something. The projects used to be my world until I educated myself to see there’s more out there.
Furthermore, as author Michael Eric Dyson explains in “Rebel In America” Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas’s Illmatic, the Queensbridge imagery transforms Illmatic into “a sonic map”. This is significant because it is the location of Nas’s inspiration for the album’s concept: stories based on his experiences of growing up in the Queensbridge projects. While the entire album is significant to the artist’s intent, three songs will be the focus of my Illmatic analysis: “N.Y. State of Mind”, “Halftime” and “One Love”. The lyrics will be the primary concern as the old-school-inspired beats serve as a proper accompaniment to Nas’s masterful storytelling and delivery.
The following analysis will structured by highlighting lyrics that are significant to the overall meaning of the song and album with theoretical studies in Hip-Hop culture by authors Murray Forman, Jeffery O.G. Ogbar and M.K. Asante Jr.
N.Y. State of Mind
“I don’t know how to start this shit, yo” are Nas’s last words before the verse and while it may seem simple and improvised, it proves to be important for the tone for the entire album. The line prepares the listener for an authentic listening experience and Nas is still using the lyric in his live performances for the same reason. The following two versus describe the dangerous environment that surrounded him in the city and his rapping capabilities with lines such as, “Rappers I monkey flip em with the funky rhythm I be kickin / Musician, inflictin composition / of pain I’m like Scarface sniffin cocaine” and “I never sleep, cause sleep is the cousin of death / Beyond the walls of intelligence, life is defined / I think of crime when I’m in a New York state of mind”. Nas reveals the dark side of New York City which is a different outlook on the city compared to “New York, New York” by Frank Sinatra or the recent “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z that highlight the mainstream and glamourous ideals of the Big Apple. Nas explains that he is only reminded of the crime when thinking about the city, and in hindsight, he states, “New York City wrote Illmatic” (XXL Staff). This relates to author Murray Foreman’s book on the importance of space and race in the Hip-Hop narrative. Spaces, such as the city or the ghetto, can influence the music and the stories being told through the lyrics (Foreman, 8). Author Jeffery O.G Ogbar also acknowledges that Hip-Hop was born from the expressive culture of the African-American’s with the children of New York City being the creators of the art (Ogbar, 12) – a culture and place that Nas is associated with.
“Halftime” features a critique on society where, “Nas performs the most critical function of the public intellectual: linking a rigorous engagement with the life of the mind to an equally rigorous engagement with the public and its problems” (Hill, 1). A major problem that Nas expresses in “Halftime” is the discrimination that he witnessed from the police, or the “5-0” as he refers to them. Nas describes them as “heartless” because when “narcs” raid a house, it is usually late at night or early in the morning to catch people by surprise – a heartless tactic (Devito, 1). The artist addresses discrimination towards African-Americans by writing about how his race are criminals to the eyes of the police. This is evident in the line “I wear chains that excite the Feds” meaning that when Federal Agents see his overly-expensive chains he wears, they think that they were obtained illegally. Besides personal experience, Nas also incorporates political discussion by alluding to events ranging from the days of slavery (“I rap in front of more niggas than in the slave ships”) to the recent 1992 riot in Washington Heights, NY (Finder, 1) where Jose Garcia was shot by the police (“And yo, go to hell to the foul cop who shot Garcia”). Nas directs our attention to this prejudice – but where does it come from? Author M. K. Asaute Jr. suggests that the representation of Blacks in the media has an impact on the matter such as media that are “produced by whites and for whites to justify Blacks’ oppression, images of savages, of laziness, of pimpism and gangsterism” (Asaute Jr, 21). Ideally, the police are suppose to protect, though they combine their high authority and prejudice to act violently and unfairly towards others. Along with his personal experiences, Nas’s references to important examples in the history of racial discrimination, including Malcolm X, display the artist’s high intelligence, which is displayed with a creative flare in “One Love”.
The narratives and social issues inspired by Nas’s upbringing in New York is well executed due to Nas’s skillful storytelling ability. “One Love” is an example of the artist’s talent. Knowing Nas’s background, this is not a surprise. He started writing rhymes at nine-years-old and has been dedicated to writing music for his brothers who cannot voice their feelings (MTV, 1). Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson can also testify to Nas’ intelligence. In an interview with XXL magazine, Jackson states, “Nas is a really smart guy. He reads books constantly. We were around him on the Nastradamus tour. He was almost weirder than me ’cause we would go to breakfast and he’d be there reading a book” (Robbins, 1). As many say, creativity can spawn from reading and what makes “One Love” interesting is the artist’s literary imagination by writing the song in the form of a letter. At the time, Nas had a friend in jail which inspired this writing decision. As author Adam Bradley states in Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop:
Nas is perhaps contemporary rap’s greatest innovator in storytelling. His catalog includes songs narrated before birth (‘Fetus’) and after death (‘Amongst Kings’), biographies (‘UBR [Unauthorized Biography of Rakim]’) and autobiographies (‘Doo Rags’), allegorical tales (‘Money Is My Bitch’) and epistolary ones (‘One Love’), he’s rapped in the voice of a woman (‘Sekou Story’) and even of a gun (‘I Gave You Power’) (Bradley, 173).
With the help of Communications theorist Michel de Certeau, Murray Forman expresses the use of narrative in Hip-Hop as it is an important cultural element that offers insight on space. In Hip-Hop, the MC uses words to “vividly depict contemporary life” (Forman, 95) as Nas does in “One Love” and the rest of Illmatic. The range of styles and form as seen in “One Love” demonstrates great narrative qualities from the artist and allows the audience to comprehend the space of Nas’s past more fully.
From the first glance at Illmatic’s album artwork to the last word sung in “It Ain’t Hard to Tell”, Nas offers a glimpse into his experiences growing up in Queensbridge that raises social issues about city crime and racial discrimination from higher authority. Furthermore, the artist’s lyrics offer an appropriate and masterful narrative to help visualize the space that surrounds him. With cultural studies authors Murray Foreman, Jeffery O.G Ogbar and M.K. Asante Jr., Illmatic is an album that is capable of making the listeners aware of social and cultural codes that exists within Nas and his work, which a good reason to include Illmatic as one the great masterpieces in Hip-Hop.
Asante Jr., M. K. It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop. The Rise of the Post-Hip-Hop Generation. (New, NY, St. Martin’s Press, 2008). “Keeping it Real Vs. Reel” and “What’s Really Hood? A Conversation With an African American Ghetto”. p 13-52.
Bradley, Adam. Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop. New York, NY: Basic Civitas, 2009. Print.
Cowie, Del F. “Nas – Battle Ready”. Exclaim.ca. Web. 12 Oct. 2014.
Devito, E.A. “Halftime”. Genius. Web. 12 Oct. 2014.
Dyson, Michael Eric. “Rebel In America”. Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas’s Illmatic. pp. 33–60. Print.
Finder, Alan. “THE WASHINGTON HEIGHTS CASE; In Washington Heights, Dinkins Defends Actions After Shooting”. New York Times. Web. 12 Oct. 2014.
Forman, Murray. The Hood Comes First: Race, Space and Place in Rap and Hip Hop. (Middle, CT, Wesleyan University Press, 2002). Pg 95.
Hill, Marc Lamont. “Critical Pedagogy Comes At Halftime: Nas As Black Public Intellectual [Excerpt].” Genius. Web. 12 Oct. 2014
Juon, Steve. “Nas Illmatic. RapReviews “Back to the Lab” series. RapReviews.com. Web. 12 Oct. 2014.
MTV. “MTVNews.com: Nas: The Genesis.” MTVNews.com: Nas: The Genesis. Web. 12 Oct. 2014.
Ogbar, Jeffery O.G., Hip Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap (Lawrence, Kansas, University Press of Kansas, 2007). Pg 12.
Robbins, Daniella V. “50 Cent: Smart Nas”. Blues and Soul.com. Web. 12 Oct. 2014.
XXL Staff. “Nas Says New York City Wrote Illmatic”. Theneeds.com. Web. 12 Oct. 2014.