A History of Conflict: Entry #3

by Dax-Devlon Ross

First Encounters: The Genius of Illmatic


The guy selling Nas’s Hip-Hop is Dead album on the street a week before it was released in stores had only one gripe.

            “It ain’t got no club joints,” he said

            I understood his point. In order for most rap albums to sell these days they have to follow a strict formula that includes at least one, preferably two, singles that DJs can play in the club in order to generate fan interest and record sales.

            I bought the album anyway.

Most hip-hop heads can care less if their favorite artist has a club track on their latest album. Those tend to be the songs that get skipped over anyway. What we care about, the reason we but certain albums in the first place, is quality. Nas is guaranteed quality. I might not love every song on the album, but there isn’t any doubt that I’ll get my money’s worth, and then some.

            For better and for worse Nas is one of only a handful of hip-hop artists whose careers are worth following, and that is precisely because he actually has a career. An album isn’t a career. Two albums isn’t a career. The word “career” implies an extended period of time through which a progression (or deterioration) can be perceived and commented on. A guy who played a couple of years in the NBA, for instance, didn’t have an NBA career. He had a basketball career, but an NBA stint. The same goes for rappers. Most have rap careers, but mere stints as hip-hop artists.

            My first encounter with Nas dates back to a Saturday morning in the spring of ’94, my freshman year in college. I was in the cafeteria eating when “The World Is Yours” blasted through the dining hall speakers. At the time we – my boys and I – were still banging Wu-Tang’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Black Moon’s Enta Da Stage and Snoop’s Doggystyle. By the end of the school year, though, the sound pumping out of every room on the floor came courtesy of Nas’s Illmatic. From beginning to end the album captured and shaped a feeling of being in the early ‘90’s. Even on a college campus we reveled in its rugged beauty. All of my college buddies had grown up in the most brutal parts of
New Jersey, and were more often than not the only ones who’d ‘made it out.’ We all wore black from head to toe. We sat in dark dorm rooms and smoked endless blunts. In retrospect, we were engulfed in a sadness that none of us knew how to articulate at the time. It was the sadness of being away from home, the sadness of lives becoming more complicated over night. It was the sadness of being young and black and male and feeling incapable of being fully human. There were so many rules we felt obliged to follow, codes we had to abide by as a matter of self-preservation. In the midst of all this, Nas and AZ screamed our pain. “Life’s A Bitch,” they said—‘and here’s why.’ They proceeded to eloquently and painfully unleash the anxiety of urban existence: “Life’s a bitch and then you die; that’s why we get high/ ‘Cause you never know when you’re gonna go.” The lyrics don’t all make sense – Nas skips from one thought to the next – but the general mood supplied by the trumpet, the grooved-out Gap Band sample, and the recurring theme of life’s precariousness, made me listen until I’d memorized every line so that now, thirteen years later, I find myself randomly ripping off a verse or a line in my head. There was a message in the song, one that had been presaged by Wu-Tang a year earlier with “Can It Be All So Simple” and reverberated throughout Mobb Deep’s Infamous album a year later. What we felt, and were all drawn to, was a sense that our youth was over. The song, Nas’s  verse in particular, is all about letting go of the past and embracing life even though it is a “bitch.” It is about living with the pain of early death and incarceration. It is about a life that’s not just a throw-away thing even though everything around you seems to tell you to give up. “Life’s A Bitch” was one of the first songs I would listen to alone. Back then I could never pin-point what it was that I felt. Now I can say that it was resolve. It was ‘this is my life and I gotta just live it the best I can.’

In many ways “Life’s A Bitch” presaged a theme Nas would return to over and over again, a theme that, I believe, shapes his philosophical impact on a generation: that of living in the moment, of not wasting life or letting time slip by. A lot of his verse is scattered and if you read it looking for the totally coherent narrative you’ll be disappointed. Nas is not there at that point. He is still, in so many ways, a prodigy who’s yet to refine the message he’s trying to share. On Illmatic he’s learning how to fly, steering off course at times, slipping back down to earth at others, getting lost in the clouds here and there, but what we were drawn to were the glimpses of our own confused melancholy and nostalgia—emotions that had yet to be adequately expressed in hip-hop.

Nas the creative storyteller was also born on Illmatic. With “One Love,” a series of prison letters set to song, he effectively began the epistolary subgenre. A year later 2Pac’s “Dear Mama” would rise to the top of the singles charts. Jay-Z would become a particularly adept user of the form with songs like “Where Have You Been (The Dynasty, 2000), “Song Cry” (Blueprint, 2001) and “Do You Wanna Ride” (Kingdom Come, 2006), Jay’s own homage to his imprisoned comrade. What made “One Love” so groundbreaking at the time was its personal nature. It was a letter that the audience happened to overhear while it was being read. It wasn’t for us on the outside, but to every young black male locked away, which, again, marks a theme in Nas’s career. While many hip-hop artists claim to represent the streets, very few of them are able to distinguish between talking for the streets and talking to the streets. Nas has always favored the latter course. He is unyieldingly loyal to his people, perhaps more so when they are locked away or on the road to perdition. In his world the normal rules of morality are trumped by the rules of survival. Twelve-year-old kids sell rocks in order to feed and clothe themselves, and there’s nothing he alone can do about that. All he can say to him is be careful, watch the people around you. It is tragic and Nas never lets you forget that, but it’s also reality and it’s not his job to judge anyone or to tell anyone how to lead their lives. His only job is to tell their story to the world. He is, after all, them with a gift to rhyme, something he readily points out on Godson’s “I Did it My Way,” where he raps. “I lucked up with this rap shit/Now we all can eat.”

While other rappers (including Jay-Z) pen ghetto anthems that celebrate, romanticize, sentimentalize or sanitize the ‘hood, Nas consistently tried to offer something more (at times encouragement or wisdom) from the beginning of his career. It is these attempts to go deeper and to share knowledge that have gotten him into trouble in an anti-intellectual industry controlled by interests hostile to hip-hop as anything other than ghetto revelry and booty shake entertainment. Where Tupac and B.I.G. won our hearts by revealing their own struggles, from the outset Nas attempted to go beyond pathos and toward an actual development of a world view, something few rappers before him had every done. “The World is Yours” screams, ‘reach out and take this life.’ “

Memory Lane

” begs us not to forget even as we move forward. We talk about Illmatic as poetry, as Nas’s ability to paint the urban landscape with cruel beauty, but even that sort of praise sells it short. It doesn’t give credit to the intellectual, the philosopher, the burgeoning disciple. The standard brand of surface criticism merely puts the artist on a pedestal or into box, neither of which is fair. Doing so strips him of his humanity, the very life force we connected with in the first place. It places an enormous amount of pressure on the artist to live up to his hype and offers little room for error, growth or deviation. As great as Illmatic is, it was the product of a kid whose mind skipped around like a scratched LP, a kid who repeatedly told us his mind was overrun with thoughts that made him fear whether he’ll be able to “maintain.” A lot of the album doesn’t make sense. At all. A lot of it is blunt-induced gibberish that sounds good. That’s a testament to his gift, though, to what made Nas so lethal. Even when he wasn’t making any sense, he spoke with such confidence and force and fluidity that we listened and loved it anyway.