Over the past two decades the face of the rap game has changed considerably. However, the one element hip-hop heads have consistently been able to rely on is the raw, hard-hitting, and complex rhymes from NYC rapper Nas. From dropping on the scene in 1994 with Illmatic, perhaps his most revered work, to his most recent project, Life Is Good, Nas has brought to the mic unique and thought provoking pictures of street life in NYC as a poor, young, black male. While, recently named "the greatest lyricist of all time" by CNN, it is Nas' ability to tell a story and/or vet a concept, which gives his music a self-proclaimed "universal" characteristic, allowing it to resonate far beyond the hallways of the Queenbridge apartment buildings where he grew up (the largest public housing development in America). It is in this way, as a young white Jewish woman who grew up in the comforts the Fairfield County suburbs, that I can claim I have learned much about life in America from listening to Nas.
Let me start at the beginning. The year is 2006 and I am 16 years old. By this time I have heard my share of hip-hop music. In middle school for some reason we sang "Fantasy" by Ludacris word for word a capella on the bus. I knew who TuPac and Biggie were, that they "had beef" and as a result had both died. I knew 50 Cent got shot nine times and I could sing a long with him or any other rapper on the radio. However, just knowing some artists names and being able to recite their lyrics does not mean one knows anything about hip-hop culture, its history, and what it means in the larger context of present day America — at 16 with only the knowledge of what I heard on the radio, hip-hop music was to me, simply entertainment. Even more accurately perhaps, I felt like it was recycled garbage which, like action movies, added little value while glorifying a lifestyle of violence and money, and the material things they could get you. Going further still, hip-hop music probably only served to reinforce negative stereotypes I had about black and poor people in America.
Enter the Nas album Hip-Hop Is Dead. Ironically, led to the album through the radio single, also titled "Hip-Hop Is Dead," Nas stuck a cord with me when he expressed a dissatisfaction with the state of hip-hop music; little did I know I was about to receive my formal introduction in to the world of hip-hop. In just the span of 17 songs Nas gave me a full course on the history of hip-hip, including its current state, as well as, insight in to the ever relevant topic of race relations in America. As a white women trying to understand the experiences and lifestyles most readily portrayed through rap, Hip-Hop Is Dead, attended to my questions. In the midst of all this talk about gangsters, guns, and street violence, hip-hop music finally felt rateable.
Through the incessant use of names and references, Nas took a music genre that until this time had been been a source of pure entertainment for me, void of meaning in any larger social context, and made it fit within a historical framework rooted in the Transatlantic slave trade. That while talking of a "smooth night wit' my jewels bright/ goons left, goons right,coupe wit' blue lights/ bad girls in black pearls, gave us cat calls/ took 'em back to the crib to break they ass off" in the song "You Can't Kill Me," on the next track, "Carry On Tradition" Nas charges, "Hip-Hop been dead, we the reason it died/ Wasn't Sylvia's fault or because MC's skills are lost/ it's because we can't see ourselves as the boss/ deep-rooted through slavery, self-hatred, the Jewish stick together, friends in high places." Maybe because I am Jewish these lines particularly resonated with me, but even forgoing that portion, these lyrics provoke thoughts and ideas about the development of cultures and societies on a very high and multi-faceted level.
Moreover, Nas, through his album Hip Hop Is Dead, provided me with a lens through which to approach all hip-hop music and beyond that, through which to approach all of life. Nas articulated why I found no substance in most of the hip-hop music I heard on the radio, with an eloquence matched only by my best teachers. More importantly still, Nas turned me on to legendary artists and people, through which he connected hip-hop with the bigger picture of life; a picture that can only truly be understood with an elevated knowledge of history. Now an avid hip-hop consumer, who has listened to all of Nas' albums both before and after Hip-Hop Is Dead, I can say this was not an anomaly, but a characteristic reminiscent of each of his works. So, for those of you not quite sure about how to approach the hip-hop genre, or who have become somewhat disenchanted with it, or for those just looking for a new perspective on life, check out any Nas album and you are sure to find a lesson or two.