Note: I wrote this about two years ago when Fox News was going after Nasir Jones. Parts of it by now are probably a bit dated but the overall message still resounds.
Between the erratic megalomania of Kanye West and the silliness of Soulja Boy and Lil Wayne, it’s easy for anyone to give up on hip-hop as a genre altogether, switching over toward musical genres that encourage creative maturity, diversity of sound and intelligence.
That’s what I’ve done. While I listened to nearly nothing except hip-hop throughout middle school, high school and the first few years of college, there are only a handful of rap groups on my iTunes now, outflanked by indie electro and rock bands like M83, White Lies, The Cure and Morrissey.
The rappers and rap groups that are still hanging around on my computer, however, will be there for a long, long time. The work of Talib Kweli, Jay-Z, Pharoahe Monch, Nas and similar acts is of enough poetic greatness that it’s almost tragic that they have to share the same genre as Soulja Boy, Ludacris or 50 Cent.
The most brilliant in this group of conscious rappers, in my view, is the prolific and unpredictable Nasir “Nas” Jones. Having released nine albums since his breakout 1994 album Illmatic, Nas is a master of words, able to weave linguistic puzzles that take years of listening to decipher.
On his most recent album, which was left “Untitled,” Nas recorded the sort of songs that I always hoped would be produced in hip-hop. On “Queens Get The Money,” Nas rapped over piano keys, illustrating a story of a child born out of wedlock (who we have to get is a 1973 Nasir Jones, “Pregnant teens give birth to intelligent gangsters, Their daddy’s faceless, Play this by your stomach, Let my words massage it and rub it, I’ll be his daddy if there’s nobody there to love it, Tell him his name’s Nasir, Tell him how he got here, Momma was just having fun with someone above her years.”
In an interview with the public radio show “The Sound of Young America,” the rapper Pharoahe Monch noted that hip-hop had been reduced to a brand to be marketed to a teenage demographic. That would explain the immaturity of most of what is seen as hip-hop on MTV, be it Lil Wayne putting his arm around a girl on a rollercoaster or Eminem dressing up like celebrities. It’s now made to sell horrible overpriced clothes for teenagers and not as a poetic outlet for inner city geniuses forgotten by the larger society.
It’s also unfortunate that a large portion of the population may have an image of Nas built from Bill O’Reilly’s ridiculous attacks on the man. Like many rappers, Nas has made songs that deal directly with inner city violence. (Hailing from the Queensbridge housing projects, this shouldn’t be a surprise.) The song that O’Reilly grabbed and played over and over was “Shoot ‘em up,” which had a chorus of “Shoot ‘em up shoot ‘em up, kill kill kill murder murder murder.” It’s worth noting that “Nastradamus” is the artist’s least popular album and was completely skipped over when he released his Greatest Hits album in 2007.
Bill O’Reilly, and Fox News at large, tried to make the case that Nas, because of songs that dealt with violence and, yes, at times glorified it, shouldn’t be allowed to perform at the 2008 remembrance concert at Virginia Tech. I don’t want to defend the most violent and offensive aspects of hip-hop, but it is worth noting that O’Reilly skipped over the far more notable song “I Gave You Power,” from Nas’ album “It Was Written,” a song in which Nas tells the narrative of a gun that has been handed from criminal to criminal, paving a road of bloodshed and tragedy with lyrics echoing the heartbreaking crime stories of Johnny Cash: “He pulled the trigger but I held on, it felt wrong, Knowing n**** is waiting in hell for him, He squeezed harder, I didn’t budge, sick of the blood, Sick of the thugs, sick of wrath of the next man’s grudge, What the other kid did was pull out, no doubt, A newer me in better shape, before he lit out, he lead the chase, My owner fell to the floor, his wig split so fast, I didn’t know he was hit, it’s over with, Heard mad n**** screamin, n**** runnin, cops is comin, Now I’m happy, until I felt somebody else grab me.”
“I Gave You Power” alone looms over the terrible hip-hop songs coming out today. Nas is a poetic genius, and a trip through his discography will acquaint listeners with what hip-hop can be.