In 1991, Nas, who was only 17 at the time, burst on to the scene as a featured artist on Main Source’s “Live at the BBQ.” He stole the show with lines like, “When I was twelve, I went to Hell for snuffing Jesus” and has continued to captivate listeners for over twenty years. Therefore, it is no surprise that as Hip-Hop has been embraced by scholars, Nas is one of the people from the culture who is closely studied.
And with The Hip-Hop Archive and the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University’s recent announcement of the Nasir Jones Hip-Hop Fellowship, it just simply reenforces his prowess as one rap’s most gifted. According to the press release, Nas’ skills have “helped usher in an original form of hip-hop debate and analysis that reflects on and represents urban youth angst and conflict as well as intelligence, confidence and ambition.”
Keeping in mind that Nas’ number of albums is in the double-digits, there isn’t much that he hasn’t discussed on wax. So AllHipHop.com has made a list of ten songs where Olu Dara’s oldest son tackles subjects that are also discussed in the classrooms of the Ivy League but in a way that no textbook ever could.
It is this writer’s opinion that, by combining the creatively expressed situations from the music (especially as seen in the lyrics) with academic curriculum, the resulting wisdom could be something truly beneficial for generations to come and positively affect countless people in the process.
Song: “I Gave You Power”
Atop DJ Premier’s melancholy instrumental, Nas raps from the perspective of a Desert Eagle and is disgusted with what he is doing as a result of his handlers. He then intentionally jams (“I didn’t budge / Sick of the blood / Sick of the thugs, sick of wrath of the next man’s grudge“). The victory, however, is short-lived and he is picked up by somebody else soon after. The song is very telling about the issue of gun violence and the problems it can create.
The topic of race is obviously talked about on the Untitled album, but Nas also speaks out about other social issues as well. On this record’s third verse, he discusses gender and identifies the disrespect that women endure. When addressing the government he says, “Y’all don’t treat women fair / She read about herself in The Bible, believing she the reason sinners here / You played her with an apron, like ‘Bring me my dinner dear’ / She the n****r here.” It’s a white man’s world in America, and Nas points that out from every angle.
Song: “Bye Baby”
Life is Good’s closing track is a powerful one in which Nas addresses his unsuccessful marriage to Kelis. What makes it so powerful though is that it doesn’t take the easy road of being a place to simply just vent. It addresses the highs and the lows of their relationship with equal conviction. “Wanted you as my shorty since I saw you screaming / Hate you so much right now, should have saw the meaning / Angry black women actions of a demon, I’m leaving.” A better example of the thin line between love and hate would be hard to find.
Song: “Black President”
History has proven that, contrary to the chorus, America is ready for a black president. However, the song’s overall message is not dated. With lines such as, “I think Obama provides hope and challenges minds / Of all races and colors to erase the hate / And try to love one another, so many political snakes,” Nas is confident in Obama’s ability. His presidential election and Sotomayor’s placement on the Supreme Court kick down doors, prove that Nas’ faith in him was not misplaced, and provide hope for many that more is possible than ever before.
Song: “Let There Be Light”
The value of track 12 on Hip-Hop is Dead is that it breaks the hood mentality that plagues people in at-risk areas all over the world. But Nas doesn’t get preachy. He instead acknowledges the circumstances that people face. Then breaks the cycle by saying that they can be reached by using more than just the negative influences in their environment. “I can’t sound smart cuz ya’ll’ll run away / They say I ain’t hungry no more and I don’t talk about ‘ye / Like there’s no other way for a ex-hustler / Cake ya, the x-ray splitter to touch ya, I beg to differ.”
Song: “One Love”
Being separated from someone that one cares about is tough. In the form of a letter though, Nas fills in one of his cronies about all that is going on in the neighborhood while he is behind bars. He even takes on the task of his telling his friend that his girlfriend has been unfaithful (“I was like yeah, shorty don’t care, she a snake too / F***ing with the n****z from that fake crew that hate you”). Rapper Cormega got a shout out on the song as well while he was really in prison for armed robbery.
Song: “What Goes Around”
A lot of ground is covered on this record. Misoverstood religion, shootings, fast food, and soda are all referred to as “poison” in the first verse alone. But, perhaps most memorably, safe sex and testing is stressed at end of this song in cautionary form. “He never used a condom, give him h**d he got ya / Met the wrong b***h and now he dead from the monster AIDS / I contemplate, believe in karma / Those on top could just break, and won’t be eatin’ tomorrow.”
Song: “Doo Rags”
The loss of any type of innocence is a memorable experience for young people. On “Doo Rags,” Nas masterfully transitions back and forth from reminiscing about coming of age in the 80s to asking bigger questions after he comes to realize the plight that his surroundings present. “Homicide and feds on the blocks where I played, b-ball / That’s when I wondered was I here for the cause, or be-cause.” Even with the throwback vibe of the song, he still manages to throw in timeless gems.
Song: “I Can”
Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” sample on this song is crazy and the kids chant of the chorus says it all. And while Nas does make reference to everything from African history to Oprah Winfrey, he ultimately says that the future is up to the youth and its obvious that he is there to encourage them every step of the way. “Nobody says you have to be gangstas, h**s / Read more, learn more, change the globe.”
Song: “N.*.*.*.*.R. (The Slave and the Master)”
This record is very interesting because it acknowledges the struggles of African-Americans in this country (“Aluminum foil on TV antennas / Little TV sit on top the big TV, eating TV dinners”), while also pointing out that they are connected to royalty (“Descendant of kings, it’s necessary I bling/Put rims on everything, where Tims on every scene”). It’s all very thought-provoking, and was even nominated for a Grammy. Unfortunately, it didn’t win. But it’s certainly a step in the right direction.
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