In 1982, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released what’s largely considered the first ‘conscious’ mainstream rap single, “The Message,” a harrowing seven-minute journey into the hellish existence of project housing and the means one must utilize to escape it. Freedom from this infernal reality has multiple paths, it seems: moving away from your home in the hopes of finding something better; being locked up for petty crimes committed to simply feed your family; or being killed in a continuous cycle of drug-related violence, by either a rival gang member or by an officer sworn to protect you. The echoes of the phrase “You lived so fast and died so young” close out the song, a stark reminder that being a black man in America comes with having a limited life expectancy, little to no personal freedom, and the constant reminder that you’ll never amount to anything. Flash-forward 12 years. Nasir Jones — a “ghetto baby” born and raised in Queensbridge, America’s largest housing project — has just released his highly anticipated debut album, Illmatic. Nas was nine years-old at the time “The Message” was released, but his own harrowing recollection of youth, on “Memory Lane (Sittin’ in da Park),” feels like a spiritual successor. Nas recalls that he “Grew up in trife life, the times of white lines / The high pipes, murderous night times / And knife fights invite crimes” with such deft dexterity that you never once question his authenticity; this is the childhood, like thousands of black Americans, that he was born into, and the one that was expected to result in his death. But with Illmatic, Nas re-wrote the narrative that was bestowed upon him — and on opening skit “The Genesis,” an ingenious sample of the film Wild Style presents this new worldview, as brothers Hector and Zoro quarrel over what’s “out here” in the ghettos that they’ve been raised in. Hector contends with a traditionalist attitude, that there’s nothing but despair; younger brother Zoro, though, disagrees, and offers his counter-argument by turning on his boombox: the limitless possibilities of hip-hop. After all, it’s with hip-hop that Nas was able to elevate himself into the poet, and man, that he became. But before Nas was the prophet of Nastradamus, the old man raging against a new generation of Hip-Hop Is Dead, or even the political firebrand that changed the title of his ninth studio album because it was too incendiary for release, he was a some fresh-faced kid out of New York, ready to live up to his growing reputation as the second coming of Rakim.
But what makes Nas’s work so vital are the ways in which he acknowledges these hardships, yet never wavers in his resolve.
To back up an already radical perspective on the state of his own existence, Nas broke the accepted practice in hip-hop at the time of working with only one producer for an entire project; on Illmatic, the aspiring star teamed-up with the most foundational architects of East Coast rap, and demanded nothing but perfection from this most ambitious crossover team in hip-hop history. (Which is rather humorous to think about now, considering Nas’s latter day reputation for being a horrible beat picker.) DJ Premier’s haunting boom-bap stylings give “N.Y. State of Mind” a cutting edginess, which Nasty Nas runs with to spit one of his most lyrically ambitious verses, coming “Straight out the fucking dungeons of rap.” A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip supplies the childlike mbira of “One Love,” which rounds out the rougher tones of Nas’s voice as he lovingly writes to imprisoned companions, informing them of the outside world from which they’ve been cutoff. Pete Rock’s sampling of pianist Ahmad Jamal’s “I Love Music” on “The World Is Yours” celebrates humble beginnings, as Nas reflects on his eventual legacy (“My strength, my son, the star will be my resurrection”), and caps things with a call of unification for all five boroughs to share in this newfound wealth. And Large Professor, who has three different credits on the album — most notable being his reworking of “Human Nature” on “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” — spurs Nas on at the end of his magnum opus, as the rapper concludes that his “Raps should be locked in a cell.” Again, this is Nas changing his birthright narrative — successfully reversing the stigma of prison for black men, seeing imprisonment under a racist judicial system as a response to aspirations of greatness. So what has changed in society since the release of “The Message,” or since Illmatic? To be brutally honest, nearly nothing. It’s now been over 25 years, and to be a person of color in America is still to live in threat of your wellbeing, to know that your life can end at any second from the chaos of a harsh social environment. But what makes Nas’s work so vital are the ways in which he acknowledges these hardships, yet never wavers in his resolve. He reclaimed his life and molded it in the image that he desired, knowing full well that no matter what he eventually attempted, he would end up six feet under anyway — or, as AZ, the only credited guest on Illmatic, puts succinctly: “Life’s a bitch and then you die.”
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.