Nas? Twenty years later? It is, perhaps, an odd way for me to begin an essay these days. Later than what, you might ask? Yet there isn’t much- alack!- one could really add here, although I can certainly try. To be sure: those that know, know, and those that don’t will have a hard time understanding any of this. Does this conveniently seal my argument from critique? Maybe, but with the added stipulation that this argument is NOT what you think it is, and less (or more, depending on your perspective) than what so many in the rap world wish it might be. It is strange, then, to watch a film that deals with the artifacts of my childhood, in part because it reminds me that while I have grown, and thus re-created myself, the culture to which they still belong has not. If anything, hip-hop has become, if not more self-obsessed, then at least more arrogant and complacent about its place the musical hierarchy. There are many reasons for this, but suffice to say that it is the culture’s deep-seated territoriality which has made it so unwilling to address its own structural failures. This is a shame, really, since rap has always emphasized the need to push boundaries, even though it has also shut its most cherished precepts into a kind of echo chamber where so much that ought to be debated and up for grabs is treated as a foregone conclusion. One can find evidence of this pretty much anywhere, from lectures, to online message boards, to failed rappers opining on one another, but perhaps the most symbolic instance of this stagnation is One9’s documentary Nas: Time Is Illmatic, which tackles hip-hop’s most revered album in a way that neither explains the music it ostensibly admires, nor presents any thoughts on moving forward, save for the same platitudes fans have been swallowing for over two decades, now.
Before I can properly analyze the film, however, I need to do something that- ironically- is almost heretical in the rap world, and pick apart the album, itself. And before I can do that, I must explain my premises in depth, lest I am accused of bad faith and questionable motives. But while I understand hip-hop’s resistance to perceived ‘outsiders’, it is also true that listening to Nas’s Illmatic, as a child, was one of the four or five most important turning points in my life, ranking among Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, Countee Cullen’s poem “Heritage”, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter & Poetic Form, Vladimir Nabokov’s Strong Opinions, and, later, the discovery of Dan Schneider’s essays on Cosmoetica, as these pivots laid the intellectual groundwork for so much of what I do today. Yet even as I have rejected some of my earlier influences, I can’t deny that their core fundamentals have stuck, and that rap music especially, and Illmatic, specifically, are still very much among them. In fact, the best rap, for all of its flaws, might be the perfect musical genre for a budding writer, in part because it instills – at least in theory – a healthy, serious-minded approach to self-expression. Rap is adamant, for example, that the world is full of artists, that most of these artists lack talent, and that the best way to separate the two and get something out of them is to force them to compete with one another and spill their egos in a disciplined, hyper-focused way. This is why there was a ‘battle’ culture predating even hip-hop itself, as well as still-ubiquitous debates as to the BEST rapper- since ‘best’ has tangible, almost survivalist implications to the right demographic, even as the word gets extrapolated into (seemingly) unrelated things. This is, incidentally, the central narrative in Time Is Illmatic, for it casts a very clear qualitative judgment on Nas’s music and songwriting abilities in a way that suggests few can equal his talent. It is rarely pointed out, but this already sets hip-hop against today’s more typical, self-defeating, postmodern conceptions of what art is and isn’t- a conception Nas would still laugh at, today, as a supreme violation of everything he knows of survival and of proving one’s inner worth.
Yet while rap fans might nod along to everything I have just said, they will probably deny that there’s a flipside to it, too. There are, obviously, benefits to having been born of almost uniform hardship, and even of treating art as ‘survival’, but this also means that rap has inherited the incestuousness of every homogeneous people that has ever existed. You can simply run through the list- the Greeks and Romans were far less impressive (at least in retrospect) than what they have been credited with; the Chinese were at their best and most cosmopolitan before their inward turn with Genghis Khan; the Muslims preserved and even expanded upon classical antiquity when the Christian world rejected its own cultural foundations; the Christians – soon realizing their mistake – later fulfilled what was once a mere promise in the Romans, outdoing even the Muslims in this regard; and the unprecedented depth of human culture over the last few centuries has flourished due to its willingness to embrace so many complex ideas of diverse origin, as well as the newfound leisure which allowed these ideas to be tackled by those outside of society’s upper crust. Similarly, hip-hop is the product of so many cultural forces seeping into and being transformed by the margins, even as rap’s reflexive nature (as with any fundamentalist doctrine) means it has not been able to look beyond itself and its immediate surrounds in a meaningful way. This is why some of the most successful fusions of rap with other genres- such as that of twenty one pilots– have actually come outside of rap, by those peering in and appropriating it, while earlier iterations (such as with Run-DMC) were mostly formulaic and done for the sake of novelty.
This may piss off hip-hop purists, but the same concept holds true for ‘white’ music, since classic rock was quite stagnant until those who did not give a shit about convention decided to turn it inside out. And we can still see this idea at work in writing, as well, since so few trained writers have ever contributed to world literature and why the MFA system is so untenable in the long run. In fact, the greatest writers have almost always been self-taught outsiders who wished to conquer something that did not really ‘belong’ to them- at least not in the sense such ownership is typically demarcated. If anything, context and historical precedent might have even weighed them down, but in rap, unfortunately, context has become almost everything, because the more homogeneous the grouping, the more territorial that group must be. Nowhere is this more apparent than the almost religious- hence the word ‘heretical’- respect rappers pay to their antecedents, even if (as with the Greeks) they might not deserve it as much as typically believed. Does Illmatic fit this trend of undoubtedly important, yet qualitatively overrated works of art? Yes. Is it a classic of hip-hop? Of course- it is perhaps the greatest rap album ever made, even if better arguments exist for individual songs culled together from more talented rappers. But as with my rather ambivalent take on anime and other pop cultural phenomena, I do not wish to see rap flourish on account of its handicaps, but in spite of them, and to transcend them, which means that hip-hop’s successes can no longer be taken for granted. And if a deeper analysis shows these successes are in fact losses? So be it. It is from upturned marble that great things are often built.
Illmatic is a short album- a mere 39 minutes, and just 10 tracks (recorded when Nas was still a teenager), which cuts out the fat, but also magnifies any missteps which might have otherwise gone overlooked. There is an essential (at least for pacing) but poorly-executed opening skit and at least one track (“Represent”) that is noticeably weaker than the others. The rest features some of the best production of any hip-hop album, and – more pertinent to the claims in Time Is Illmatic – songwriting that swings wildly from memorable and poetic lines, to now-dated braggadocio, to rote expressions of what was then a growing East Coast backlash against commercial hip-hop. In this way, it is at once the best of those artifacts (no, the Notorious B.I.G., Wu-Tang Clan, and others do not even come close), while simultaneously taking on their greatest flaws. “N.Y. State of Mind”, for example, is perhaps the era’s most iconic track, with a repetitive, dull piano, and sinister content to match. To this end, much has been made of the song’s ‘uncompromising’ feel, but what of its execution? Well, take the name Nas out of the equation, and its story-telling is not unlike the more typical gangster rap of its generation. In fact, although I’ve heard this song hundreds of times now, I barely remember the lyrics, save for just a few lines that turn what might have otherwise been forgettable into the promise of more:
It drops deep, as it does in my breath
I never sleep, ’cuz sleep is the cousin of death
Beyond the walls of intelligence, life is defined:
I think of crime, when I’m in a New York state of mind
It is clear, at any rate, that while Nas can compete as a songwriter with even the best of the best, it is, unfortunately, only at his best that this happens, and in rap, one’s best tends to come in short bursts which rarely extend for the length of an entire track. Yes, this is partly because the needs of rap are different (compare, for example, the ease with which rock can use refrains and just a handful of words), but this also means that hip-hop suffers from an implicit structural weakness that artists have not yet found a way to work around. Now, this is important- one does not get to fall back on the ‘difficulties’ of one’s chosen mode of expression to excuse an over-reliance on native techniques that simply do not work. In a way, then, one must accept most rap songs as a sum-total and not look too deeply into its constituent parts, which is strangely antithetical to the claimed ‘perfectionist’ nature of rap. It is telling, then, that “N.Y. State of Mind” remains so representative, because- irrespective of what one might think of the music- fans will go on to insist that it helped usher in an era that stood firm against palatability. In other words, context and history still triumph over what’s objectively there, since art, to an immature audience, is a point of personal pride and a means of lifting up one’s surrounds, as opposed to the far more difficult task of transcending them.
Nas does better in “The World Is Yours”, in part because he simply lets the abstractions loose, and in part because it is the best-produced track on the album. There is no real story, unlike in “New York State of Mind”, but there is a narrative, in which Nas seems to imagine what a carefree life might look like without explicitly describing any real instances of such. This is, I’d argue, a far more effective use of Nas’s talents, forcing the listener to fill in the gaps by giving him just enough to work with, and letting the rest work purely on the force of suggestion. More, the fact that producer Pete Rock (who is no singer) put his own vocals on the chorus strangely adds to the track’s narrative drive. Indeed, a smoother, objectively better voice would have merely disrupted what is always just underneath the surface:
I’m the young city bandit, hold myself down single-handed
For murder raps, I kick my thoughts alone, get remanded
Born alone, die alone, no crew to keep my crown or throne
I’m deep by sound alone, caved inside, a thousand miles from home
I need a new nigga for this black cloud to follow
’Cause while it’s over me it’s too dark to see tomorrow
If a song has poetic elements, they live off such margins- a lesson Nas has not really learned, given the forced poesy (“Just A Moment”, “One Mic”) he was later savaged for by his rivals, or even the near-cliché already dangling at the end of the excerpt, above. That said, “The World Is Yours” is often consigned to mere ‘classic’ status without really being understood for what it was: a defining moment in rap, in that it presented a way out of its own self-inflicted troubles, which were far more than the commercial/‘real’ hip-hop divide Time Is Illmatic tends to focus on. I would phrase the dilemma thus: would rap continue its anemic story-telling and its own self-absorption, or go on to eschew some of its roots for the sake of a deeper ambiguity? Nor has hip-hop ever answered this almost three decades on, since most of the experiments in this direction have either been outright failures (Canibus), also-rans (Talib Kweli), fascinating dead-ends (Aesop Rock), a mix of all three (Aceyalone, Ras Kass) or wannabes who have nonetheless gone on to win critical acclaim (Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West): the last of these, especially, offering a bridge to nowhere with the lemmings following certain death, below.
Moving on, “One Love” is another perfectly-produced track, but is, again, not to be examined too deeply. Often considered one of the best-written rap songs of all time, its lyrics actually fall flat throughout, with rote end-rhymes and dull imagery only occasionally reaching for anything higher. Just compare, for example, the banality of the first verse:
What up, kid? I know shit is rough doin’ your bid
When the cops came you shoulda slid to my crib
Fuck it, black, no time for lookin’ back, it’s done
Plus, congratulations, you know you got a son
I heard he looks like ya, why don’t your lady write ya?
Told her she should visit, that’s when she got hyper
Flippin’, talkin’ about he acts too rough
He didn’t listen, he be riffin’ while I’m tellin’ him stuff
I was like, “Yeah,” shorty don’t care, she a snake too
Fuckin’ with them niggas from that fake crew that hate you
But yo, guess who got shot in the dome-piece?
Jerome’s niece, on her way home from Jones Beach
It’s bugged, plus little Rob is sellin’ drugs on the dime
Hangin’ out with young thugs that all carry 9’s
And night time is more trife than ever
What up with Cormega? Did you see him? Are y’all together?
If so, then hold the fort down, represent to the fullest
Say what’s up to Herb, Ice and Bullet
I left a half a hundred in your commissary
You was my nigga when push came to shove
(One what?) One love!
with the following, somewhat richer set of images closer to song’s end:
So I comes back home, nobody’s out but Shorty Doo-Wop
Rollin’ two phillies together: in the Bridge we call ’em oowops
He said: “Nas, niggas caught me bustin’ off the roof
So I wear a bulletproof and pack a black trey deuce”
He inhaled so deep, shut his eyes like he was slee
Started coughin’, one eye peeked to watch me speak
I sat back like The Mack, my army suit was black
We was chillin’ on these benches
Where he pumped his loose cracks
I took the L when he passed it, this little bastard
Keeps me blasted, and starts talkin’ mad shit
I had to school him, told him don’t let niggas fool him
’Cause when the pistol blows
The one that’s murdered be the cool one
and it is easy to see that ‘context’ and ‘history’ continue to overpower judgment, even if more worthwhile things do slip through the cracks. “One Love” is particularly well-regarded because it was conceptually novel at the time: a set of letters in verse to the speaker’s incarcerated friends, which – if one considers the almost childlike rapping of the 1980s – seemed like a huge step forward. And no doubt it was, but only if one is forced to look at hip-hop (and only hip-hop) for one’s artistic precedents. It is all too easy to argue, for example, that The Zombies’ epistolary “Care of Cell 44” is both superior music and writing, but Nas’s objection might be – and no doubt he’d be correct – that the Zombies’ song has been whitewashed of all horror, of any implications beyond the vaguely sinister and the interpersonal, whereas Nas shines a spotlight on something far more tangible and almost universally misunderstood. Yet that, again, merely recapitulates the fact that rap is – and perhaps had to be for a while yet – territorial, and by being territorial, has to sacrifice artistic progress for some other concerns. This is especially ironic since, when rap does start to outdo other genres (and I suspect it will, in time), it will resemble this ‘whitewash’ before- in its final metamorphosis- it starts to resemble nothing else.
The album’s final song – the last of its five or six indisputable classics – is “It Ain’t Hard to Tell”. As with the other tracks, it is impeccably produced, but attempts less and thus requires less than many other songs here, turning it into a success almost by its de facto omissions. In fact, it is pure braggadocio, in a way even “One Time 4 Your Mind” (perhaps my life’s first real turning point) is not, for while that song at least attempts some depth, this one is reflexive and self-insistent, even as it features my favorite couplet in all of rap:
Begin like a violin
End like Leviathan
But while I am sure that so many of those lines forced listeners to rewind their tape-decks in 1994, “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” reveals – for this very reason – what might be hip-hop’s greatest weakness: the ease with which it becomes dated, or even irrelevant, almost as soon as it is celebrated. For, in terms of sheer quotability, Canibus had already outpaced Nas just a few years later, Ras Kass (and so many others) soon overtook him conceptually, and Jay-Z even managed to disrupt Nas’s claims of legitimacy, both in terms of fame as well as their personal stories. Just consider, for instance, the bulk of the track’s content, with a few lines plucked at random to get a sense of what ‘clever’ songwriting meant in 1994:
Deep like The Shining, sparkle like a diamond
Hit the Earth like a comet – invasion!
Nas is like the Afrocentric Asian: half man, half amazin’
Delete stress like Motrin
I leave ’em froze, like her-on in your nose
Nas’s raps should be locked in a cell
Is this unfair of me? Given the actual lyrics, it is, as far as I am concerned, the null hypothesis. But what would Nas say about his own song? Well, we don’t have to guess, because he explains it, in depth, to an academic who alternately treats him like a prophet, or a child – although, to her credit, Nas does not really seem to mind. In the excerpt she presents to him, they both choose to ignore a filler word (“troop”) as Nas admits many of the artistic choices, within, are purely stylistic rather than subject to any deeper analysis. She then imbues her own absurd musings into one of the his worst lines (“givin’ mics menstrual cycles”), which Nas simply embraces, before he goes on to explain what such freewheeling songs entail. And he is not wrong, for they are simply representative of the values and of environs that even rappers, themselves, are none too sure about. And although I hate to admit it, Nas’s expression at the twenty-two second mark is EXACTLY like the look I’ve seen on the faces of so many young people who are finally – unexpectedly, even – given affirmation from a world which was once thought verboten. As she pulls out the sheet of lyrics, it is almost as if Nas feels genuine success for the first time: that he has now (and only now) penetrated ‘that’ world: by which, of course, I mean the wider world, which Nas does not seem to fully believe belongs to him. And this is especially disheartening to see, since it is precisely what I’ve been agitating for my entire life: that EVERY world can, and must, belong to anyone who is willing to TAKE it, even if one’s ownership is only tentative. Perhaps I am, like this academic, simply imbuing things into the video which are not there? And yet, as I write and re-write this paragraph a few times, delete it, bring it back, adjust it, and read it once again, I know I must be honest about what I am doing. This is not, of course, my typical essay, and is therefore not subject to the same rules to which I’d normally hold myself. Yet that, too, can be blamed on the fact that rap does not ‘belong’ to me, either: it is not MY world, just as poetry is not Nas’s! This is, I think, undeniable. But I also realize that bridging the two – or bridging any disparate thing to yet another disparate thing – will lead to something worthwhile, for my task (just like a rapper’s, provided he knows the stakes) is to atomize and to permutate everything which might be within my ken for the sake of pushing these disconnected worlds together, until the composite is altogether better, and stranger, and unrecognizable, at the last.
Can one reasonably expect such from Nas? Some do, of course, while others insist that rap’s moment has only now arrived. And yet, Nas would not again approach his first album’s strengths, just as every other name I’ve named had just a couple of years (at best) of artistic success before running out of steam. This suggests, to me, that most rappers refuse to tap ideas and experiences beyond their formative years, and the few that do usually end up unable to differentiate between good and bad ideas, making any growth in this direction pointless. Today, for example, I find it impossible to listen to most rap before 1988, and even find much of Illmatic similarly tough going. Put another way, rap has not had its breakthrough where it can generate material that will not almost immediately become dated. And although it is commonly argued that rap is very much a young man’s game, what is rarely mentioned is that even the best work of a rapper in his prime is often rejected not even two decades after its release. Does any other artistic medium experience such high turnover? No, this is rarely admitted to by rap’s biggest loyalists, but if new generations do not see much relevance in Illmatic, it will lack a future even among more discriminating fans – that is, its target demographic – who will already be on the next fix.
And, oh. The documentary. Right. If you hadn’t guessed by now, the documentary, itself, doesn’t really matter, and cannot really matter given the shadow under which it is forced to live. It is hagiographic, it is not necessarily well-shot nor ready to impart much new information, and perhaps most distressingly of all, Nas- despite being given well over an hour to opine on his life, the rap world, and more- is unable to offer anything of substance, content, as he is, to be the myth-maker for his own myth. Illmatic is described in clichéd terms (“hope that came in the darkness”), as is his personal history (“music was in my blood”), his environment (“a buried diamond”), while the books of his childhood – a potentially fruitful line of inquiry – are not touched upon except as props, as if they are there to merely differentiate Nas from his peers as opposed to offer his insights into genuine ideas. An old teacher is brought in to comment on Nas’s childhood expressiveness (as if it matters). The Bridge Wars by way of MC Shan and Boogie Down Productions give an ‘in’ to his psyche, thus explaining his need to produce a rap classic born of his neighborhood, which is followed by the murder of his friend and collaborator, Ill Will, and- as his life hits a turning point- a rare chance to perform for Large Professor. A lot is made out of various Nas lines – both good and bad – yet they are never truly explained, as if the music ought to be self-evident, while various talking-heads (including MC Serch, Cornel West, and others) seem to hover around the same set of claims with which fans are long familiar. Time Is Illmatic’s best moment comes by way of a photoshoot that was done for the album’s liner notes, where friends, rivals, and those who’d otherwise never appear together, in fact do come together in the Queensbridge Houses for something they recognize is far bigger than their individual rivalries. Nas’s brother, Jungle, goes through each face – none of whom are now known – and it is striking how many of them are either dead or incarcerated, even as a couple of the photos are of kids younger than ten. It is not a reality that most people ever know, and had the film featured more poesy, like this, as opposed to merely culling opinions from those who are ill-equipped to deliver them, the result might have been good. Instead, it all gives way to Nas’s speech to Harvard academics as the Nasir Jones Fellowship is founded, with yet more platitudes and generalities from everyone around him, until Nas enters a music booth and raps “The World Is Yours” to end the film. The net result is what I have already suggested: less (not more) attention paid to Illmatic, as ‘real’ art, and more (not less) emphasis on art’s various tangents, thus smothering any art which might still be left.
I said, early on, that those that know, know, and those that don’t will have a tough time understanding what it all means. Yet this was not so much a criticism of the outside world for not ‘getting’ it, as much as it was a comment on how sealed-off and perhaps inviolable the rap world is to outside influence and critique. At the same time, Nas’s final words in Time Is Illmatic are a kind of paradox- that it is “not just about music,” but “proof that I was here”. There are two ways one can take that statement. The first is celebratory: that, beyond ‘mere’ art, the artist wishes to affirm his value and his humanity to the world at large, both as an expression of ego, and (at least in Nas’s case) as a means of exalting those around him. The second, however, is that Nas is simply being naïve, and unwittingly reveals how far rap must still go, for those two functions are already built into great art, irrespective of whether one desires them to be. In the end, what does ‘mere’ art entail, when that modifier can be applied to pretty much any human endeavor- hell, even to humanity, itself, if one wishes to be so deflationary? Perhaps this is simply a matter of irreconcilable values. And yet, Time Is Illmatic is concerned only with the first narrative- which I can only critique from the outside, looking in- but still forgets to gather evidence to make this narrative work. And that means it can also be tackled from the inside, according to hip-hop’s own proposed logic, which says: Tell me what I am, exactly, because I must impart this information to survive. Just 74 minutes in, however, and it feels like years have been shaven off of an entire genre’s lifespan.