Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Greatest Rap Song Ever: Nas Inspires Us To Take A Bite Out Of Life

By Scott Tre

True Pop songs rarely move me.  In fact, the lead singles off even my favorite artists albums don't appeal to me for one simple reason: The first single is often what the artist and/or label deem to be the most marketable.  I've always felt that if you truly want to know what's in an artists soul, you have to wait for one of the subsequent singles.  Better yet, buy the album.  His most potent work is possibly buried there.

When The Source Magazine gave Nas debut Illmatic the then coveted "5 Mic" designation in the spring of 1994, it caused a slight furor.  Much of it revolved around the perception of east coast bias on the part of the burgeoning Hip-Hop media.  How could a new and relatively unknown artist from New York receive a level of praise that has eluded even the best and most popular artists from other regions?

Up until that point, the only thing anyone had heard from the album was the Large Professor produced lead single, "It Ain't Hard To Tell", which employed a sample from Micheal Jackson's "Human Nature".  The song featured Nasir Jones at his abstract and braggadocios best, but it was nothing that would convert non believers.  It was a bit too subdued, courting lyrical enthusiasts almost exclusively.  Though dope, it didn't seem to herald the coming of a genre changing album.

My friends and I anticipated the release of the album.  We all thought Nas was undeniably dope due to his posse cut appearances and the year and a half old single "Half Time".  Still, none of us could fathom that he'd be the new golden boy.  He just didn't seem to have that "it" factor.  How superficial teenage minds can be when contemplating art.

The local college mix show that we all listened to was the only way that transplanted New Yorkers could get their fix while living in GA.  The name escapes me at the moment, but I remember the station being 88.5 and the show being on Sunday nights.  They would always debut the best underground Hip-Hop from all over, with the emphasis often falling on the northeast region.  Some nights they may even play an exclusive from a Ron G mix tape.  On one particular night, that's exactly what they did.

As usual, I kept the my tape on pause in preparation to capture some gems.  While getting my clothes ready for school the next day I heard something world changing emanating from my speakers.  Almost like the pied piper was calling to me.  It was a piano sample, looped in a way that I had not quite heard before.  It came courtesy of came courtesy of Ahmad Jamal's "I Love Music".  Even with the DJ's incessant yelling, it called out to me.  It demanded that I awake out of my drab routine and take notice.  It coasted over the peaks and valleys of a plodding boom bap track.  "What song is this?" I wondered.  "Whatever it is, the beat is dope.  Could it be?  Yo!"

I ran to my tape deck and hit the pause button.  My deck, chomping at the bit like an overeager gunfighter, released the tape and and allowed the beautiful track to leave its footprints.  Then, Nas voice came in.  I was so excited that I wasn't in the frame of mind to truly take in the words.  I just listened.  The relatively complex rhyme structure combined articulate enunciation with street slang.  Everything formed murky nostalgic pictures.  Almost like you were traveling through the recesses of someones mind.  Every once in a while a true gem would stand out, like a phrase from a Bible verse:   

Born alone, die alone, no crew to keep my crown or 
I'm deep by sound alone, caved inside in 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
That's how each of the verses played.  The picture that emerged is that of an introspective soul whose mind wanders well beyond the confines of the high rise project where he lives.  We allows his consciousness to wander from one picture to the next.  Every now and then, loneliness rears its head and he is brought crashing back down to reality.  That would be the black cloud mentioned in the bolded line above.  The negative thoughts that obscure the light and stifle ambition.  Still the author prattles on.  The world doesn't stop, and neither does the authors mind or his memories.

The amazing piano sample embodies the mix of emotions conveyed in the lyrics.  At once sentimental and nostalgic, yet somewhat somber and world weary.  A feint sense of hope permeates it, which is emphasized by the shout outs that close the song out: 

To everybody in Queens, the foundation  "It's yours!"
The world is yours
To everybody uptown, yo, the world is yours 
"It's yours!"
The world is yours
To everybody in Brooklyn
Y'all know the world is yours   "It's yours!"
The world is yours
Everybody in Mount Vernon, the world is yours 
"It's yours!"
Long Island, the world is yours   "It's yours!"
Staten Island, yea the world is yours  "It's yours!"
South Bronx, the world is yours   "It's yours!"

Nas seems to be encouraging the listener to dwell not on where they are, but dream of where they could be.  The world is bigger than your block or your borough.  Even though it is directed toward New Yorkers, the message doesn't come off as exclusionary as one may think.  I'd like to believe that Nas was imploring his Big Apple brethren to think bigger and more positive.  

Now doubt that the title was probably inspired by the phrase made famous by Brian De Palma's bloody opus Scarface.  Nas is part of the cult of Montana, but the song itself seems to speak of something a bit more elevated than the base and shallow ambitions displayed in that film.  Allusions to New York city drug culture are made (hence the mention of the murderous Pappy Mason), but the culture is not glorified or reveled in.  They come of as more of a point of reference.  The opening line is a good clue as to where Nas head is at: 

I sip the Dom P, watchin' Gandhi til I'm charged
Then writin' in my book of rhymes, all the words 
pass the margin

The author is fueled by not just by liquor but the life and philosophy of a spiritual leader who sought peace and equality for his people.  He considers the duality of man, the ability to indulge earthly pleasures while dreaming of higher things.  Not as contradictory as the notion of placing a "positive/conscious" song in the midst of an album that celebrates hedonism and violence.  It comes of as more of a meditation.  I defy even the most die hard Scarface fan to argue that Tony Montana had quite so much on his mind in his quest to dominate the dope trade.

Producer Pete Rocks of key singing during the hook lends an air of sincerity and earnestness.  The incessant cutting of the hook from T La Rocks classic "It's Yours" adds an air of old school celebration.  It adrenalizes and sedates, making you feel alive but woozy.    The mix of themes and emotions is entrancing.  It leaves the listener a bit unsure as to what particular response Nas was aiming for.

The initial response to Illmatic was muted outside of New York.  It took a full two years to be certified Gold by the RIAA.  It did so just after Nas truly became mainstream with his more radio friendly sophomore release It Was Written.  At the time, I considered the muted response to the album as proof of my pet theory that you really had to be from NY to "get" Nas and his music.  I can see now how pompous and xenophobic such a perspective was.  Music does not belong to the region that spawned it.  Truly great art transcends boundaries.  This is evidenced by West Coast rapper Fashawn's recent Ode To Illmatic mixtape

Upon moving back to NY I realized that anyone could love and appreciate "The World is Yours", but for New Yorkers it holds a special significance.  It speaks to our conflicted relationship with our city.  It illustrates the way dominates our perspective and gives us comfort, but oppresses us in a way that urges us to seek solace elsewhere.

For me, "The World is Yours" is New York, and the most affecting Rap song I have ever heard.  it not only represents post golden era New York Rap at its best, but one of our most gifted artist at the height of his power.  Nas touched on a feeling that I think even he couldn't really describe if asked.  Such is the power of a truly gifted soul.  They rarely understand what they posses.  The song is the perfect balm for differed dreams, making you ponder your limitations while asking you to be bound by them. 

Thanks Nas.  Thanks Pete.  You affected my world.  For that I am eternally grateful.


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