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An English major’s take on why Nas is the best lyricist

May 10, 2012

(I’m going to write about rap more. I mean, I have a whole subcategory about music, and I consider myself a hip hop head. I don’t keep up with current acts so much. I prefer to browse past treasures. Let’s start with the best ever.)

Nas broke onto the national scene with his masterpiece of a debut, Illmatic. In only 10 tracks—nine songs and an intro, less than 40 minutes of runtime—the then 19-year-old Nas produced what many critics and fans consider to be the greatest hip hop album of all time. Each track is so outstanding that Nas could never hope to create another work with the same depth and consistency. I could pick a song at random and build a case for Nas as the best lyricist in rap history, but since this is an English major’s take, I will go with track No. 7, “One Love.”

My major is relevant to “One Love” because of the song’s unique format. In my opinion, superior lyricists can tell cohesive narratives in their songs, as opposed to, say, relying on chunks of lyrics, each a few bars long, to express a certain theme—for instance, “Fuck tha Police,” or “I am a very good rapper.” (Not that I don’t appreciate self-aggrandizing raps on principle. I just think that if a rap doesn’t tell a story, it must be stronger in other facets: internal rhymes, flow, vocabulary, etc.) “Gimme the Loot” by Biggie, “Ms. Fat Booty” by Mos Def, “No Regrets” by Aesop Rock and “Uncommon Valor” by Jedi Mind Tricks and R.A. the Rugged Man—these are some really excellent examples of narrative in rap. I contend that on “One Love,” Nas displays more lyrical skill than even those great rappers because frames his narrative to the album listener as a narrative to a character in the song.

The premise of the song is that Nas communicates the goings on of his neighborhood to an imprisoned friend through continued correspondence: two letters and what seems to be an verbal monologue. All in the course of his narrative, Nas relates the grim reality of Queensbridge, characterizes the letter-writer and the friend who reads, introduces and details a number of minor characters and even embeds a scene with dialogue. He manages to do all this while maintaining his usual standard of excellence in rhyming and flow.

But enough of my intellectual masturbation. Here’s the song, accompanied with the lyrics per Rap Genius and with punctuation slightly modified by me to better display Nas’ prowess.

(I am ambivalent about Rap Genius. One one hand, it’s literally the only place to find lyrics on the internet while sparing your computer a pop-up barrage, and the lyrics are more often correct compared to other sites since they are crowdsourced. But I’m uneasy about their practice of essentially translating the raps to more traditional (read: white) language. Users explain basically every passage, which usually means rewriting it in standard prose. In class I have read plenty of centuries-old poems that bear little resemblance to modern English, and the impetus is always on me to figure out the meaning. I think many English professors and scholars would agree with me that revising verse in order to make it easier on today’s reader would only cheapen it. I suppose I would find it less objectionable if I thought of Rap Genius’ work as footnotes to a poem, but that’s a hard analogy to make because footnotes don’t explicate every single line. Still, there are other kinds of user contributions that are genuinely insightful, like the identification of a previously unseen symbol or motif.)

[Verse 1]
What up kid? I know shit is rough doing your bid
When the cops came you should have slid to my crib
Fuck it black, no time for looking 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
Flipping, talking ’bout, “He acts too rough
“He didn’t listen he be riffing while I’m telling him stuff”
I was like yeah, shorty don’t care, she a snake too
Fucking 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 selling drugs on the dime
Hanging out with young thugs that all carry nines
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)

[Verse 2]
Dear Born, you’ll be out soon, stay strong
Out in New York the same shit is going on
The crackheads stalking, loudmouths is talking
Hold, check out the story yesterday when I was walking
That nigga you shot last year tried to appear
Like he hurting something, word to mother, I heard him fronting
And he be pumping on your block, your man gave him your Glock
And now they run together, what up son, whatever
Since I’m on the streets I’mma put it to a cease
But I heard you blew a nigga with a ox for the phone piece
Wilding on the Island, but now in Elmira
Better chill cause them niggas will put that ass on fire
Last time you wrote you said they tried you in the showers
But maintain, when you come home the corner’s ours
On the reals, all these crab niggas know the deal
When we start the revolution all they probably do is squeal
But chill, see you on the next V-I
I gave your ma duke’s loot for kicks, plus sent you flicks
Your brother’s buckwilding in 4-Main, he wrote me
He might beat his case, ’til he come home, play it low key
So stay civilized, time flies
Though incarcerated your mind die, I hate it when your moms cries
It kinda wants to make me murder, for reala
I even got a mask and gloves to bust slugs but one love

[Verse 3]
Sometimes I sit back with a Buddha sack
Mind’s in another world thinking how can we exist through the facts
Written in school text books, bibles, et cetera
Fuck a school lecture, the lies get me vexed-er
So I be ghost from my projects, I take my pen and pad
For the weekend, hittin L’s while I’m sleeping
A two-day stay, you may say I need the time alone
To relax my dome, no phone, left the nine at home
You see the streets had me stressed something terrible
Fucking with the corners have a nigga up in Bellevue
Or HDM, hit with numbers from 8 to 10
A future in a maximum state pen is grim
So I comes back home, nobody’s out but Shorty Doo-Wop
Rolling two phillies together in the Bridge we called ’em oo-wops
He said “Nas, niggas cold be [Marciano: caught me] busting off the roof
So I wear a bullet proof and pack a black trey-deuce”
He inhaled so deep, shut his eyes like he was sleep
Started coughing, one eye peeked to watch me speak
I sat back like The Mack, my army suit was black
We was chilling 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 talking 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
“Tough luck when niggas are struck, families fucked up
“Coulda caught your man, but didn’t look when you bucked up
“Mistakes happen, so take heed never bust up
“In a crowd, catch him solo, make the right man bleed”
Shorty’s laugh was cold blooded as he [Marciano: I] spoke so foul
Only twelve trying to tell me that he liked my style
Then I rose, wiping the blunt’s ash from my clothes
Then froze only to blow the herb smoke through my nose
And told my little man I’mma ghost, I rose [Marciano: ?]
Left some jewels in his skull that he can sell if he chose
Words of wisdom from Nas try to rise up above
Keep an eye out for Jake, Shorty Wop, one love

I made some suggestions and comments in the third verse. I think “caught me” is correct because it explains the little boy’s paranoia and fear of retribution. I think “I spoke” is correct because I’m pretty sure that little monologue was Nas schooling the youngster on the proper way murder in order to give him a better chance of survival. I don’t think Nas says “I rose” a second time, but I don’t know what he actually says.

I think the third verse in the richest lyrically. It’s certainly not a letter, so it seems at first like it doesn’t fit in with the other two. In the second verse Nas says “see you on the next V-I,” so I think the third verse is Nas talking to his friend while visiting him, which of course would continue the narrative pretty seamlessly. Anyway, the scene between Nas and Jake the Shorty Wop is a haunting narrative-within-a-narrative, replete with dialogue, setting (“we was chilling on these benches where he pumped his loose cracks”) and action sequences (“Then I rose, wiping the blunt’s ash from my clothes…”). That Nas is able to infuse these meaningful passages with sick internal rhymes is a testament to his peerless craftsmanship and talent.

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From → Media, Music

One Comment
  1. tim permalink

    As real as it gets

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