Songs by Theme
Part Entrepreneur. Part Intellectual. Part metaphysician. Part Wordsmith. All Nas.
by Ben Lust
In 1994, Nas graced the world with his debut album, Illmatic. Empowered by a legendary team of producers, the upstart 19-year-old made an indelible mark on Hiphop culture as a whole, and on the art of rap specifically. In a watershed year in Hiphop when classics such as Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die, Scarface’s The Diary, and Outkast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik were released, how is it that a relatively unheard of newcomer in the rap game could arrive on the scene and takeover? The answer is simple. Even at the age of 19, Nas already saw the world like few ever have.
Whether it be from his father Olu Dara, a successful jazz and blues trumpeter, or the pounding bass from the boomboxes outside in the courtyards of the Queensbridge housing projects, music was a central component of Nas’s upbringing from early on. Combine that with a love of language and books, instilled in him by his father, it is easy to see how the young Nas was destined to become an intellectual at heart. His world was one of extreme incongruities—the coldness of the streets vis-à-vis the warmth of his mother’s love; life as a middle-school dropout juxtaposed against recognition in the power of words and ideas to escape the harsh realities of life in Queensbridge. Yet, it was his ability to navigate these incongruities with a critical consciousness that resonated so loudly in his music. Given such a quality, it was merely a matter of time before his drive would propel him toward stardom.
Dubbed “the second coming” of Rakim by the Hiphop community, which he alludes to through the title of his 2002 album God’s Son, Nas’ body of work is imbued with a level of sophistication and intricacy rarely matched in the world of Hiphop. His albums are so much more than compilations of songs. Rather, his albums verge on being categorized as lyrical ethnographies, wherein the plight of urban life is simultaneously chastised and romanticized. Starting with Illmatic, and through 10 other studio albums, Nas has continued to push the envelope on the reaches of Hiphop and what it can accomplish.
In an interview with The Source shortly before the release of Illmatic, Nas explained that he felt like he was “doing something for the world … for all the ones that think it’s all about some ruff shit, talkin’ about guns all the time, but no science behind it” (April 1994). While Nas was engulfed in the streets of Queensbridge, the streets are not where he defines himself. Nas’ ability to see the bigger picture, the “science,” allows him to vivify life in the ghetto in a way that encapsulates the souls of all people living the struggle.
While Nas’ music is thematically framed in Queensbridge, he pushes listeners to think beyond that, to see Queensbridge as a microcosm of the highs and lows of life in the projects all throughout America, and the world at large. Ever since his first verse on Main Source’s “Live at the Barbeque” in 1991, Nas has shed light upon the racial, criminal and economic problems of the world through his detailed storytelling and insightful personal reflections. One important thing to note about Nas is that he does not play games. He says what he feels, when he feels it. While this can be said about many artists, Nas’ unique worldview is what separates him from the pack and makes his feelings so important to Hiphop. However, as important as his message is, Nas layers his lyrics with mysticism, challenging one to think even further to uncover the meaning behind his rhymes. There is no silver platter—you cannot grasp his message in a passive listen.
Moreover, Nas did not become a rapper to bask in the glitz and the glamour, but rather to provide a voice for “the nameless B-boys and B-girls who tried to do the same” (Born to Use Mics, 20). In essence, blessed with the ability to put into words what others just feel, Nas was born to be the leader of his hiphop generation. In the hook of “Nothing Lasts Forever,” Nas rhymes, “Everything will eventually come to an end / So try to savor the moment, cause time flies, don’t it?” While it is true that Nas’ time as the face of Hiphop may pass, his influence has been immortalized through those that grew up on his lessons.