Lately I've been getting interested in hip-hop, so I downloaded a few ditties, like Nas' Illmatic (1994) and Kanye West's more-recent Graduation. I'm planning on listening to the hits of rap's "golden age" from 1989 to 1996. So I've got Rakim, Notorious B.I.G., Tupac and a few left (maybe Eminem).
My cousin laowai sang "Whose world is this? The world is yours, the world is yours / it's mine, it's mine, it's mine / Whose world is this?" back when Michael Jordan was just taking over the NBA scene. Nas' eminence in the history of hip-hop is well-founded; his debut LP is unforgettable, and I've only listened to it twice through.
The best way I can describe it is to say that Nas fits between four and five times as much meaning and rap artistry into his lines than any of the non-legendary but popular rappers like 50 Cent. I'm doing some research to see how Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Wu Tang Clan and so on compare. I don't think they'll compare favorably.
Illmatic is the magnum opus of his era of hip-hop. His raps on drugs, misogyny, violence, crime, urban alienation, aloneness, poverty -- the list goes on -- function more like the engravings at the feet of a statue by Rodin than what I've heard from rap since. Nas' spoken word pierces with patience, hard work, and ecriture.
(Rodin, "Spirit of War")
The beats and the tracks are more song-like than almost all rap I've heard, and like how John Lennon's song "Tomorrow Never Knows" relays the experience of psychedelia, Nas' songs are the best representation of a truly "urban" upbringing in Queensgate, New York City. I can hear the trains, the cabs, the crush of humanity.
Perusing some of the lyrics, it's obvious that Nas has more to say than almost any other MC: the lyrics go on and on. But not a word is wasted, and Nas demands your respect -- that you listen to him, not merely hear. Focused listening will reward you.
Nas' introspection annihilates, to put it in haiku form.
50 Cent's Glock-and-cock formula looks like a fat man with his pants down in broad, cold daylight compared to Nas' avalanche:
So it goes....I'll keep y'all informed of the progress of my study of the mathematical semantics of hip-hop.
Represent, represent!! (repeat 4X)
Straight up shit is real and any day could be your last in the jungle
Get murdered on the humble, guns'll blast, niggaz tumble
The corners is the hot spot, full of mad criminals
who don't care, guzzlin beers, we all stare
at the out-of-towners (Ay, yo, yo, who that?) They better break North
before we get the four pounders, and take their face off
The streets is filled with undercovers, homicide chasin brothers
The D.A.'s on the roof, tryin to, watch us and knock us
And killer coppers...