Sunday, August 7, 2011

Emcee of the Month: Nas

I fell off the map these past couple of days. Sorry about that. I'll be sure to warn ya next time.

Anyway, where were we?

Other than the Scott-Heron specials, Nas is by far the most prolific and established artist I've highlighted on this blog. His resume spans some 17 years and includes nine studio albums, three compilation albums, countless notable guest appearances, and nine Grammy nominations. He is considered by most to be one of hip hop's most influential artists, providing inspiration for many emcees that have followed. For a more complete view of Nas' career and accomplishments, have a look here.

So this month will be a little different. Instead of interview or performance videos, I will spend this month musing upon some of my favorite Nas tracks in the hopes of illuminating elements that interest me and/or finding things I may not have noticed before. This cat has quite an extensive catalog, so we'll most certainly not be at a loss for material. And we'll begin with this:

"Nas Is Like" from I Am...

By far, this is my absolute favorite Nas track.

Nas' strength lies in his immense lyrical and textual prowess. To be honest, he's never really performed with much vocal variety; you'll always get that dependable hint of raspiness and a range of only a few notes. Unlike emcees such as Chubb Rock, Tupac, or Cee Lo (That's right! Cee Lo can rap!) Nas has never really played the full potential of his voice. Rather, he transports listeners with his mastery of poetic expression, navigating text with as much effort as removing his hat. He is particularly adept at phrasing each thought of the verse. He's keenly aware of which thoughts are best strung together for optimal effect, which need to be separate so as not to cause confusion, and the overall trajectory of the verse.

For example, he says this at the beginning of the track:

Freedom or jail, clips inserted, a baby's being born/
Same time my man is murdered, the beginning and end/
As far as rap go it's only natural I explain/
My plateau and also what defines my name.

Listen carefully and you'll hear that he really drives through the first two lines here with very little indication of where the separate ideas begin and end. I feel that Nas is establishing not so much a set of individual thoughts in the first two lines, but rather a landscape of imagery that will build the foundational sense of the record. Hence, the highlighted bit of the two lines becomes "...the beginning and end"; a thesis for the rest of the piece.

In the second two lines, Nas plays a bit more with differentiating thoughts (for the sake of playing the rhyme pattern) even though this is really all one sentence. He starts by playing up "rap go" and "natural", setting them apart from "explain". Then he repeats the pattern with "plateau" and "also", once again making a pivot on "my name" to match the feel of the previous line. And with the syllabic emphasis and variety present in these two lines, it's almost as if he's creating a stylistic antithesis to the previous two; first many thoughts become one then one thought becomes many. It's a brilliant way to begin a verse.

Have a listen to the track. I hope you enjoy!


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