Sunday, August 21, 2011

Emcee of the Month: Nas

"One Mic" by Nas

For me, this is one of the handful of tracks that embodies everything that makes hip hop such a brilliant and transcendent musical art form. There are so many fantastic things about this song, I could go on all day. Instead, allow me to tackle the one element I feel is one of the main facets that makes this song great.

Over the course of his career Nas has experimented with his voice, both textually and aurally, with amazing specificity and courage. Like any performer he's had success and struggles, but has continued on a path of exploration in a way very few artists can sustain. With this particular track, I feel he put a lot of really good things together. Nas begins his first two verses playing a sort of sotto voce, gradually increasing his vocal energy through the 16 measures of rhyme. In the third verse he reverses this pattern, making the shift from a full voice experience back to the initial semi-stage whisper than began the first two verses. It's actually a very simply but highly effective way to move through this kind of text.

The wonderful thing about this movement is that, from what I can tell, Nas exhibits few of the traps or challenges with which so many speakers and performers grapple. Many times when actors or speakers attempt these kinds of shifts in vocal energy, a variety of learned habitual patterns may impede the release of freer vocal discoveries. Often these impediments are revealed through loss of breath, vocal stridency, and even physical pain. The popular course of action is usually formal voice training designed to bring awareness to these patterns in service of allowing their release. However, Nas doesn't seem to have any of this stuff going on here. The constant reinvestment of his vocal energy throughout the song seems incredibly progressive, and he follows the impulses of his voice with remarkable clarity. And there isn't one moment in the four minutes that feels forced or insincere. We are witness to an emcee who has discovered the resonant intricacies of his own voice, and has found a firm, well-defined, yet flexible sense of grounding. And like most emcees, he's done it without any formal performance training.

This is an extraordinary track.


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