Introducing my newborn to hip-hop has been a real struggle. Mostly it makes her cry a lot. Which is often my response exactly, so I persist. My first mistake: Ultramagnetic MC’s Critical Beatdown. I figured Kool Keith shared some of her doe-eyed fascination, plus he possesses an insatiable appetite for nursery rhymes, but alas, the shallow sonics turned her off. The Chronic and Doggystyle soothed her; Dre’s steady bass probably reminded her of my heartbeat while the melodic overtones were reassuring. She began to find her center.
So I figured she was ready for Illmatic. And while she seemed to prefer the mellifluous sounds submitted by producers Tip and Extra P, I was basically back at square one. I looked at her like she was a stranger. What part of me wasn’t in love with Nas? He’s easily one of the most important writers of the century and the only genius I’ve ever seen in concert. I had to remember this motherhood thing is also about patience. It Was Written was a godsend----the lyrics are printed on the back. So I read them to her every night, placing my own gentle pressure on his verbs so they flow like a lullaby.
I’m hoping hip-hop will help her understand me and mine in the same way Revolutionary Suicide, Parliament, and Iceberg Slim have helped me understand my father and his pimped out friends. Messy as it ism there’s no way to truly place my generation’s hyper-capitalism, numbness, cartoonish misogyny, and constant return to myth of action, if the billion dollar crack industry that crack became (and the subculture it spawned) isn’t chronicled in detail.
I’d give my nationalist-born life if my baby’s bedtime stories were about land and liberation rather than suitcases full of Benjamins and ice. But the truth is most of the boys I grew up with (boys who’d memorized whole scenes from Scarface and The Godfather) had Mafia fantasies. My fellow tenth graders left for summer break aspiring breakdancers and returned that fall as ballers---dripping in gold laced with South African diamonds, pushing 300s and bumping "Criminal Minded." Who knew our flygirl ghetto molls would end up strippers, all the ice pawned for Similac? Who knew we’d warrant the attention of a Bob Mackie-wearing First Lady, mandate whole new laws with tailor-made penalties, and inspire the erection of dozens of new prisons? Who could have known?
One of the highest prices of the drug game has been our schism from our parents, whose generational contribution was a militant fire for freedom. Financial independence made us cocky; living like Blake Carrington makes Jay-Z ask “….nigga you broke/Now what the fuck you gon’ tell me?” Though hip-hop received the bad rap it was actually my generation’s ruthless economic movement that could never be considered anything but self-destruction by those who knew better. Isolated, we became obsessed with ourselves. The world was us.
Nas’s second album, It Was Written, and Jay-Z’s debut, Reasonable Doubt, are two enduring testaments to hustling. Both artists remember the drug game like veterans with nightmares. Sure, there are fond memories of male bonding (either over murder or chicken) and spending sprees. But the bloodstains are always there, crimson clouds that never disappear and occasionally rain on them while they sleep. The have schemes of revenge and Technicolor flashbacks of team members choking on their last breath, wet from Techs that prefer Black life. Capitalism is greedy like that---always looking for the next human sacrifice.
“A killa in me slash drug dealer MC” ~Nas
Nas is a radical philosopher in the tradition of Rakim and Nietsche (“When I was twelve/I went to hell for snuffin Jesus”). Jay-Z is strictly business, with visions of expansion (“Dabbled in crazy weight/…I’m still spending money from ‘88”) Nas is a pensive poet with a vast vocabulary. Jay-Z is a sharp conversationalist with impeccable timing. Nas crams to understand the world in one verse. Jay-Z rethinks space, giving pauses gravity. Nas always knew his destiny lay beyond hustling (“I’m a rebel stressing to pull out/Of the heat not doubt”). Jay-Z went for his. Before he caught his drug case, the millionaire from Brooklyn’s Marcy’s projects must have considered the hard white a full-time gig (“I’d rather die enormous than live dormant”).
Mostly Nas and Jay-Z were born to rhyme. (In a just world, who knows?) Their co-domination of this hot summer reminds us that there’s no better place to be than now, right here. Hip-hop is at its absolute best and most sophisticated. Self-reflexive, indeed obsessed with the dialectical, hip-hop uses the art of sampling, and more increasingly, covers, to constantly edit and revise its own history, submitting a more perfect version with each important album.
Ninth-grade dropout Nas is a hip-hop scholar with a standing respect for rap’s forefathers. You will remember the title and chorus of “If I Ruled the World” belonged to Kurtis Blow first (sans Lauryn Hill, of course); the track for “If I…” was lifted from Whodini’s “Friends.” Whodini was once rap royalty. For Nas they are a musical marker of an era when hustlers his age were really doing it. Nas titled the love letter he wrote his man upstate on Illmatic after Whodini’s “One Love.” For Nas’s version, Q-Tip, jazzminer that he is, robbed the Heath Brothers for their vibe. Similar vibes are put to work for It Was Written’s “Affirmative Action.” That can only be read as a tribute to Marley Marl’s “The Symphony, Part I,” the classic mob cut and the one joint that put Queens’s formidable MCs on the map forever.
Nas’s collaboration with Dr. Dre for “Nas is Coming” will probably be interpreted as an arranged marriage meant to quell wars, but the truth is more benign: just two super-talents with a little time on their hands. In fact, the current East-West battle, when put in perspective, is manageable. For the most part, it all breaks down to Gemini Tupac flipping on Gemini Biggie and dragging in Gemini diva Faith to test Biggie’s manhood (a thoroughly offensive notion invented by boys). So with that safely in pocket, it’s some kind of wonderful to hear Rakim’s heir fortified by our generation’s Leon Ware.
What’s a little more pathological is the backlash to Biggie’s success. First there was Ghostface’s pointed but cloaked hit on Raekwon’s album. The Fugees dis him softly: “Did you shoot him?/Nah, I didn’t have the balls/That’s when I realized I’m pumpin too much Biggie Smalls.” Even five-star Nas felt compelled to respond to Big’s Source cover: “There can only be one king.” (You really have to live for this to know this petty shit.) It would be dangerous to discount Big’s narrative slow flow, and it’s plain erroneous to reduce him to designer sunglasses and Pac’s drama; he’s always injected humor and wit in his storytelling, and if he continues to do his thing right, Cube’s crown is his.
Because they share pre-rap drug game connects, Jay-Z invites his notorious to get down on “Brooklyn’s Finest.” (And just so you know Big knows the fucking deal, he gives himself a hilarious new tag---“most hated.”) The albums other duet is of course his summer hit with The Firm’s Foxy Brown. And though I’ve long stopped paying attention to what niggas have to say about mothers of the universe on wax, I do recognize Jay-Z and Foxy’s skillful banter as inter-gender baller politics made danceable. Jay-Z believes he’s being respectful (it’s the free hoes he has nothing for), and Foxy (freestyle mathematician that she is) figures she’s getting a fair price. For my money, Reasonable Doubt’s real gem is the DJ Premiere-produced “Friend or Foe,” a spoken warning to a kid who thought Jay-Z’s block could be his: “You draw?/Better be Picasso/…the best.”
“I’ll be flooded with ice/So hellfire can’t scorch me” ~Nas
Because I want her to trust me completely, I’ll never tell my daughter Mary was a virgin. But hell may be a little trickier. Nas and Jay-Z, sons of Five Percent philosophy, believe it’s their last stop. On Jay-Z’s sinister “D’Evils,” he “prays to Gotti,” then wonders exactly where it was he lost his soul. I know. It was at the mall, around the corner from the car dealership, and down the street from that broken Black body.