20/10/2014, by CLAS

Nas at Lovebox: 20 years of Illmatic

To mark Black History Month, Nottingham MRes student Jasmine Gothelf (American & Canadian Studies) reviews a recent performance by the African American artist Nas in Britain, and discusses the ongoing political relevance of hip hop to contemporary African American life. Please join the American & Canadian Studies department for its Black History Events this month: http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/american/events/index.aspx

I was lucky enough to see one of my favourite rappers Nas, front row at London’s Lovebox festival a few days ago. Nas’ Lovebox set enhanced my admiration for his work whilst also reminding me why I love and appreciate hip hop as much as I do. He performed his 20-year-old album Illmatic from start to finish, in a performance so engaging that I felt as though it was 1994 and I was experiencing the album for the first time. It was a surreal moment, for much of the audience knew each track word for word, despite being born after Illmatic’s release, or at least being too young to have truly understood the album in 1994; the rapper even joked at one point, “Half of you weren’t even born when I made this album”. Nas, however, was 20 when this album turned him into a rap legacy, and has since been discussed alongside the likes of Tupac, Ice Cube and other politically conscious rappers. Needless to say, it is no surprise that this album raised his profile in such a dramatic way; on Illmatic, Nas lyrically manufactured an image of life in the ‘projects’ of New York and presented it to America, whilst using production so slick and effective that audiences wanted to listen and be educated.

It was this skill that placed Nas outside the musical “box”, creating music that infiltrated the conscience of many by using verses that explicitly portrayed the racial and class struggle. For example in the track Life’s A Bitch Nas raps, “life’s a bitch and then you die/that’s why we get high/coz you never know/ when you’re gonna go”. His messages became engraved in the minds of listeners, yet his didacticism is only one fragment of his talent, or “rhetorical genius” as described by hip hop historian Michael Eric Dyson in March of this year. 20 years on and Illmatic’s social commentary on police brutality, racism and African American self-determination remains central to Nas’ performance both lyrically and physically – Nas even wore a t-shirt saying “Queensbridge North Houses” (the particular “project” that the rapper grew up in) on stage at Lovebox. Aside from performance, Nas’ lyrical themes are undeniably relevant in the present day. Judicial racism is just one area where Nas’ lyrics emphasise the lack of American racial progression in the last 20 years where right now, “five times as many whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of whites”. (NAACP Criminal Fact Sheet)

Further analysis of Illmatic’s relevance in the present day continues when assessing the track NY State of Mind; “Life is parallel to Hell but I must maintain….Cops could just arrest me, blaming us, we’re held like hostages”. Nas’ distaste for the police, as portrayed in this particular lyric, echoes the response many gave regarding the racist “chokehold” death of Eric Garner only this month (if you are unaware of this story please do read here). This racist incident is both disturbing and shocking, bringing to light the extent of American racism, as illustrated by Illmatic, ultimately showcasing that there is still much to be done before America can truly be the “raceless” Land of the Free it should be.

Notwithstanding, Nas ability to re-release Illmatic and perform it to audiences around the world presents a form of optimism. Unlike other artists who re-release their music gratuitously, Nas’ re-release didactically presents the lack of racial progression to his audience, therefore using Illmatic as an educational platform today just as he did in 1994 to trigger action. These skilful qualities showcase Nas as a political force who is making individuals stand up and make changes, finally paving the way towards true equality. In doing so, the Hip Hop historian Bakiri Kitwana’s question of “how soon” “will rap become a political force” is quite clearly answered by the analysis of Nas’ work. It’s now.”

Jasmine Gothelf is doing her MRes in the Department of American and Canadian Studies, with a dissertation on the cultural and literary history of hip hop and black protest. 

Gothelf image

Photo: Coupdoreille.fr via Wikimedia commons

Posted in American and Canadian Studies