When I was 15 I discovered the music of the rapper Nas and my life changed.
I use to be a rapper myself… but that was a long time ago. Like, in high school. I wasn’t a rapper for very long though, I mean relatively speaking, if we are looking at my life over the larger scope of time, it probably lasted 3… maybe 4 years. Which when you think about it, is not very long at all. But damnit those years were intense, so in retrospect it always feels longer. Feels like I was a rapper for a decade. I continued to write raps and even record raps for some time after I stopped being a rapper, so I guess technically, I was in a rap adjacent reality for close to 10 years, but I was only an actual rapper for about 3. Never made a dime. Never recorded a full album, never actually even released a single song, but buddy I was rapping my ass off for about 3 years straight, and I loved every minute of it. I was decent, not the best, but definitely not the worst.
My short lived rap career took form in the height of the Hot Boy era. It was the end of 1998. No Limit Records had just begun to fade away and Cash Money Records was on the rise. As a result, my own personal rap style was heavily influenced by the flamboyant and over the top exaggerations of Baby, Mannie Fresh, Lil Wayne ,Juvenile, BG and Turk. I was a freshman in high school, and my high school was full of rappers. I tell you all this because it was my experience as an amateur lyricist and my in-depth involvement with my high schools hip-hop rapper subculture that lead me to my discovery of Nasir Jones.
To be accurate. I did not discover Nas, but rather, I was introduced to the music by a fellow high school rapper by the name of Merge. Merge and I had a math class together. I think early in the school year he overheard my last name “McDougal”, and from that associated me with a cousin of mine that was known for taking rap a bit more serious then myself. He inquired as to if I was a rapper as well, I explained that I was and before the math class ended, a friendship was formed. Merge and I clicked easily, we were both from the West Side, (As opposed to the North Side) which at my school, made things easier. We would spends all day writing raps at school, then leave school make our way to Preston Taylor Public Housing Projects and spend the rest of the day writing more raps. It was an obsession.
Then I remember distinctly one day Merge and I are at the house of a mutual friend, this basketball player named Marc, who was not a fellow rapper but shared the same math class as Merge and I and was also from “Out West” which is how we refer to West Nashville neighborhoods, I cant live with myself if I keep referring to it generically as The West Side”). We were also all apart of this school program for at-risk kids called “I Have a Future”. We had turned into quite the trio that school year and most of the time we could be found together in one form or another. So on this random afternoon the three of us are crammed into Marc’s small bedroom hanging out, probably burning time waiting for one of our “I Have A Future” activities to start. Then while we’re sitting there Merge asks me a question.
“You mess with Nas?”
The simple answer was no, the only Nas I had been exposed to up until that point was “If I ruled” featuring Lauryn Hill, a single from a couple of years prior. Other than that Nas was a mystery to me.
“Nah, not really,” I responded
“Aw man how you gon be a rapper and you don’t mess with Nas?” Merge said, smiling as if he knew dark and ancient secrets that I couldn’t even begin to comprehend. He reached over and pressed play on a small boom box that sat in the corner of the room. Music begin blaring out of the speakers. Merge held a CD case in his hand. “This that new one that just came out. He on here spitting, listen to this…” Merge skipped ahead to track 9.
The majority of the song was a blur, it all kind of just zipped by in a flurry or metaphors and punchlines that mostly went over my head, but then one part in particular jumped out and grabbed me
“N****s play playstation, they building space stations
On Mars, plotting civilizations”
“Haha he said playstation.” I guffawed. ( I was an idiot)
Merge wasn’t smiling “Man, that’s real though.” he said handing me the CD case that the Nas album had come from.
I looked at the cover. It was a golden pharaoh mask overlayed on top of a New York City street, “I am” was written down in the bottom left corner and “Nas” was written in the top right. It was different from the album art of most rappers during that time. There were no flames, no guns, no oversized words written in diamonds. Just a golden pharaoh mask. Just Nas.
I think either Marc or Merge let me borrow the CD that day. I really cant remember how else I would have come to own “I am” but I know I did. To be honest I wasn’t even necessarily impressed with what I had heard on that day. Truthfully, “I Want to Talk to You” is without a doubt the absolute worst song off of “I am” to use when introducing a new listener to the music Nasir Jones. It’s either the absolute worst, or the absolute best.
“I want to talk to the mayor and the governor and the m*****f**** president.
I want to talk to the FBI and the CIA and the m*****f***** congressman.”
That’s the chorus, which is done by Nas himself in a kind of horrible off-key singing voice, almost like he’s telling you how he would imagine a skilled singer could sing it , in order to give you a sense of cadence, but instead of it being a reference point they just went ahead and kept it on the song as the actual chorus.
That’s the first Nas song I ever heard. Ever really heard. The verses of the song are a social commentary on how African-Americans are treated in our America. An unjust legal system, a history of systematic oppression and institutionalized racism, the prison industrial complex. This is Nas’s subject matter, keep in mind up to that point the lyrical content of all of the music I was listening too at that time consisted of one of three things, sell drugs, shoot people, buy expensive jewelry. That’s it. That is why I say, “I Want to Talk to You” is the worst song to bring a new listener to Nas. Because it doesn’t pull any punches, it doesn’t sugarcoat how Nas feels about anything, it does not ease you into his mindset, it does not baby step you into his reality. It is unapologetic. And for those same reasons it is the absolute best song to introduce a new listener to Nas. It weeds out the riff-raff, its not shiny and pretty, its not there to try and impress you. Like Merge said, it’s real.
I studied “I am”. I dissected it. Every song. Every verse, Every word. Nas was like nothing I had ever experienced. He was laid back, calm, cool, collected, intelligent, insightful, deep. Nas made it cool to be smart and black and hood and street and smooth and subtle and basically, he made it ok to be me. This was it, this was everything I had been looking for, before I knew I was looking for it. It was like a future version of myself had found a time machine and came back into the past to tell me it was completely ok to be and that my place in the world was secure. Which is not to say, I ever felt I was forced to be something that I was not, Nas just let me know I wasn’t the only black boy book worm with an edge and that calmed me. Made me more comfortable in my own skin. Oddly as it sounds, it gave me power.
After 1999 I was devoured every piece of music Nas released from that point on. “Nastradamus” in 99′, “Stillmatic” in 01′, “God’s Son” in 02′. Eventually I went back to study up on “Illmatic” which was released in 1994 (when Nas was only 19 years old and what is still to this day considered one of the most influential rap albums of all time) and “It was Written” which released in 96′. In 2001 Nas and Jay-Z got into a notorious feud and I took any attack on my favorite artist as a personal attack on myself and my own character. I had an African-American Studies class during my senior year of high school and everyday consisted primarily of me and one other student arguing over who was the better rapper, Jay-Z or Nas. I was relentless. For the longest time I actually did not like Jay-Z. It took me like 10 years to get over the feud, it only took Nas 4.
This is a long post, and you may be wondering to yourself, “Why would I care about any of this, what importance does it have to the context and theme of this blog.” Well that’s a good question and in time all shall be revealed. In the song “Hate Me Now” from the album “I am” one of my favorite lines goes:
“Most critically acclaimed Pulitzer Prize Winner,
Best Storyteller, thug narrator, my style’s greater”
And there it was, I heard those words I latched on to them and everything that “I Want to Talk to You” didn’t do, this one line from “Hate me Now” did. Nas was more then just a rapper he was a writer. A storyteller. I had found myself. I was 15 years old and I didn’t realize it then but I was rapping just so I had an excuse to write. I’ve never told anyone this but once I heard that Nas line I secretly made it a goal of mine to when a Pulitzer Prize in fiction. That’s how impactful Nas was on me, his goals became my goals.
These are not easy thing to say, in a lot of ways this is a taboo. For me to admit I looked up to someone I had never met, or to openly say I aspired to be like anyone other then men I knew personally was, and still is, frowned upon. Where I’m from we weren’t really allowed to have heroes. But I did, and even today I’m glad to say Nas is one of my heroes.
Eventually I stopped rapping, although I never lost my love for the art and to this day I am still a big fan of hip hop in all its many forms. I still follow Nas, still listen to his music and yep, I’m still aiming for that Pulitzer.
“It’s one life, one love, so there can only be one King”