Black History Month 31: I Can’t Sleep (On This)

May 1st, 2008 by | Tags: ,

Nasir “Nas” Jones is one of the best rappers alive.

It’s as plain as the chipped tooth in his mouth. Illmatic is one of the top five best albums ever. It’s that good. New York State of Mind, to pick one song, is infinitely quotable (“I never sleep, ’cause sleep is the cousin of death” “Rappers I monkey flip ’em with the funky rhythm I be kickin'” “I got so many rhymes I don’t think I’m too sane/ Life is parallel to Hell but I must maintain” “Never put me in your box if the shit eats tapes”). If I tried, I could probably kick half the rhymes on the album with an instrumental.

The problem with coming out swinging on your first try is that your second looks lame by comparison. So it was with Nas– basically every album has been seen as lesser than Illmatic, to the point where Nas released Stillmatic. I’d say that Hip-Hop is Dead is his closest to Illmatic and a thoroughly awesome album.

The thing about Nas is that he’s scary clever and intelligent. It’s like if Tupac had kept up with the tone of his first album (Brenda Had a Baby, for example) with a bit more black power in. He is a sick storyteller. He isn’t the free-association kind of storyteller like Ghostface is. He’s in the Rakim school of telling stories– really straightforward and just in the mix. Ether is still basically the anatomy of how to make a diss song.

(If you’ve ever seen me make reference to spitting ether or ethering someone, just know that I’m not talking about the chemical.)

What I’m saying boils down to Nas is smart. The corollary to that is that he should know better.

Case in point, from King Magazine (vaguely nsfw, bikinis):

Do you remember the first time you were discriminated against because you were black?
The first time I opened up a Superman comic book. The first time I saw Flashdance, with the light-skinned, beautiful bitch who’s chasing after some white cat, which…I don’t have nothing against interracial relationships—love ’em, actually.

This is Nas’s career in a nutshell. He’ll hit you with something profound and then follow it up with something off-kilter. “The first time I opened a Superman comic book.” “The first time I saw Flashdance, with the light-skinned, beautiful bitch.”

He’ll drop The World Is Yours and then hit you with Hate Me Now. He’ll go from Nasty Nas to Nas Escobar. Illmatic to It Was Written. He put One Mic, one of my most favorite songs ever, on an album with Braveheart Party, a song so bad that Mary J Blige asked for it to be removed from the second pressing of the album. Braveheart Party makes me want to fight Nas. One Mic makes me want to hang out with him and chop it up.

Nas’s next album is called Nigger. I trust him and his skill, particularly lately, to be able to pull it off. The first single is harsh, but I’m digging it. It took me a minute to open up to it.

What will it say about the record industry if Def Jam drops you, 10 albums deep, over a single word?
That starts a revolution. It sparks something within the hip-hop community, within the streets, within the people outside the streets. It raises an eyebrow to the situation, you know? Nobody wants to deal with the word “nigger,” because what comes with the word “nigger” is a whole history where you show so much injustice, and you show so much that has not been fixed yet. So it’s a scary thing. But it’s also uncomfortable when I’m dealing with it. Like, no one can tell me what to do. None of the black leaders, none of these motherfuckers, record companies, none of them can tell me what to do. Because you can’t stop what I want to do, you understand?

Nas is smart. Nas is stupid.

I say that this is Nas’s career in a nutshell, but it’s also bigger than that. It’s emblematic of a bunch of black men all over the country. Actually, let me dial that back– I am right there with Nas.

I’m not perfect. Sometimes I slip. Sometimes I roll my eyes at certain things like “*smh*, white people.” Sometimes I look at something and the only comment I’ve got is “That’s mad niggerish, man.” Sometimes I want to just box the entire internet’s ears and and scream on someone.

I’m smart. I should know better.

It’s a constant struggle. This is why I don’t like snarky things– it’s too easy. Anyone can toss off six sentences of ill will without really looking at something. I try to keep from doing it if only because I hate it. I force myself to think things over. I force myself to adjust to new information. I force myself to produce real content, for good or for ill.

I love Nas. I don’t want to be Nas.

From Nas’s verse on Kanye West’s “We Major”:

I heard the beat and I ain’t know what to write
First line, should it be about the hoes or the ice?
Fo-fo’s or Black Christ? Both flows’d be nice
Rap about big paper or the black man plight?

Nas knows what I’m talking about. (Kanyayo does, too, but that’s another conversation.) You can go low brow or you can go high brow. I can talk about ice or black man’s plight, which one do I pick?

I like Luke Cage and Storm. At the same time, I hate Luke Cage and Storm and everything they represent. They’re two sides of the same coin– the dangerous thug and the whitewashed safe one. The problem is that that coin represents a false dichotomy.

It isn’t that simple. Very, very few things are black and white. Racism and sexism definitely aren’t as simple as racist/not racist or sexist/not sexist, no matter how hard people on both sides of the argument try to make it seem that way. 99% of people are Nas– stuck in the middle. Smart and stupid. Gifted and wasted talent.

Pedro of FBB and I talk pretty much daily, and one thing we often talk about is how the level of discourse online and off embraces dichotomies way too easily. People want to be able to point and say “That’s wrong” and be absolutely right. It’s the “Manichean murder machine” that The Invisibles talks about. Nine times out of ten, it isn’t as simple as with me/against me. Real life is not in black and white. Real life is in shades of gray. I feel like it’s important to take that into account when writing.

On the one hand, Lil Wayne is the dude who coined “Bling bling.” On the other, he’s dropped incredible verses on “Georgia… Bush” and Rich Boy’s “Ghetto Rich” remix. (“Fuck being like Mike, I wanna be like pop/ Then I picked up a mic, I wanna be like ‘Pac/ Please put down the pipe, you don’t need that rock/ Please put up a fight for the kids that watch/ Us in the spotlight, and then they mock/ But caskets get closed and then they drop.”) David Banner can drop “Like A Pimp” or “Play” (NSFW) and then be that dude who basically did a better job raising money for the Hurricane Katrina support effort than the US government?

Is T.I. the idiot who got caught trying to buy illegal guns, or is he the guy who stays working with single parents and Boys & Girls Clubs, trying to make life easier for them?

This is what I think about. I write for a living, so I take this writing thing pretty seriously. I want to be sure that I’m on point, because my words reflect who I am. I’m not afraid to pull back and tell myself “It’s just comics,” but I’m not going to be that guy who is talking out of the side of his neck and end up looking like an idiot.

I hadn’t realized it until I sat down and thought about it, but Nas was probably the first “conscious” rapper I heard. I’m saying, I knew PE and KRS and them, but I know Nas way better than I know them. Maybe that’s why he’s so prominent in my mind. I heard KRS and PE. I paid attention to Nas.

I could talk about the man and his career all day. I’m not entirely sure why I’m writing about Nas on my comics blog and I don’t entirely know where I’m going with this. He wanted to draw comics as a kid, though, which ties into my usual point that black people reading comics isn’t a new or remarkable thing. Don’t call it a comeback new trend, ’cause we’ve always been here. Pay attention.

Basically, Nas and L-Boogie would be the best duo in music ever.

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4 comments to “Black History Month 31: I Can’t Sleep (On This)”

  1. He wanted to draw comics as a kid, though, which ties into my usual point that black people reading comics isn’t a new or remarkable thing. Don’t call it a comeback new trend, ’cause we’ve always been here. Pay attention.

    amen man

    you also get the same thing when folks find out you spend a lot of time on the internet and know what you’re doing on it

    black people online?! holy crap!

  2. I’ve got nothing to contribute here, but I thought I’d let you know that I really enjoy your blogs on these subjects and that it provides real insight. I’m honestly jealous of you in that regard. You’ve also gotten me to listen to some of my favourite albums extra times and made me appreciate them more, so cheers for that.

  3. This is what I felt like writing when I saw Nas on the red carpet for the Emmies with Kelis in gold pants and a jacket that said “Nigger.”

  4. I can’t stand these hip-hop assholes who talk about discrimination and then, in the same breath, use the word “bitch” to refer to a woman. These simple-minded thugs should be ashamed of themselves. Oh, what am I saying? They have no shame.