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“might be uncomfortable for most you listeners” [Nas - Be A Nigger Too]

November 3rd, 2011 by | Tags: ,

The opening to Nas’s “Proclamation (Nigger Hatred)” is killer. It’s what sold me on his (aight to good) untitled album back when it was still called Nigger. The Malcolm X quote, the Paul Mooney joke (“White folks made up ‘nigger’ and don’t want me to say it” is endlessly funny to me for some reason), and Nas’s quiet, subdued flow… it’s haunting. It’s Nas at his best, kicking something conscious but jiggy. There’s no complicated wordplay here, either. It’s just straight spitting. Honestly, “Proclamation” has the perfect sound for sad black music in the 2000s, doesn’t it? I dunno. It’s spare and sorta menacing because of it, but melancholy, too.

The video for “Be A Nigger Too” starts out with “Proclamation” and it’s the perfect lead-in to the video. “Be A Nigger Too” is a montage of… it’s just people, really. Military cats, families, fights, slave times, robberies, awards, everything. There’s a lot of actor cameos in there, too. It’s a snapshot of real life. It’s a solid video, but there’s one part that gave me goosebumps back when I first watched it.

At about 3:50 in, the video slams to a bassy pulse and the slave times are juxtaposed with scenes and faces in the modern day. It’s drawing a direct line from one to the other. That’s pretty powerful, but then it flashes back to black and white and it gets really crazy.

This kid, a teenager I guess, wakes up out of bed and grabs his uzi off the dresser, and runs up on a white man outside. The kid is mirroring Nas’s rhymes–“Wake up in the mornin’, shake my third leg in the toilet/ Uzi on the nightstand, I’m the man you go to war with/ Not the man you go to war against/ patience, I’ll get you / if that means I can’t sleep a whole year, I’ma get you”–but what got me was when he flipped that classic Malcolm X pose, with the M1 by the window. The posture is different. Malcolm is alert and watchful. The kid is waiting, but hiding. There’s a reason for that, I think.

The thing about the Malcolm photo is that it’s iconic. It’s burned into the psyche of so many people. It’s a symbol of black power, black masculinity, love, and a lot of things. It’s a man making a conscious decision to protect his family from those who would do them harm. It’s the idea that meeting violence with violence is not something to be ashamed of. It’s something to avoid, but when your back is against the wall, you need to be ready to put someone down. It’s an acknowledgement of the danger of speaking your mind, but an affirmation that you must speak your mind, no matter the consequences. It’s huge. I can’t even begin to really wrap my mind around it.

This kid with the gun is the opposite. It doesn’t mean any of the things that the Malcolm photo does. Instead, it’s a failure. It’s born not out of power, but out of fear. The kid isn’t there to protect anyone. He’s a predator. He wants revenge, not freedom. Or maybe he wants freedom, and the only way he knows how to get it is via revenge. Offensive action.

There’s something about kids with guns. I have a mild obsession with child soldiers. I’ve probably spent entirely too much time reading about the Lord’s Resistance Army. Limbaugh defending the LRA to score points against Obama actually made me wish that Limbaugh was dead. I don’t–that’s not the type of emotion/response/political discourse that I like, but that was my gut reaction. “How can you defend these people?”

(digression)

I’ve read stories of heroic kids fighting at Stalingrad or wherever and dozens more besides. All of them gross me out. I feel like when you hit the point where a kid has to pick up a gun, or is forced or coerced to do it, there’s been a complete and total collapse of everything that adults are supposed to do. Children are supposed to be protected from that sort of thing.

So this kid picking up the gun, briefly emulating one of my most favorite photographs, and then inverting it… that grabbed me. It grabbed me by the throat and threw me off a roof or something. It’s intense, and it really heightened how I feel about the song.

The video’s a bit overlong (a third song? credits? really? wrap it up, cousin, i got places to be), but the first four-five minutes are nuts. It’s a perfect marriage of imagery and lyrical content. It’s not just someone performing a song very well (as in the video for the stellar “Bridging the Gap” with Nas’s father), or a sorta concept-y thing (“Hip-Hop Is Dead” goes hard), or flossing as hard as they can (“Nasty”, which had me as soon as Nas said “I come from the Wheel of Ezekiel to pop thousand dollar bottles of Scotch, smoke pot, and heal the people” and I was REALLY into it when he said “Bet a hundred stacks, niggas’ll run it back/ Just havin fun, I ain’t even begun to black/ Light another blunt in fact, haha…”). I like all those videos a whole lot, and to be honest there’s not a lot of difference between a concept joint like “Hip-Hop Is Dead” and “Be A Nigger Too.” I feel like the difference is that the marriage between audio and visual is much stronger in “Be A Nigger Too.” “Hip-Hop Is Dead” will exist, and knock, forever, without the video. The video’s well done, but not essential. The video is essential for “Be A Nigger Too.”

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4 comments to ““might be uncomfortable for most you listeners” [Nas - Be A Nigger Too]”

  1. man, you are posting up a storm these past few days, and i’m not complaining because every one is better than the last! great write-up, the analysis of the Malcolm X vs. kid-with-gun photos is powerful stuff.


  2. I know of that Malcolm X photo, but I guess it’s not as ingrained in me as it is for you because I would never have thought of that.
    And yeah, listening to that song was a little uncomfortable. I’ve listened to and own plenty of CDs where the rappers use the n-word. Those I don’t have a problem with. But I feel good music speaks to the listener, sometimes even literally, so being asked if I wanna “be a nigger too” was a little strange.
    It’s kinda strange, like I said, I listen to a bit of rap, and hear the word often because of it, but the word carries so much cultural baggage that I had to think a moment if I even wanted to type the word even as a quote.


  3. words with so much baggage, the bane in traveling anywhere.


  4. Passionate review.