Nasir Jones. “Straight out the dungeons of rap” to one of the greatest MC’s of all time
by Ben Freeman
Sat squashed in the back of VW golf whilst “NY state of mind” blares out at a volume that threatens our hearing, the topic of conversation turns to the much debated question of who is Hip Hop’s GOAT.
I say the answer’s obvious – it’s Nasir Jones.
Most will agree that there are a few qualities that any skilled rapper requires: lyrical dexterity – inventive vocabulary that is sewn into awesome word-play without it feeling forced. Secondly, storytelling spinning a narrative of poignant events with attention to detail. As well as this, the connection between an artist and his roots is a bond that should not be broken and forgotten, which can be a challenge when commercial success creates a new reality. A true artist will never “sell-out” and forget where they came from in order to stay relevant. Finally, the work ethic has to be second to none. If we can see the grind that goes into producing an album and creating the music we love, we’re likely to appreciate the final piece more. His debut album alone pretty much secured his place on anyone’s list given that it epitomised everything hip hop should be when it released, way back in 1994. Nas inherited his musical prowess from his father, a jazz musician. When he dropped Illmatic, it sent the entire hip hop scene into a frenzy. With producing heavyweights like Q-tip from A tribe Called Quest and Gang Starr’s DJ Premier working on the album, it received rave reviews.
The lyricism Nas displayed at the young age of only 20 caught the attention of hip hop heads and critics alike. The compelling vocabulary and wordplay shown throughout the narratives on the album is one of the main reasons that it’s considered to be one of the landmark albums of East-Coast rap. A perfect example of his ability to manipulate language can be heard in “Shoot ‘em up”. He plays around with mathematics, chronologically explaining a sequence of events with the use of consecutive numbers, for example the street allegory begins with “one 44, two 45’s, three loaded clips, four N*s roll” – a pattern that is pursued throughout the first verse and links into the second.
Nasir Jones’ story telling is in a league of its own. You only have to listen to the “Shoot ‘em up” or “One mic” to remind yourself of just how poetically he is able to recollect past events and conjure up a detailed world. “Shoot em up”, written in first person, chronicles a shooting in immense detail – the type of detail that makes you sit back and think “damn, how did he even fit that into a song!”. Similarly in “One mic” Nas exemplifies expertise, recounting an encounter with the cops in, once again, an incredibly detailed explanation of events. I mean, he even tells us the brand of liquor that the startled alcohol fiend drops when gun shots spray through his shelter.
His early releases embodied a sense of flair, and a feeling that his narratives are rooted in what’s genuine. He’s held on to these throughout his long career; look at a song like “Accident Murderers”. Although released on his most recent album, “Life is Good”, the song would not have sounded out of place on any of his earlier LP’s. That’s because Nas has stayed true to writing lyrics that connect with the reality of life, in way that few others (if any) can manage. He somehow laces track after track of raw hip hop that has stayed true to his roots, without sounding boring or becoming old news- this is because what he does, he does flawlessly. Of course his sound and technique has progressed and developed, but what Nas has held a firm grip of the style that helped him climb to fame, and this is something that has only added to his authenticity and the legitimacy he retains amongst the hip hop community.
Nasir Jones is one of rap’s defining voices, and he blesses every mic he touches.
Here’s 5 tracks in case you still need convincing:
NY State of Mind – the first complete song on, debatably, the greatest rap album of all time. This track is the monstrous introduction to Nas’ solo career and previewed what was to come. What’s more, the intro was completely accidental! Nas was in the booth and didn’t know how to begin the track. He freestyled an intro that would become possibly the greatest, one of the most quoted, introduction to a hip-hop song ever.
One Mic – Sampling “In the Air Tonight”, the intensity-increasing instrumental gets executed by Naisr. His flow change is impeccable and Nas shows his critics just how dynamic he is as a rapper.
This first appeared on hiphopconnection.co.uk