Welcome back for the second segment of 1996 as we focus on two titans, Jay-Z and Nas, and their landmark albums, Reasonable Doubt and It Was Written. These two classics were released within one week of each other, instantly causing the summer of 1996 to become “history in the making.” In an era where most rap junkies disregarded commercial releases for the underground flavor of a Clue tape or a Tony Touch cassette, these two albums made entire crews flock to the store in order to purchase their own copies of soon-to-be cultural memorabilia.
These two albums are monumental, and back then, they informed the smallest decisions! I specifically remember niggas choosing who they would carpool with based off of which album the respective drivers were pumping.
“Who’s driving to Glenwood?”
“Buddy and Q.”
“A yo Q, you knocking that Jay or Nas?”
“Word, I’m rolling with Q then…”
Unbeknownst to us then, these two heavyweights had their eyes set on bigger prizes and would eventually face off for more than airtime in our tape decks. But before I get ahead of myself, let’s reflect on the wonderful year of 1996…
One thing I’ll always remember about 1996 is how “underground/backpack” artists used the mainstream vehicle of videos to address the burgeoning cultural materialism and overused gangster and mob imagery that was beginning to dominate mainstream rap attitudes and performances. In particular, Xzibit’s “Paparazzi,” Rass Kass’ “Soul On Ice,” The Roots’ “What They Do” and De La Soul’s “Stakes is High” provided a scathing critique of how rap music (in its imagery, content and performance) began to constrict and bend to debasing corporate whims. Although these artists failed to retard problematic corporate influences on the culture, their valiant and creative efforts are still appreciated and haven’t gone unrecognized.
Another important cultural phenomenon circa 1996 that challenged the pervasive and toxic reach of the music industry was the mixtape DJ. As already mentioned, ‘96 was the year when mixtape DJs occupied a viable and necessary space within the culture. Who remembers DJ Clue’s “Spring Time Stick Up” series or the classic Tony Touch series, “50 MCs?” Who had a sicker intro or could blend records together better than DJ Juice? These DJs, and a host of other underground cultural gatekeepers, supplied a grassroots counter narrative that protested the commodification of the corporate machine. This counter narrative pronounced, “You crackers may cut the checks and finance the videos, but this music still belongs to the streets!”
For Hip Hop’s economically depressed constituency, the mixtape provided a fiscally sound alternative to the polished commercial product. When Hip Hoppers are living below the poverty level or struggling on minimum wage incomes, it’s hard to justify paying eleven dollars to hear thirteen songs from one artist or group when you can hear thirty-plus songs from a variety of artists for just five dollars. Simply put, the mixtapes made sure your dollars made sense.
Mixtape DJs also provided a covert space for the community and culture to assess the value and legitimacy of its own artists impervious to a corporate agenda motivated by arbitrary deadlines and record sales. Back then, artists had to earn and retain their respect and credibility on the mixtape circuits before they acquired relevance in a mercantile arena. I remember young, up-and-coming acts like The LOX, Mase and Cam’ron cutting their teeth while veterans like Onyx, Notorious B.I.G., Raekown and Ghostface honed their skills on Doo Wop, SNS, and K-Slay mixtapes.
The vibrant pulse of the streets always stayed ahead of the inanimate corporate machinery via mixtape exclusives and “unauthorized” underground premiers. Mixtapes also fostered a wonderful cultural unity as different emcees and rap groups cut records and spit freestyles together. They appeared “courtesy of themselves” for the love of the culture and no one sought the permission of their overseer labels. Mixtapes kept artists culturally grounded by ensuring that the rappers accounted for the emergent and dynamic creative shifts occurring on the streets. This significantly differs from today’s rap artists who solely aim to satisfy the static, uncreative appetites of corporate tastemakers.
Moreover, this has become increasingly problematic as the corporate infrastructure has now co-opted and institutionalized the mixtape. As soon as Roc-A-Fella made a Clue album (aptly titled The Professional) available for the general public via a commercial release, I knew we were travelling down a slippery slope with roller-skates on. The mystique of the mixtape was instantly lost. One of the things that Hip Hoppers used to pride themselves in was being able to locate the most current mixtape that would emerge from the underground. Only a select few knew where to go in order to get their hands on such a prized possession, and they would bring these gems back to the community accordingly. The community would then huddle around a boom box or stand outside someone’s car and proceed to hold counsel concerning the artists vying for their respect and approval.
But after The Professional became available in Best Buy for thirteen dollars instead of out the trunk of some transient hustler in the hood for five, some privileged white kid from the suburbs could buy a Clue album without understanding its cultural significance, while a true cultural practitioner without thirteen bucks had to do without.
Fast forward to today and I’m sure that you will agree that the commercialized and seemingly omnipresent DJ Khaled doesn’t quite function like the faceless Ron G. If I bumped into Ron G tonight at the supermarket, I wouldn’t recognize him, and that’s the point! Without commercial advertisements and big budget videos, mixtape DJs of the past resonated by voice and function alone. They were faceless and invisible just like their marginalized constituency. They were cultural constructs rather than purchased performance personas. They gave voice to the unseen and underserved faces that the corporations couldn’t profit from. But nowadays, when DJ Khaled screams, “We the best,” I can’t help but wonder who that “We” is implicating. Sometimes I believe that “We” represents Khaled and the corporation more than it does Khaled and the people, but I digress…
Let’s move on and explore the two classic albums on deck.
Reasonable Doubt may have been Jay-Z’s commercial debut, but the underground Hip Hop community was well aware of Jay-Z due to his memorable mixtape appearances and Original Flavor affiliation. Solid guest appearances on B-side cuts from the respective ’95 efforts of Mic Geronimo and Big L also helped to familiarize East Coast rap listeners with Jay-Z. While the mixtapes validated Jay-Z’s craftsmanship and presence, in no way did they predict the cultural impact and prominence that Reasonable Doubt (and Jay-Z) would later have upon Hip Hop.
When Reasonable Doubt was released, it was obvious that Jay-Z had undergone a creative paradigm shift. He slowed down his tongue-twisting, backpack flow, and like the rest of his peers, gravitated towards the Mafioso imprint that Raekwon stamped upon the craft a year earlier with Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. From the album cover that features a dapper Jay-Z adorned in a suit, tie, dress hat and cigar, to the sophisticated lyrics musing about the exploits and workings of organized crime, Reasonable Doubt successfully depicted and sold Jay-Z’s boss-hustler persona in ’96… and Jigga hasn’t looked back since. Having the benefit of hindsight, and now seeing how Jay-Z’s trajectory has unpacked itself, one easily recognizes that Reasonable Doubt foreshadows Jay’s insatiable drive for money, power and mainstream placement by any means necessary.
One thing that I find very interesting about Reasonable Doubt is Jay-Z’s entry into the game as an affluent hustler. I can’t recall any other debut album prior to Reasonable Doubt in which an emcee boasts of such aristocratic tastes, extraordinary financial means and asserts that he is “still spending money from ’88.” The incredible wealth and material opulence that Jay-Z boasts of on Reasonable Doubt is not only a key motif of this album, but a theme that became central to his whole career. However, what intrigues me more is that we never get the story of desperate Jay-Z.
We acknowledge that he hails from Marcy Projects and that Marcy has significantly impacted and informed his money-hungry, capitalistic mindset, but there are no specific narratives chronicling grisly episodes of hunger, pain and hopelessness. There are no vivid descriptions of Marcy or Brooklyn on Reasonable Doubt either. Compared to the detailed survey that Scarface’s The Diary provides of Houston’s 5th Ward, or Big L’s precise overview of Harlem on Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous, Marcy emerges as vague and featureless on Reasonable Doubt. One must inquire, “Why?”
Why does Jay-Z negate to familiarize us with his origins on Reasonable Doubt? Was he concerned that our understanding of poor Jay-Z would interfere with our ability to visualize him as a Mafia Don or kingpin? Are there some truths too painful to bear and bring to light? Are there some details that discount and discredit the whole narrative?
On “Dead Presidents” Jay-Z admits, “I’ll tell you half the story, the rest you fill it in.” But again, I inquire, “Why?” Why must we be charged with “rewriting history without a pen” and conjuring the speculative conjecture of his life? What has he suppressed and why?
Knowing what we know now of Jay-Z’s assimilationist strivings and subsequent absorption into American pop culture, one could effectively marshal that Jay has left his beginnings obscure in order to facilitate an easier assimilation process similar to the one Jay Gatsby adopted on his quest for whiteness and acceptance in The Great Gatsby, but I don’t want to digress too far…
These questions and observations don’t hardly diminish the greatness and brilliance of Reasonable Doubt, but they do compel one to wonder what happened to Jay-Z’s real debut effort. Commercially, Reasonable Doubt may be cited as Jay’s inaugural offering, but the conspicuous absence of Jay’s formative years indicates that there is a prefacing story that remains untold. The unaffected cool and stoicism that Jay-Z exudes throughout Reasonable Doubt cause the album to feel like a follow-up effort. It resonates with the same feel and perspective as Life After Death after we have already heard B.I.G.’s savage desperation on Ready to Die, or It Was Written after hearing Nas’s horrific accounts of Queensbridge on Illmatic.
Although certain questions concerning Jigga’s background remain unanswered, Jay-Z leaves no guesswork concerning his ambitions of social mobility, strategic thought process and his acute propensity to “get his.” That said, I wouldn’t describe Reasonable Doubt as a hustler’s handbook, but it can definitely be regarded as a psychological reference guide for the hustler. Unforgettable tracks like “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” “Politics as Usual,” “Dead Presidents,” “Feelin’ It,” “D’Evils,” “Can I Live” and “Regrets” provide an amazingly clear look into the mind and spirit of Jay-Z.
One of the key triumphs of Reasonable Doubt (or any Jay-Z album) is that it actually allows the listener to feel like he/she understands what makes Jigga tic, and this is what Jay fans appreciate most about his genius. His ability to lucidly articulate his vision, desires, frustrations, philosophies and myriad responses to life creates meaningful connections with listeners. They genuinely feel like they know him. Think back to when you and your crew were first discussing Reasonable Doubt. How many times did you say or hear, “He don’t even be rapping, yo. It’s like that nigga just be talking to me!” This is the genius of Jay-Z. No other rapper (though often mimicked) has a style so riveting. His conversational flows hook listeners and keep their hearts engrossed even after the record has long stopped playing.
In addition to the conversational style and flow that Jay introduced on Reasonable Doubt, the album also gained critical acclaim because of its superb conceptual execution. The remarkable execution was mainly achieved through the careful layout of the track listing. The lead track is the unforgettable “Can’t Knock the Hustle.” The blend of Jay’s witty and sharp lyricism coupled with the soul of Mary J. Blige’s passionate vocals on the hook was enough to transform this record into an instant classic. When one considers Reasonable Doubt thematically, there is no other record that could have served as the first song for this album.
With just its title alone, “Can’t Knock the Hustle” functions as an imperative disclaimer. It’s a bold and didactic assertion that suggests Jay-Z anticipates the scrutiny and disdain that his former lifestyle and future exploits will garner. It also serves as a reproof of conservative ethics as it admonishes the privileged to not let their capricious morals impose on Jay’s materialistic ambitions to acquire the finer things the best way that he knows how. The entire impetus of the song is summed up in the final lines in which Jay-Z raps,
At my arraignment, screamin
all us blacks got is sports and entertainment, until we even
Thievin, as long as I’m breathin
Can’t knock the way a nigga eatin – fuck you even!
What I find particularly interesting about this song is that Jay-Z is not interested in living, but rather living in excess. If one pays attention to the song in its entirety, then it becomes obvious that this is not a song in which Jay claims that he has to hustle to eat, but rather Jay advances that he is hustling to maintain his exquisite tastes and affluent lifestyle. Thus the reference to “sports and entertainment” becomes meaningful as Jay-Z perceives these to be the only legitimate ways that black folks can become socially mobile and wealthy. Since Jay is unable to operate in either of these prescribed career paths, he chooses a life of crime because his ultimate goal is to secure whatever the American gentry possesses. This is exemplified by his utterance, “until we even,” and in order to get even (i.e. amass as much wealth as the white aristocracy), Jay-Z is committed to crime as demonstrated by the lines, “Thievin’ as long I’m breathin.”
The last line, “Can’t knock the way a nigga eatin- fuck you even,” is the most compelling line of the whole song. Due to the fact that many Hip Hoppers occupy an impoverished and marginalized station, many have legitimized crime (or at least are sympathetic to those who have legitimized crime) as a viable industry to eat and survive. So when Jay-Z proclaimed that, “Can’t knock the way a nigga eatin,” this became a new mantra for those engaged in illegal activity just to sustain their life space… despite the fact that Jay was equating “having six digits and runnin” to eating! The final words, “fuck you even,” are extremely important because this is what gives the song its political thrust. This is the proverbial raised middle finger and elevated black fist that protests the social injustice of the state. Even though Jay-Z is doggedly attempting to penetrate into a moneyed and privileged space, this doesn’t preclude him from recognizing how the powerbrokers of this privilege have oppressed his existence and forced him to illegally acquire his riches “at his arraignment.” The final image of a fallen hustler telling the state “fuck you” is poignant and reminiscent of 2Pac’s decree that only “God can judge me.”
As “Can’t Knock the Hustle” ends with Jay-Z addressing the courts, the next song, “Politics As Usual,” allows him to expound upon his statement to the judge, prosecutor and jury. This clever positioning of songs begins to set up the narrative that explains the album title and theme of Reasonable Doubt. Each song (with the exceptions of “Brooklyn’s Finest,” “Ain’t No Nigga” and “Cashmere Thoughts”) offers Jay-Z an opportunity to testify for himself and ultimately we are the jury that must decide whether he is guilty or whether we will acquit. This explains Jay-Z’s conversational style and willingness to let us probe his criminally-inclined thoughts and hustler psychology. If we listen to the album with the understanding that we are the jury, then Reasonable Doubt becomes even more brilliant and poignant (if that’s possible) than it was before. By the time you arrive at “Regrets,” Jay-Z has all but admitted his crimes, but “Regrets” shows his remorse and humanizes him in a way that compels us to acquit. In clairvoyant Jay fashion, he predicts his acquittal and gives us the celebratory “Can I Live II” as an outro that jubilantly thanks the hood and us, the jury, as he announces who all this hustling and grinding was ostensibly for. There is only one way to sum up the conceptual execution of Reasonable Doubt: “Doper than a mothafucka!!!”
While all of the songs on Reasonable Doubt are impeccably crafted and deserving of an in depth examination, I will only focus on a few that provide the most interesting arguments for Jay’s acquittal which means I won’t be providing a detailed analysis of “Brooklyn’s Finest.” But I will say this, that song was mandatory that summer! Even if you didn’t have Reasonable Doubt, that track was featured on every mixtape out… and with all due respect to Jay-Z, B.I.G bodied that record! But let’s quickly move on before I change my mind and start obsessing over the lyrical genius of that song.
“Politics As Usual,” is one of my favorite records on the album and contains arguably the most important line on the entire album for those who seek to know why Jay-Z is a callous, stop-at-nothing, moneymaking machine. Examine the first verse.
You can catch me
Skatin through your town puttin it down y’all relatin
No waitin I’ll make your block infrared hot I’m like Satan
Y’all feel a nigga’s struggle, y’all think a nigga love to
hustle behind the wheel, tryin to escape my trouble
kids stop they greetin me, I’m talkin sweet to keys
Cursin the very God, that bought this grief to be
My life is, based on sacrifices, jewels like ices
and fools that think I slip, you fuck around
you get your guys hit, they built me to be filthy
on some I-do-or-die shit, for real
The price of leather’s got me, deeper than ever and
just think, winter’s here, I’m tryin to feel mink nig-ga
In this verse, Jay-Z reveals where his hardcore capitalists motivations originate from when he states, “they built me to be filthy on some I-do-or-die shit.” This is a very telling line that alludes to Jay-Z’s keen awareness of his conditioning as he raps “they built me.” What they (the state) built is a man so scarred by poverty and self-loathing that he has become fixated on becoming “filthy” rich in order to escape the threat of poverty which he interprets as being tantamount to death. The opening lines of this verse are key because Jay-Z is directly addressing the jury with these lines. Notice how he personally engages his audience and implies that they share an understanding by telling them “yall relatin.” This implied understanding is reinforced when Jay-Z asserts “yall feel a nigga’s struggle.” Jay-Z moves on to quickly dismiss the notion that he enjoys or wants to hustle with the sarcastic line, “yall think a nigga love to hustle behind the wheel, tryin to escape my trouble.” This is staunchly supported a few lines later when Jay admits that he is “cursin’ the very God that brought this grief to be.” By denouncing God and blaming him for the circumstances that would cause Jay to sell dope and subsequently castigate himself as “Satan” all in the same verse, Jay-Z is forcing us to confront the tensions that arise from Christianity as religion and Christianity as social policy. Finally, the title, “Politics As Usual,” when considered within the context of this song and album really illuminates that there are nefarious social policies in place that dehumanize men into moneymaking machines that will terrorize their communities. Jay forces us to ask why the system is never placed on trial. Why is he the scapegoat and not the victim? When will we challenge politics as usual?
The best argument that Jay-Z offers on his behalf is “D’Evils.” Besides being an amazing record, this is the only song that Reasonable Doubt offers that articulates the story of a poverty affected Brooklyn and Jay-Z. The song begins with an amazing intensity as Jay-Z raps the first verse:
This shit is wicked on these mean streets
None of my friends speak
We’re all tryin’ to win, but then again
Maybe it’s for the best though, ’cause when they’re seein’ too much
You know they’re tryin’ to get you touched
Whoever said illegal was the easy way out couldn’t understand the
And the workings of the underworld, granted
Nine to five is how to survive, I ain’t tryin’ to survive
I’m tryin’ to live it to the limit and love it alive
Life ills, poison my body
I used to say ‘fuck mic skills,’ and never prayed to God, I prayed to
That’s right it’s wicked, that’s life I live it
Ain’t askin’ for forgiveness for my sins, endz
I break bread with the late heads, picking their brains for angles on
all the evils that the game’ll do
It gets dangerous, money and power is changing us
And now we’re lethal, infected with D’Evils…
What I love about this verse and song is how Jay-Z describes the dehumanization process that he and his peers are subjected to as they try to negotiate the perils of the streets and drug industry. Jay-Z goes on to tell how meaningful relationships dissolve into nothing as he and his friends pursue money through illegal means.
The most meaningful lines in the song come when Jay spits, “Whoever said illegal was the easy way out couldn’t understand the mechanics/ And the workings of the underworld, granted/ Nine to five is how to survive/ I ain’t tryin’ to survive/ I’m tryin’ to live it to the limit and love it alive.” Just as he does in “Politics As Usual,” Jay dispels the myth that hustling is easy or enjoyable. But more importantly, Jay is articulating an important sense of self-determination as he states that his existence should entail more than just merely surviving. As an oppressed citizen denied his civil liberties, Jay is articulating a claim to his inalienable right of the pursuit of happiness. How can you convict a man trying to redeem the birthrights of his citizenship? This is a beautiful argument that Jay is laying out in defense of his innocence as he articulates his right to be American… which is a loaded argument in and of its self for a black man who is a self-admitted drug dealer of all things!
Jay also continues to challenge the worth and validity of God as he states, “never prayed to God, I prayed to Gotti.” The juxtaposition of God and Gotti forms an interesting dichotomy as Jay-Z questions the purpose and utility of God to a desperate black man who sees selling crack as his only means to live and enjoy life. For an individual with this type of warped and hopeless outlook, it makes sense that Gotti is a realer proxy for a savior than some abstract spiritual essence in the sky. Another critically important point about this verse and song is that Jay-Z never bites his tongue. He isn’t saying that he isn’t guilty; he is asserting that his actions are justified because of the horrific conditions he’s endured and that’s why he isn’t “askin’ for forgiveness.” The final conclusion of the first verse is that, “money and power is changing us/And now we’re lethal, infected with D’Evils.” So even though Jay is on trial for his offenses, he reminds us that he too is a victim who has lost his humanity and virtue as a result of being pushed into the depraved world of crime.
In the interest of time and space, I will conclude here, but I definitely want to re-mention the gems, “Can I Live” and “Regrets.” “Can I Live” is an amazing record that articulates Jay’s motives of self-determination as the explanation for his criminal enterprises. The intro was especially moving as Jay shares how his addiction to money and power enslave him just like his dope does to the unfortunate customers that he has turned into fiends. Who will ever forget the classic lines, “Lock my body can’t trap my mind/ Easily explain why we adapt to crime/ I’d rather die enormous than live dormant/ That’s how we on it.”
And then there is “Regrets.” I know niggas that didn’t even smoke that wanted to roll up to this one. This record was that real. If for whatever reason, you got the misguided idea that hustling was cool, Jay corrected it on this record as he details the overwhelming losses that the drug game and streets have cost him and his loved ones. I know my real heads will feel this, “Anyway, I ain’t trying to hear it, I think I’m touched/ This whole verse I been talking to your spirit, a little too much.”
In closing, Reasonable Doubt burst on the scene out of nowhere and instantly became a part of Hip Hop history. It was the beginning of an era and dynasty… the implications of which we are still dealing with.
It Was Written
It Was Written stamped the summer of 1996 for me and my crew. We played that cassette out! We bumped It Was Written well into the fall and didn’t even begin to get tired of it until around October. I remember killing that tape in my first car. It was a beat-up 1984 Chevy Citation. It didn’t even have a radio, much less a tape deck. In order to bump my sounds and avoid looking like a cornball with a walkman on while driving, I bought a small boombox that I kept in the backseat. I would turn the volume all the way up, and rock It Was Written like I had a knocking system. It was that serious for me! I laugh at those memories often as I think back on it now, but driving without It Was Written on blast that summer was not an option. As I reflect on it, I know I must have spent a small fortune on D batteries to keep that boombox jamming that summer.
On the cooler side of things, I remember my man, EJ, had just copped a new candy-apple red Mazda Protégé. I enjoyed nothing more than peeling out with him on a nice summer night bumping “If I Ruled the World,” “Shootouts” or “Take It In Blood.” Some nights we would just ride with the windows down, not even speaking. We didn’t want our words to impose on Nas’ lyrical excellence and taint the listening experience that It Was Written created. That was (is) truly a special album.
When one considers that It Was Written was the follow up to Illmatic, it makes It Was Written even more remarkable. The stakes and expectations were sky high for Nas after dropping a classic like Illmatic. And to even think that he could surpass his debut was tantamount to daydreaming, but Nas did it! That’s right I’m saying it: It Was Written is better than Illmatic… but if you have an affinity towards Illmatic I can easily understand why. The larger point is that Nas crafted two sublime (dare I say perfect) classics with his first two efforts. Who else can boast such a feat?
The first introduction that most folks had to It Was Written was the lead single and video, “If I Ruled the World.” Thematically, conceptually and visually, this video was the perfect way for Nas to introduce his second magnum opus. If one could condense It Was Written into one song, it would be “If I Ruled the World.”
The “If I Ruled the World” video and song contained all the major elements of It Was Written: social commentary, political resistance, afrocentricity, Mafioso aesthetic, and raw lyrical wizardry. The end result is a song that is just as brilliantly complex and contradictory as the actual album. Only Nas can balance so many divergent (and sometimes antithetical) elements into one album and make it sound so good and effortless. Indicative of the whole album, I love how “If I ruled the World” seamlessly jumps back and forth between the grueling street realities of the black and poor, new political possibilities for the disenfranchised and the gross cultural materialism of a crime boss. These varying counterpoints provide the song and album with a rich texture and tension that manifests Nas’ ability to account for the myriad stimuli around him and how these stimuli inform his creative genius and holistic worldview. Examine the second verse as an example of how these varying points of reference manufacture interesting and provocative tensions and textures for the song:
The way to be, paradise like relaxing black, latino and anglo-saxon
Armani exchange the range
Cash, Lost Tribe of Shabazz, free at last
Brand new whips to crash then we laugh in the iller path
The Villa house is for the crew, how we do
Trees for breakfast, dime sexes and Benz stretches
So many years of depression make me vision
The better living, type of place to raise kids in
Open they eyes to the lies history’s told foul
But I’m as wise as the old owl, plus the Gold Child
Seeing things like I was controlling, click rolling
Tricking six digits on kicks and still holding
Trips to Paris, I civilized every savage
Gimme one shot I turn trife life to lavish
Political prisoner set free, stress free
No work release purple M3’s and jet skis
Feel the wind breeze in West Indies
I let Coretta Scott-King mayor the cities and reverse fiends to Willies
It sounds foul but every girl I meet to go downtown
I’d open every cell in Attica send em to Africa
The first few lines of the second verse exemplify the multiple perspectives of blackness that Nas articulates in the song.
The way to be, paradise life relaxing black, latino and anglo-saxon
Armani exchange the range
Cash, Lost Tribe of Shabazz, free at last
In these three short lines, Nas expresses a wide range of considerations and hopes. The first line muses over the possibilities of an overworked and underpaid populace of black people being able to find leisure when he equates a life in paradise with the luxury of being able to relax. The first line also expresses Nas’ desire for racial unity by placing Blacks, Latinos and Anglo-Saxons within this utopian paradise of leisure. The second and third lines quickly jump to Nas’ other wishful considerations as ruler of the world as he dreams about expensive designer fashions, cash money, the ideologies of the Nation of Islam and the Civils Rights struggle for freedom and equality.
Later on in the verse we hear Nas contemplate a healthy environment to raise kids in amid thoughts of luxury automobiles, smoking weed and having beautiful women to sleep with. The importance of correcting the historical lies of white supremacy is juxtaposed with the ability to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on shoes while freeing black prisoners is met with the same urgency of every woman providing fellatio. While some of these aspirations reinforce the oppressive systems of capitalism and patriarchy, others speak to the progressive cultural and political possibilities for oppressed black people. Within these tensions that are all competing for space in Nas’ hypothetical utopia, the listener is afforded the ability to see how a colonized mind embraces some yokes of the oppressor while actively rejecting and struggling against other manacles of bondage. This dichotomy paints a very human portrait of Nas and also demonstrates his transparency as an artist and man as he gives adequate space for all of his desires… righteous and unrighteous alike.
One other interesting point about “If I Ruled the World” is that it is the final song of the album. I find this to be interesting mainly because of the album intro which starts with a skit that places Nas back in slavery. In this skit, Nas is a rebellious slave that fights back against the tyrannical rule of the plantation and winds up getting hung. This tragic beginning and impulse of resistance is carried throughout the album until we finally arrive at “If I Ruled the World” in which Nas now has the self-determination and wherewithal to envision a world in which black folks aren’t painfully marginalized, oppressed and crushed. This is an amazing development that Nas undergoes on this album and we see how this development unfolds with each track on It Was Written.
The first track, “The Message,” is an amazingly intense lyrical endeavor in which Nas quickly reminds everyone why “there can only be one king,” and “Street Dreams” is an incredible offering as well that was inevitably topped by its R. Kelly assisted remix. While these songs were certified bangers in their own right, real heads know that the album officially got on THAT NAS SHIT with “I Gave You Power.”
“I Gave You Power” is one of the most creative and respected songs in Hip Hop history. In fact, one of the Outlawz, Young Noble, later revealed that this monumental record served as the main inspiration for 2Pac’s timeless classic, “Me and My Girlfriend.”
“I Gave You Power” is a riveting story in which Nas personifies the experiences and emotions of a gun. What I find most interesting about the song is the prefacing talk in which Nas clearly defines himself as a “nigga” and states that he is tired of being bought, used and thrown away. He goes on to say, “It’s like I’m a motherfuckin gun,” before the actual song begins. This is important because it provides the perspective for the song which is often misunderstood. This song isn’t about Nas relishing on the inanimate experience of a gun or even trying to assign life to the object, but rather Nas is using the gun to illuminate how the lives of poor black men become objectified at the hands of white supremacy in order to become tools of death and chaos to kill other black men and the larger black community. In other words, the song has nothing to do with a gun. It simply uses the gun as an allegory to better understand the haggard, exploited, perilous and self-destructive lives of black men at the hands of white supremacy.
While the entire songs comments on the homelessness of the gun, and thus the homelessness of black men in America, the first verse in particular does an excellent job at depicting the transient lives of the gun/black men. There is an incredible amount of movement in the first verse. The gun goes from being concealed under car seats, to being snuck inside of clubs, to being shifting and exchanged between the hands of countless thugs, to being moved from city to city, to being hid in shelves and under beds. In other words, there is no one place for the gun to rest. It is constantly being uprooted and disoriented by violent moves that it has no control over or say in. The gun is forced to be a nomad damaging all hopes the gun may have at establishing communal ties or a sense of belonging. This predicates the loneliness and alienation that we see in verse two as the gun hopes that the “police would place where he came from, a name or some person to claim him.” This directly speaks to the alienation that black men feel in America. There is no culture or no place for them to call their own. The comparison of black men to a gun is ingenious because it also alludes to how black men are equally feared and loathed by the black communities they originate from as well as the larger white community, thus compounding the feelings of alienation and isolation.
Starting with slavery (as Nas does with the album intro), when one thinks about the miserable station of poor black men, then one quickly has to deal with the voracious voids of agency and self-determination. These voids are poignantly addressed in “I Gave You Power” as Nas details how the gun is at the mercy of each and every individual that handles the gun. They force the gun into many compromising positions and he never has the ability to resist even when he demonstrates the will to. For example,
He pulled the trigger but I held on, it felt wrong
Knowing niggaz is waiting in hell for ‘im
He squeezed harder, I didn’t budge, sick of the blood
Sick of the thugs, sick of wrath of the next man’s grudge
What the other kid did was pull out, no doubt
A newer me in better shape, before he lit out, he lead the chase
My owner fell to the floor, his wig split so fast
I didn’t know he was hit, it’s over with
Heard mad niggaz screamin, niggaz runnin, cops is comin
Now I’m happy, until I felt somebody else grab me
This passage clearly indicates the gun’s desire to not aid in the perpetuation of violence and death, but even without its complicit participation, death occurs as a result of the gun’s non-action. This illustrates the dynamics of power and how poor black men are unable to stop the systematic genocide of other black men even when they make concerted efforts to thwart the bedlam of white supremacy. Simply put, to be in the hands of or operating under the systematic design of white supremacy means that you will inevitably work to kill black people. How many times have we seen this premise acted out in the fiction of Richard Wright, or hood dramas like “Juice,” “Boyz N’ the Hood,” or in the lyrics of rap music?
Also notice the line that begins, “A newer me in better shape.” This illustrates the perpetual cycle of destruction that black men are trapped in. As the gun that Nas personifies attempts to cease the death, a younger and more effective gun shoots and kills. This new young gun represents the next generation of black men that will grow to become killers and wreak havoc upon their communities. This also symbolizes the intergenerational cannibalization that occurs as desperate black men fight for crumbs and compete to the death for the meager rations left behind by the vicious American gentry. The idea of this destructive cycle is reinforced with the last two lines of the song as Nas raps, “Now I’m happy until I felt somebody else grab me/ Damn!” These lines depict how black men are tossed from one oppressive system to another, and the final exclamation of, “Damn!” reveals the gun’s understanding of its inevitable exploitation in this new system of tyranny of degradation.
Finally, examine the title, “I Gave You Power.” The gun understands that the purveyors of white supremacy only derive their power from their ability to subjugate others. Thus, the plantation master has no power without slaves to oppress and rule. If the gun (translated: black men) can understand this and then work to undo its oppressed condition, then it can usurp the power of white supremacy and then re-assign that power to itself as it struggles for liberation and independence.
In addition to exploring the plight of black men on “I Gave You Power,” It Was Written also dedicates a track to the concerns that Nas perceives are stymieing the development of black women on “Black Girl Lost.” Before we even delve into the song itself, one must first discuss the significance of the title. Besides this song, “Black Girl Lost” is also the title for one of Donald Goines’ most notable novels.
In his novel, originally published in 1973, Goines crafts a story about a young girl named Sandra who took to the streets at eight years old due to her severe hunger pains and alienation that resulted from a mother who loved alcohol and the party scene more than her daughter. The rest of the novel details Sandra’s horrific experience on the streets and concludes with the tragic ending of Sandra’s rape and murder. While Goines’ novel focuses on the treacherous urban conditions that Sandra had to negotiate, Nas chooses to build upon this story by exploring the psychology of a nameless woman that is representative to Sandra’s mother in Goines’ novel.
In Nas’ version of “Black Girl Lost,” the song begins with two women having a phone conversation. This brief conversation reveals that these women are more interested in the thrills and excitement of partying rather than the cultural and spiritual needs that one of their male friends is trying to share with them. Through his wonderful storytelling capabilities, Nas quickly shows how these culturally aloof and spiritually reckless attitudes can escalate to a vacuous lifestyle of hedonistic moral decadence that inevitably leads to the hopeless downfall of young women.
One thing that I was particularly drawn to in “Black Girl Lost” is the sensitivity of Nas’ language. Even though this anonymous woman is a trifling, promiscuous gold-digger, Nas refuses to berate her as a bitch, slut, trick or ho. He instead focuses on how beautiful and priceless she is and speaks to the divine potential that she has yet to harness and apply. The language of “Black Girl Lost” becomes even more intriguing and compelling when it is considered relative to how black women are depicted throughout the rest of It Was Written.
In “The Set Up,” the song that directly precedes “Black Girl Lost,” Nas paints another vivid street tale about he and AZ use two women to exploit their bodies in order to lure two other men that they have “beef” with into a trap in which they kill them. Besides the objectification of these black women as bait for a murder plot, Nas consistently refers to them as bitches and hos throughout the song. Nas’ depiction of black women on “The Set Up” is more indicative of how he considers women throughout the context of It Was Written, so “Black Girl Lost” was extremely refreshing and stood out as rare amid the rampant misogyny that is peppered throughout the album. Once again, this speaks to the progressive and colonized dichotomy of Nas.
The remainder of the album notwithstanding, “Black Girl Lost” is an extremely caring and sensitive plea that Nas delivers to his sisters to help them see and actualize their divine potential. When it is considered in relation to Goines’ novel of the same title, then “Black Girl Lost” becomes a poignant and sobering wakeup call that illustrates to black women (and men!) how a culturally and spiritually bankrupt worldview can lead to the tragic and fatal circumstances that will eat our children alive… just as Sandra was.
While I feel like I’m just getting started, I’m actually going to conclude here in the interest of space and time, but please understand that It Was Written warrants much more critical exploration than could have been provided in this limited space. Amazing street tales like “The Set Up” and “Shootouts” built upon Illmatic’s narrative classics, “New York State of Mind” and “One Love” to help solidify Nas as the best rap documentarian ever and the best storyteller since Slick Rick… and his subsequent works really make these claims beyond debate for all the potential naysayers out there!
As usual, Nas also provided a plethora of jewels in the form of his street corner philosophies on songs like “The Message,” “Watch Dem Niggas,” “Take it in Blood” and “Suspect.” Other records like “Street Dreams,” the Dr. Dre assisted “Nas is Coming,” “Affirmative Action,” “Live Nigga Rap” and “Silent Murder” really make it hard to argue that Nas is not the best lyricist and illest poet that Hip Hop ever produced. What the fuck else is there to say?!!!
It Was Written will forever be my shit! As soon as I begin to play that album, I swear I can smell the summer of 1996 again. I would have to agree with the man, Nas, himself when he said, “It Was Written was one of the most creative albums ever to hit stores.” Shit, that man ain’t lie!
I hope you enjoyed this second segment of 1996 and stay tuned in for the third and final segment of 1996 as we turn our attentions to the classics, The Score by the Fugees and ATLiens by the incomparable Outkast.
I love yall, Hip Hop! Catch me on the next go round…