Within the past couple days, reporters have found it increasingly difficult to conduct interviews with the ever-hyphy San Francisco Giants heavy-hitter Barry Bonds. The not-so-agile-anymore left fielder has explicitly stated that all questions regarding steroid use are off limits and will most likely result in the termination of any post-game banter. However, it is precisely this issue of performance-enhancing drugs that everyone wants to talk about. Around Bonds, "Balco" has become a dirty word, but t seems like everyone in the public eye, from all stars to rock stars, has had at least one crime in their career always nagging them, on their heels, just a step behind. Chappaquiddick. Ishtar. Nastradamus. Nastradamus is Nas' Balco, except it was more performance-damning than anything else.
Moving past Nastradamus's Bad Idea Jeans-inspired album title and cover, there are maybe only five tracks that I would listen to under my own free will. Of those five, only three would I try and defend. Of those three, only Project Windows and Last Words really stand up all that well. But since that first mentioned, Ron Isley-crooned number is really just a rehashed, polished version of an I Am leftover, Last Words remains the true sole survivor of Nastradamus, and one of Nas' most unique songs.
There's anticipation all over Last Words. The drums sound like the roll of a Judgment Day trek to death. The background singing accelerates the drama, a high-pitched, high-hung choir cry towards the inevitable. And then in between a nicely-weaving chorus, Nas and Nashawn lead with verses that are more eulogies than hype, more embattled than battle. They speak with a final sound to be heard. For Nashawn, it's a constant challenge, chaos without an end, "a twenty four hour song without no hook." For Nas, this cloud, this shroud of loneliness, has only one equal, the prison cell.
While One Love might have featured Nas corresponding with associates behind bars, Last Words has him taking the place of those very bars themselves. Personifying the bare bunk, the tired floor, the storied walls, the closing gate, and reflecting the state of mind that they all cast into despair, Nas creates a lasting impression of a lasting depression that is too common to too many. Some time ago, thanks to a great opportunity from my work, I visited California's Folsom State Prison. While the observations which I have kept with me to this day are too many to list, the idea that Nas hits on a couple times throughout his verse proved true: "I'm a prison cell, six by nine."
The reaction to the size of the cell is undeniably immediate. In a facility of thousands, with years of operation, and legends of history, a few scant feet are truly the most telling. Just literally walking inside, crossing that threshold between a large population of inmates on the outside and in there a post for no more than one or two, is quite a visceral experience. And that's knowing you're not locked behind and will be moving on with the tour shortly; actually facing living that way, waking up to confines that must seem as if they're creeping up on your every day, is, as Nas puts it, to feel as though you're "alive inside a coffin." Often times we only think of space in terms of physical dimensions, but in instances when size transcends metric measurements, psychological ramifications are limitless. The prison cell is one such instance, where space is so constrained, pushing against you, as if someone literally has their hands to your neck, you may fight to make a sound, a last word if you only could.
Face to face with a cage, no matter your ageNas f/ Nashawn: Last Words
I can shatter you, turn you into a savage in rage
Change ya life, that's if you get a chance to get out
Cause only you and I know what suffering's about
BONUS: The Ohio Players: Good Luck Charm