Thursday, May 11, 2006

Time is Illmatic PT III

Like Memory Lane, the lyrical content of One Love is the picture of depression. No one's expecting prison correspondence to be full of light-hearted anecdotes, but the very nature of the world Nas describes begs the question of just how much contrast there is in a life caught behind the bars and a life caught by different variations of the same traps on the outside. This is a world where the miracle of birth is opposed by not even knowing you have a seed out there, where a woman carries your son but doesn't want you to see him, where your man gives your enemy your glock and his loyalty, where the sole shared trait amongst family is concurrent cases, where your mother cries and you're the cause of it. And with addicts on every corner and snitches in every precinct, illusion on every boulevard and potential bled dry in every cell, the only change is in the degrees of stress and how hard it's pressed against you: "out in New York, the same shit is going on." Note the way Nas almost casually relays the news of Jerome's niece or little Rob. Destruction is on a first-name basis and occurs in an unsurprising cycle. But there's another angle here too.

As some of you have commented, while Illmatic often focuses on a bleak portrait of life, there is also a theme of hope, of change, towards redemption. This play between the traps and the search for a way beyond them is seen in the Exhale Factor. Several times throughout these famed forty minutes, Nas mentions "inhaling deep": "Inhale deep like the words of my breath" (NY State of Mind); "He inhaled so deep, shut his eyes like he was sleep" (One Love). The idea of a deep breath suggests a level of being unsure, the pre-battle ceremony before heading out into the unknown. It conjures up feelings of nervousness, trepidation, like your lungs are trying to hold onto what otherwise is passing you by. Shorty Doo Wop, from that forgotten park bench, is the essence of this half of the equation. Caught up in a midst of a lot of gravity, where society molds even a laugh into something foul, he epitomizes a life stuck on inhale. Not yet to thirteen, his world moves so fast that the daytime doesn't even hold enough light. His defense mechanism is steel and dubious. His options boil down to Kevlar, his street a burial ground, his platoon deceased or deserters, "tough luck when niggas are struck, families fucked up." The deeper the breath gets, he has to take it all in, the weight continually crushing his young lungs. But as Nas shares a dawn session with him, seeing the kid he used to be, he implores son to exhale, to release the anxiety that's got him short of air and "try to rise up above."

Managing a message of perseverance, as Nas mulls over his crew either locked behind bars or beyond earth, he realizes a change is due. There's escape out of the rut of that NY State of Mind, focused on new days, refreshed and celebrated. Recall the literary archetype of the Hero's Journey. After receiving the Call, down the path into the unknown, that aforementioned level of being unsure, almost immediately challenges await. Passage is only gained by going further into the abstract, towards the Abyss. This is the point of the journey where hardships become giant-sized, where our greatest fears are given their greatest test, face to face with the worst ills imaginable. For each person, these fears may manifest in a different form, but for all, the possibility exists that they may make past tense of life and sever the journey all at once. Illmatic is the narration of this journey. The Call into the wilderness of North America leads way into cell blocks and hard concrete, the ghetto's Abyss, where time seems to only tick for those who don't have a lot left. But in escaping the clutch of every element corrosive, Nas completes the journey: his Transformation, "my physical frame is celebrated 'cause I made it"; his Revelation, "life is parallel to Hell but I must maintain"; his Atonement, "[my son] born in correction, all the wrong shit I did, he'll lead in right direction"; his Return, "so I comes back home, nobody's out but Shorty Doo Wop"; his Gift, Illmatic.

"He's not bragging 'cause he's been through Hell, he's going through Hell and he's expressing it. I feel sorry for that young man that I was at 17 years old. I feel sorry for him, and I also feel happy for him that he made it."--Nas: MTV's Life & Rhymes (2004)

Nas: One Love
BONUS: Nas: One Love (Large Professor remix)
BONUS: The Heath Brothers: Smilin' Billy Suite Part II


Blogger the prisoner's wife said...

the thing i love about Illmatic is it's ability to grow with you. the things Nas spoke about in '94 are still very relevant today.

little did i know then that i'd be the one crafting letters with "funny anecdotes" to my beloved on the island (rikers). but listening to this song STILL resonates (if not even more) with me today.

btw: i'm digging your inhale/exhale observation. i never thought about that before.

i really believe you need to gather these essays & compile a book. broker a deal w/ columbia/def jam for the 15-year release of illmatic featuring this book (with an included cd).

that would be HOT.

May 12, 2006 11:23 AM  
Blogger Fletch said...

I know it's cliché to say that a certain album or movie or book offers something new each to time you play 'em or open 'em up, but the inhale/exhale reading isn't something I noticed until a couple months ago--after how many listens? So not only does Illmatic offer a rhyme scheme that still more than holds up a decade-plus later, but the content of the album most likely has layers I still haven't discovered. And at least 4 or 5 of those beats are all-timers that play as well in 2006 as they ever did.

I can't imagine what "Island correspondence" is like. I think some authors are skilled enough to write about experiences they may have never personally gone through, but the prison letter has to be something you know first hand to speak truthfully to. In that way, say what you will about Nas' later Escobar status coke rhymes, One Love doesn't seem an inch forged or contrived at all.

Here's another pretty good review of Illmatic, though I can't really cosign the use of the word "nihilism."

May 12, 2006 11:41 PM  
Anonymous Colin said...

It would make sense for One Love to seem genuine like that, because if I'm not mistaken Lake and Cormega spent time upstate before Illmatic dropped. I always treated One Love as a letter to Lake seeing as he was incarcerated during the recording, and after Illmatic was released.

Anyways, great stuff as usual.

May 13, 2006 2:26 AM  
Anonymous Jean said...

i came across your blog while googling for some nas lyrics with 5%er references, and i really like it. but uhm, the reason im writing is because i wanted to ask you know any nas songs with a lot of references to the teachings of NGE. i know there are tons, i used to listen to nas back in the day, but now that i acctually need it for a school project, i seem to have gotten amnesia..=) but anyways, you got any in mind?

May 13, 2006 3:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice post again Fletch, One Love to me is one of the GOAT joints. The beat almost has a prophetic feel but at the same time makes me zone out, reminisce.
I remix is pretty good too. although the beat is perhaps too relaxed.

May 13, 2006 4:24 AM  
Blogger Fletch said...

Colin, "I wrote it in my album / I was 18 when Lake seen the Island." Yeah, "Lakey the Kid" made his most important contribution to rap music by getting locked up . . . There was a guy from QB, or near in Queens, on the old Nas boards that broke down more than a couple Nas songs with their real (hood) life similarities, most notably Small World and Rest of my Life. Rooted in actual experiences in this way, I definitely believe Nas' stories seem genuine for a reason.

Jean, there are more than a couple songs w/ 5% references, but at times it's hard to separate early to mid 90s New York Hip-Hop from actual NGE beliefs, because of the overlapping of vocabulary namely. However, I actually did a little entry on Nas using the faith's philosophy in The World Is Yours (remix).

Anonymous, about the remix being "too relaxed." Yeah, I think w/ the singing and the horn not supplying the same kinda paranoid feel, you might get that. But by leaving in Q-Tip's xylophone and hook, it still maintains some of the original spirit. It's a better contrast, IMO, than the Memory Lane remix.

May 13, 2006 9:48 AM  
Anonymous jean said...

thanks a lot! btw,you used to hang out at the old nas board? saw, your wrote something about that.

May 13, 2006 1:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fletch I know this is a lil off topic but for years, I've been hearing about some unreleased track called "The Curse" or something like that; produced by Premo. Which has been quoted as one of Nas' GOAT joints.
People I know claim to have heard a one min snippet of it with a verse that has being described as "quality Nas ish".
I was wondering whether you've heard this sample or anything about this joint? and if you can shed some light on it.

May 14, 2006 6:39 AM  
Blogger Fletch said...

Jean, not the old Nas board like 4 years ago, but since about Jan of 2005, by the time dust had settled from Street's Disciple. I still post there occasionally. It's a good place to double check facts and hang around people w/ the same affliction.

Anonymous, I don't think Premier produced The Curse at all, but Nas did do such a track. It was one verse and a hook released on a sampler for the I Am album. Then the snippet stopped there and kept people waiting until last year. That's when the same verse, respit, with slight modifications, ended up on the Killah Priest mixtape track, The Saints. I can do an entry on it next week.

May 14, 2006 11:34 AM  
Anonymous jean said...

damn! i thought you might be one of my comrades from back then, hehe.

May 15, 2006 7:14 AM  
Anonymous David said...

That "The Curse" beat was def not a Primo beat. It had synth drums if I remember correctly, and violins. No chopping at all. You're talking about the song where he talks about when he was a baby his mom had to fight off "bats, giant-size/ six would attack, cryin' Nas" and has some more of his more abstract rhymes (and if I recall correctly something about women on they period, which he also seems to like talking about)?

Anyway, this was a great entry. Actually this whole Time is Illmatic series has been. I never noticed the theme of inhale/exhale, though I noticed it in individual songs.

And yeah, Hsu should have saved "nihilism" for Mobb Deep.

May 18, 2006 10:56 AM  
Anonymous The African said...

Illmatic...Nas at his finest.

May 23, 2006 6:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What amazes me about this album is from year to year I play this album and the insight in Nas' lyrics seem deeper and make me realize and see more then in the previous year. It's timeless and never tires.

My mother never liked rap and when I would pick her up in the whip I'd always have rap playing. She would always ask me what do you see in that music and shake her head....
One day I had Illmatic playing and she asked me who's that....Nas had her stuck. You can't deny this album

May 26, 2006 6:03 PM  
Anonymous SMIZIT said...

Just found your blog and working through it - But had to write to tell you, you took it to the next level here.

November 23, 2006 2:57 AM  

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