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