Monday, July 17, 2006

Babies Being Born

I don't remember being born--makes sense, I was like ten seconds old. And unless you have really amazing recall, chances are you too don't remember your own birth. However, let this not stop the artist, for he creates, envisions, and writes, and then writes about the time he was created and first gained vision. Several of these creative types have indeed turned their pen to poeticizing first-person narratives of the journey from feels to fetus to fruition. While there have been notable contributions to this form within rap music, one of the earliest such musical creations came from outside the genre.

Recorded in the final months of his 27-years but released posthumously, Belly Button Window is Jimi Hendrix's take on the beginning of life. Though a demo, however unfinished the song may be, a couple important characteristics are established that will be carried over in later attempts on the same subject: 1) It's told in the first-person 2) Jimi starts the story before any delivery room, actually narrating from the early stages of the womb 3) A level of personal trepidation is present, for instance, regarding if his parents really plan to keep him or not. However, the Hendrix approach to music and lyricism, a Voodoo Chile laidback groove and a mystic meets blues quality, are all his own. Hip-Hop would bring a different edge to the concept.

Aside from Rakim's brief description on In The Ghetto of coming from "cream with no physical form", the first major foray into the birth song for the boom bappers was Ice Cube's The Product. From his Kill At Will EP, Cube uses the idea of "the product" to trace his life from inception, as a product of a man and a woman, to incarceration, a product of a failing school system, quick fixes, and low self-worth. Specifically focusing in on his opening verse, we get the same first-person layout as Belly Button Window, but, unlike with that track, Cube rewinds past the womb stage to when "the nut came gushing." Also, his trepidation is not exactly the anxiety of "will they or won't they keep me", because birth is never really questioned; in fact, it's like the whole entire story is predestined, hospital room to prison cell, the inevitable. Then, contrasting greatly with the almost reclined feel conjured by Hendrix, Cube delivers the details with his trademark raw intensity. This isn't a gentle birth.

Next came Organized Konfusion's In Vitro, where a jazzy but solemn sound fittingly introduces Pharoahe Monch's verse. Appearing on OK's Equinox LP, 1997, Pharoahe's turn, like Cube above him, hits on this idea of a baby being born as more curse than miracle. With his mother stuck on toxins and TV, and his father only referenced in passing as being there for conception, birth becomes a swollen belly and a splintered boy, "two and a half weeks old, already thoughts of stabbing men." And, in a passage of especially brutal imagery, Pharoahe even contemplates turning his umbilical cord into a final noose. Later, Prince Poetry's verse deviates some from the established form. It's the second half of his partner's story, though not explicitly about a particular pregnancy. He still however reinforces the idea that drugs and deception can be as much a birthmark as any other blemish a baby receives, but urges that, through religious faith, a way out, a rebirth, is possible.

Carrying the torch for Queens MC's, Nas actually did two takes on the baby being born song, the first as Belly Button Window, a scrap from the lost I Am 2xLP. Immediately, this name should call into mind the wonderfully descriptive title first introduced by Hendrix, as does the acoustic guitar that features heavily. An opening bubbling sound effect then sets a delicate but spacey, almost ethereal, tone. The major lyrical difference between Nas' two versions, the latter redone as Fetus on 2002's The Lost Tapes, is found in the first verse. Here Nas further illustrates Hendrix's influences with references to a "Spirit Land" or "Spirit Town", the imagined point before human shape materializes. Several more nods to Hendrix are made throughout: 1) Both describe "frowns" sensed on the face of parents caught in the midst of an important decision, suggesting to the unborn that they may not be wanted around any longer 2) The use of the phrase, or a variant thereof, "coming down the chute again" 3) Jimi sings, "if you don't want me now, give or take, you only got 200 days", while Nas raps, "you got a 120 days, do what ya want." But this is not to suggest that Nas is merely piggybacking off a three-decade-old idea. Instead, a highly poetic use of rhyme and a detailed, almost month-by-month look at the process show Nas expanding the concept into his own.

With the first verse on Belly Button Widow being changed for 2002's Fetus, most of the major references to Hendrix were also removed. In addition, this change turned what was merely a creative exercise into a subtle but appropriate tribute to Nas' then-recently deceased mother, Ann Jones, "I'm not worthy to come from a women so pure, Ann Jones / flesh of her flesh, blood of her blood, her blood and bones." People say that the relationship a mother shares with her son, especially her first-born, is unlike any bond two other people can know. Likewise, the connection felt by that first-born to his mother, when he was raised primarily by her, when they had outlasted the projects together, when she was there to watch him become a father and her a grandmother, when he stayed bedside to try and make her forget about the tubes and treatment her cancer required, and himself forget too, cannot be stressed enough. He literally etched out his very existence from her body and spirit, and as the cancer grew deeper, like the change in his music, you sense a change in Nas' own figure begin to emerge. While both versions are worthy candidates by themselves, in this context, as a remembrance of his mother, and with the emotional resonance Nas fosters, while avoiding much of the melodrama that would besiege God's Son, Fetus proves the most effective.

Finally, RZA's See The Joy is yet again another song in this conceptual tradition. Released a year after The Lost Tapes, See The Joy is the closing track to 2003's Birth of a Prince. With RZA setting aside his digi production and persona for a second, the keys and manipulated sample he utilizes create an atmosphere that is instantly part soul, part melancholy. That melancholy is derived from the narration of a journey to birth, the unlikely struggle of a sperm cell. While someone like Ice Cube focused most of his drama taking place after conception, RZA switches it up; for him, the real distress begins much earlier, where, since fertilization only requires a single sperm cell, for the remaining millions, "the womb is a grave yard."

Nas: Belly Button Window
Nas: Fetus (The Lost Tapes)
BONUS: Ice Cube: The Product
BONUS: Jimi Hendrix: Belly Button Window
BONUS: Organized Konfusion: In Vitro
BONUS: RZA: See The Joy

3 Comments:

Anonymous Stu -- Top Dude said...

good breakdown... another great song is Canibus' I Honor You... probably my favorite

July 17, 2006 11:07 PM  
Blogger Subculture said...

Excellent breakdown. When I saw the direction of this post I was hoping that you would post up the Organized Konfusion joint. This may be my favorite song by them. (By the way...I need some new Pharoe Monch like ASAP) Also, this is the first time this has happened to me because this is my preferred way of listening to the tracks you put up but....zshare isn’t working for me, and I was really looking forward to hearing the Cube joint again.

July 18, 2006 6:03 AM  
Blogger El Diablo Negro said...

I always thought that he changed the lyrics to Fetus out of respect for his recently deceased mother. Taking out the references to previous abortions and what-not.

July 18, 2006 7:49 AM  

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