Monday, July 10, 2006

Deep Covers

Ever heard the rumor that Nas was supposed to have purchased a beat from The Neptunes for a cool two million? Ever come across an interpretation of the Nashawn (featuring Nas) song Level 7 rooted in the philosophy of Theosophy? Ever read a Nas verse or two allegedly from a just-leaked first single? Well, if any of those sound familiar, you've already been exposed to the work of the one who calls himself Stu -- Top Dude. Stu recently contacted me for a chance to drop a couple theories on the truths behind Nas' album covers. While some of these may have you saying, "dude is reaching", at the very least they represent a creative analytical exercise, the type of which you seldom see. At best, they may reveal a meaning or message in the covers that you might not have otherwise come across.

We all know the "boy" to "man" to "king" to "prophet" progression that runs parallel with Nas' first four albums, i.e. Illmatic to It Was Written to I Am to Nastradamus. Showing Nas growing as a man and as an artist, his first four albums, and the covers that accompany them, are rather basic in design: 1) Building 4013 in the QB projects, a young poet cut against the backdrop of his Queens borough 2) The project mentality still there, but now grown, a chain and watch examples of the floss the Escobar lifestyle would require 3) Queens still popping up in the back, but mostly pushed aside in favor of the egocentric and gaudy Egyptian pharaoh artwork, Nas the king of a post-BIG NYC. 4) Finally, the so-called prophet of Nastradamus, a harbinger of what would be to come.

The cover of Nastradamus sets up the cover of Stillmatic in an interesting way. It's Nas' fourth album, and he's prophesizing. He's not saying, "this is the end result, this is the top." He's saying, "there's more to come, a turbulent future lies ahead." Stillmatic would be that album, immersed in conflict, political in its post-9/11 commentary, political in the world of Hip-Hop with the Jay-Z, Cormega, Nature, Prodigy beefs, and personal with the split from his baby's mother. Hinting at it on Come Get Me, one can assume that during the time of Nastradamus, Nas knew his running feud with Jay-Z would one day become public. Then, with QB rappers often at odds with each other, he probably also saw where his hood was heading and knew Destroy & Rebuild was imminent. The last line of the Nastradamus LP, from poet Jessica Care Moore's piece The Outcome, "despite the damage to destiny you can't take the best of me - In God we still trust", thematically sets off Nas' next albums. The "damage to destiny" occurs in Stillmatic, and the promise of "In God we still trust" can be found in the spirituality Nas embraces with God's Son.

Simply put, the cover of Stillmatic showcases the downfall of man. It references Nas' artistic downfall, personal trepidations, and the injury done to man in the greater world. It's 9/11, hyper urbanization, crime, racism, poverty, drugs, death, and the rap game Nas plans to destroy and rebuild, "hate to cease y'all plan - it's the rap repo man."

In an interview around the time of Stillmatic's release, Nas reported that for the cover shot he wore just about every piece of jewelry he owned. We see his QB medallion, a host of platinum necklaces, some diamond rings, and an iced out watch. This is the folly of Nas (his Escobar flossing days), the excess of the rap game (The Big Willy / Jiggy / Bling era) and, more metaphorically, the indulgence of a capitalistic American society (think the inflated economy of the late 90s). The garish orange jump suit Nas wears is intentionally loud. The visually offensive display is a purposeful act of irony.

Behind all that platinum, the dark, lightning scorched skies above the NYC skyline represent the apocalyptic world prophesized on Nastradamus. The omission of the twin towers in the skyline is a direct reference to 9/11. The water is very important as well, but I'll get to that in a minute . . .

One of the most interesting aspects of this scene is the pigeon, the ghetto dove, the only presence on the same perspective level with Nas. This is where it gets biblical. (The link to the Judeo-Christian religion is established with the silver cross that hangs conspicuously below the rest of Nas' jewelry.) Taken as a whole, the entire album cover is an allusion to the Old Testament story of Noah. Y'all know it, but, if you don't, here's a recap. In ancient times, mankind had become very wicked. Murder and rape abounded, immorality everywhere. In response, God punished the wicked of the world with a flood. The Stillmatic cover is that moment before the flood. Nas is at once Noah and God, poised for what's ahead and ready to see it through. Stillmatic is Nas' ark, and just as Noah brought himself, his family, and two of every animal to repopulate the world, the 2001 LP, with his little girl even credited as executive producer, was Nas' vessel to carry his own musical family (Large Professor, DJ Premier, LES, The Trackmasters, AZ, QB associates) on to repopulate the rap world after it had been destroyed.

Back to the pigeon. In the Bible, Noah sent out a dove everyday during the flood. The dove would continually return with an empty beak, representing that there was no land and that God's punishment was still in effect. The pigeon stands as Nas' dove ready to be sent out pending the coming storm. Notice those rain clouds overhead are holding a lot of water, the lightning carries the promise of a storm.

Fast forward to 2002. In contrast to the chaotic front of Stillmatic, we have a tranquil, minimalist cover for God's Son. Nas is surrounded by water. The sky and water are both dark blue, hinting at a departing storm. The world has been flooded. The storm hit during Stillmatic, and the water that loomed in the background of that cover has now risen and engulfed the buildings, the wall and Nas himself. Nas stands arms folded, head down, in reverence. In mourning for the loss the storm has brought, and for the loss of his mother, he's humbled. He is also in prayer to God. As Stillmatic was the ark, God's Son is Nas' personal meditation and communication with God.

As the earlier orange velour get-up has been washed aside, Nas now stands unclothed. And except for a covered Jesus piece and a single golden bracelet, the storm has swept away most of the previously photographed jewelry. Nas is bare because he is now naked of sin. On the surface, no more orange jump suit, no more platinum, the self-indulgence kept to a minimum. Musically, within the disc, his style of rap turns down much of the materialism of his past, "I live a clean life - I don't even steal cable." He is no longer the kingpin, the king, the prophet or the hell raiser. He is a spiritual disciple of the streets, a survivor of his own storm.

On the back cover, we see Nas' arms outstretched. In his hands sit two doves, contrasting with the single Stillmatic pigeon. In a sense, Nas and his bird friends are the same. Nas' style transcended from a gritty street aesthetic to the spiritual purity of God's Son, a similar difference seen in the progression from pigeon to dove. And as there are two doves on the LP back, one in either hand, Nas appears balanced, the second dove evening out the first. 2001 was a shaky time as far as the rapper's future in the game was concerned, but, come 2002, stability seemed to have set in, the storm endured.

The Stillmatic-God's Son trinity is completed with Street's Disciple. For this, I'm going to refer to the extended cover featuring King Nas and the full 12 Nas disciples. This is the poster that was included in the Street's Disciple CD case. The actual CD cover shows only a fraction of the larger image.

The cover is grand in its scope and implications. We are in the interior of a stone building with vaulted arches. A single light illuminates the room. This light represents the holy father shining down, the cross above it strengthening the symbolism. Beneath, thirteen variations of Nas are gathered around a table, some sitting, some standing. One is enthroned in the center. He is King Nas, the Nas of Street's Disciple. The other twelve are his various alter egos and personas, twelve disciples that all make up Nas. Around them we find plenty of drink, grapes, oranges, and bread. However, of all the pieces in this tableau, a piece of cake, situated slightly to the left and in front of Nas, remains the most curious.

The piece of cake is a generous portion, fit for a king, you might even say, and there is something written on it. Upon first examination, the letters appear to read "Nas", but, if one looks closer--visible especially on the poster--it's not "N-A-S". There's no "A", and what looked like an "N" is really the Greek lowercase letter Eta, "η", and what looked like an "S" is actually the Greek uppercase letter Omega, "Ù".

In astronomy, which Nas has referenced throughout his career, Eta symbolizes the seventh brightest star in a constellation, and it also is the seventh letter of the Greek alphabet. Without going into too much detail, Level 7 corresponds to the highest possible level of consciousness in almost all spiritual belief systems; Supreme Mathematics, Theosophy, Buddhism, and even Christianity and Islam have variations of this. Specifically in Supreme Mathematics, known as well as The Nation of Gods and Earths, which Nas has also referenced throughout his career, the number seven itself is important because it stands for perfection (the seventh letter in the English language alphabet, "G", standing for "God"). With this reading, the Eta on the cake slice represents Level 7, perfection, the supreme level of consciousness. In other words, it's pure being, the height of creativity, the most total understanding.

Then, as many know, Omega is akin to finality, the end. So being that Omega designates the end, a pairing of Eta and Omega reads "Level 7 - The End", i.e., in a highly coded statement, the cake says this: Nas has reached the highest point of the rap art form. After him there is nothing, for there is nothing above Eta, Level 7. Omega serves as the period at the end of the sentence. Extrapolating this out, the cake slice represents the Street's Disciple album as being an example of the most evolved rap form, its greatest maturation. Finally note how the cake is missing a side, some piece already eaten. We can assume that the King Nas figure, who it sits in front of, has eaten it, its message now inside, a part of him, and, through the music, conveyed to the listener.

Nas: Mastermind
Nas: Stillmatic Intro
Nas f/ Jessica Care More: The Outcome

*NOTE: Stu -- Top Dude all on this one. Thanks.--Fletch


Blogger Subculture said...

I've read several different theories behind Nas album covers. However, I believe this is the most in-depth and interesting. There where times when reading this though I'd roll my eyes or think "dude is reaching" but it didn’t take away from this being a good read.
As far as album covers go Id have to say I'm a big fan of Nas first four boy to prophet series. After that I thought the album covers where pretty lame. The stillmatic cover with all its symbolism is still one of the most cartoonishly ugly album covers since Master P and Cash Money put huge pineapples and diamond studded logos on their covers. I can dig all the messages put in the cover (whether intentionally or not) but to me it’s not appealing at all to look at. Every time I see Nas in that bright orange Velour outfit I cringe. Also, Gods Son cover is decent but I never went for that calm after the storm theory although it is an interesting theory. It just looks like pictures from a vacation to me. However, I do think it’s the best post Nastradomous album cover I've always been a sucker for simplicity.
Now the last cover "streets Disciple" I have always disliked. Aside from all the intellectual ramblings (though very insightful) about the album covers connection with five per center beliefs and symbolism to me this is Nas at his most pretensions. I’m aware of the religious imagery Nas puts in his rhymes and even from the beginning he was marked as "the second coming." Also the ever present "god MC" title every rapper has given themselves. But from nas hanging on the cross on the "hate me now" video to him recreating the last supper has always turned me off. I have never been a very religious person but at some point I think that the use of religiously imagery and an artist pretending to be the supposed savior of all civilization crosses the line into over the top ridiculousness. I don’t know.....maybe that’s the point. Either way I’ve never been a big fan of artists throughout time painting themselves as some sort of Masonic figure which to me has always said more about ego than some type of artistic message in my eyes.
BTW that Stillmatic intro still gives me goose bumps.

July 11, 2006 6:45 AM  
Blogger Fletch said...

I agree that Nas' first three album covers are all better than his most recent three (this is excluding The Lost Tapes, which I like). By the time of Nastradamus though, the QB background, superimposed Nas concept was wearing thin, and that hoodie execution of said concept was just dumb.

Nas has more recently taken better promo pictures than he has actual cover shots.

--Stillmatic improvement
--God's Son improvement
--Street's Disciple improvement

(Street's Disciple really was pretty cool inside, w/ its actual CD cover designs and all)

As of now, I'm skeptical about the (so-called) Hip-Hop Is Dead artwork. Nas been slipping in that department, Jay doesn't have the best album cover history, and after seeing what happened with Fishscale, I'm not holding my breath.

July 11, 2006 8:37 AM  
Anonymous Stu -- Top Dude said...

I have my own theories about the Hip-Hop is Dead cover... think Hate Me Now video...

July 11, 2006 12:00 PM  
Blogger Subculture said...

I’ve always like Jay-zs album covers. Like I’ve said before I’m a sucker for simplicity and truthfully his cover can be dissected like the Nas album covers explain the meaning behind each. I'd like to see that done.

July 11, 2006 12:47 PM  
Blogger MiThRaZoR said...

The part where you say stuff about the cake. It could mean the 10th anniversary of his career.

But yours is helluva more deep. lol. I like those pictures better than what Nas had for those albums. When I first saw the album cover of Stillmatic, I was discusted. (Not really but you get what I mean.)

July 14, 2006 7:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to give you credit for thinking up of these covers and I think you've got it.
We all know Nas is religious and he even puts that in his rhymes.
The album covers are his own with meaning, I just hope Jay dosen't interfere with them or else nas might regret it.

October 06, 2006 9:03 AM  
Anonymous Mr T said...

Any update with regards to the Hip Hop is Dead Album cover?

November 30, 2006 9:31 AM  

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