Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Street Scriptures

Ask your average literary type who the greatest storyteller of all-time is, and you might hear responses ranging from William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, and the like. But ask your average Hip-Hop head who the greatest storyteller of all-time is, and you're likely to hear just one response: Slick Rick. Constructing his narratives with convincing attention to detail and a cartoon-like swagger, MC Ricky D's Great Adventures essentially pioneered, innovated, and set the standard for how a story on wax would go. Then, as far as the harder-edged episodes, Kool G Rap chronicled a gritty, often violent, drug and crime-based reality. With these influences from his youth, when Nas, who's more than worthy to be in anyone's top three, came on the scene, his story style proved the perfect mix of G Rap, Uncle Ricky, and something all his own.

As a keen observer and a naturally gifted narrator, ensuring that his stories are always effectively laid out, Nas maintains a level of clarity, interest, and even suspense throughout his rhymes. Then his use of imagery often succeeds in illustrating the story's details, both emotional and action-based. Finally, his vocabulary and poetic approach to words allows what he's seen and thought to connect with the audience in full. Never one to shy away from these gifts, whether in brief episodes, like the sagas on 2nd Childhood, Get Down, The Message, NY State of Mind, or in a more epic shape, such as with Blaze a 50, Fetus, Rewind, One Love, Shootouts, Undying Love, Nas has surely cemented his place in the all-time annals of the Hip-Hop storyteller. And while the songs above have all received their fair share of acclaim, Nas' catalog is so deep that you may overlook others, e.g., Hardest Thing To Do Is Stay Alive, Pussy Killz, Sekou Story, The Set-Up, Small World, etc.). Even then, you still haven't covered them all.

Wanna Play Rough is a fast-paced, multiple-point-of-view tale originally intended to be a part of the I Am 2LP but ultimately relegated to a Dame Grease compilation. While most story raps are relayed from the first-person or a third-person omniscient perspective, Wanna Play Rough plays with the formula some. All three verses are told from the first-person, however, there are two different "I's" to focus on. For example, the first verse is relayed from the eyes of a set of killers waiting for their mark, "I heard he call himself Esco, drive a Lexo, rocks his hat sideways, showing off his waves with a chipped tooth." After this, the second verse introduces that aforementioned chipped-tooth one, Nas, but this time the story is told from his point of view, as he sneaks up on those very same killers, "I carefully creep / take off my shoes, barefoot, nigga, popping my heat." Wanna Play's third act is relayed once more from Nas' POV, but offers a couple plot twists and a bit of the gruesome for good measure. Beyond the story's innovation, Nas' way with words elevates his characters' dialogue from the obvious and mundane to the creative and even alluring, "the Lord is my shepherd, the sword is my weapon / reward is a blessing - that comes from the struggle." In this way, like Jules from Pulp Fiction, if you will, or some great Shakespearean figure, Nas gives his assassins not only a killer's touch but also a poet's tongue.

The ill-fated Death of Escobar album, circa 2001, was to, after the Nastradamus disaster, once more solidify Nas' position in the game, much in the same way Stillmatic eventually did. Obviously, it never came to be. Moreover, whatever tracklisting has been distributed online is fake. However, we can peg a couple unreleased songs recorded from the time as having been meant for that lost album; Tales from the Hood being one. From its suspenseful beat to its menacing hook, and three verses of pure macabre, Tales from the Hood is essential Nas. Having been broken into different chapters, each its own separate story, chapter one first showcases Nas' attention to detail, as everything from haircuts to the dress of the hood's canines are effectively described. Chapter two then demonstrates Nas gift for an intricate rhyme structure, as he weaves the story's plot along a series of double and internal rhymes:

I'm gonna help you nigga, 'cause I see evil's calling you
Sick thoughts make you wanna take ki's from other balling crews
Top of the world's all he views
A puff of weed, nothing but greed
Don't live by the rules
Saving the best for last, the song's third verse epitomizes Nas ability to tap into the dark recesses of his imagination. Experimenting with a kind of expressionism, the ominous moral story Nas unfolds concerns a man haunted by his own fatal actions, "[he] escapes the scene, but he couldn't escape the dreams of how the kid fell when bullets made it too late to scream." Not only can we picture the physical death detailed here, but, as Nas continues, we see, like some ghost stalking in the woods, or a spirit looming overhead, the emotional mind state of the character, so gripped by his past, put on vivid display. Nas then ends this scene on the edge of sanity as only he can.

Nas: Tales From The Hood
Nas: Wanna Play (Rough)

4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

And two other Nas tracks I didn't know about. I wonder who produced this material... Keep on the excellent work

August 16, 2006 10:52 AM  
Blogger easye7 said...

Yo Fletch, how could you do a blog about Nas's storytelling and not break down his masterpiece Undying Love. After I heard that song in '99 that's when Nas became my favorite rapper. I get goosebumps everytime I hear that joint, One.

August 16, 2006 4:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tales From The Hood is hands down one of my favorite unreleased Nas story concepts,Wanna Play Rough is a honorable mention and gem as well,as odd as it is I always laugh at the quote "its you I should have guessed it" from Wanna Play Rough,that is so vivid in my opinion,and I get goosebumps everytime I hear Clue say "from the death of escobar of album",keep up the good work

August 16, 2006 5:16 PM  
Anonymous Subculture said...

The thing that I like the most about "Play Rough" is his animated delivery in the 2nd verse. He seems excited or even panicy and it brings the story telling level up a notch because he's not just telling a story but rather making it seem as if its happening at that very moment. Plus, sometimes Nas monotone delivery can seem...shall we say...sleepy. But, on the other hand the thing I've always disliked about "Play Rough" is the predictable chorus, using the most overated gangster movie of all time for a hip hop refrence....again. But thats just a small bump on a otherwise dope song.

August 17, 2006 5:46 AM  

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