Plenty of rappers never make it to 38, victims of career-halting irrelevance … or even life-ending violence. Nas is an exception, a literal and metaphorical survivor in a fickle genre.
Nas burst onto the scene in 1994 with Illmatic, a collection of raps that purists hail as one of the genre’s classic efforts. Nine albums and 18 years later, Nas is still spitting out rhymes about growing up in poverty, hustling in the ‘hood and taking down rivals, bragging about the fact that he’s now one of rap’s elite and that he has it all.
In Nas’ case, though, having it all is a mixed bag. As he inches toward middle age, Nas’ songs praise marijuana and nonstop sexual conquests one minute and voice regrets about his failed marriage and struggle to raise a teenage daughter the next. The result is an odd mash-up of real-world reflection and clichéd rap braggadocio.
“No Introduction” admits Nas’ failings in his marriage: “The tales you hear is the truth, on me/Who wasn’t the most faithful husband.” “Bye Baby” recalls the happy day Nas and singer Kelis walked down the aisle (“When we walked to the alter, that was an awesome day”), ponders where things went bad (“Why do we mess it up, we was friends, we had it all”) and is thankful for a beautiful baby boy who came of the couple’s union (“Plus we got our little boy, my little pride and joy”).
“Daughters” reveals Nas’ fears about raising a teenage girl. He doesn’t want to see her with an incarcerated thug (“I saw my daughter send a letter to some boy her age/Who locked up/First I regretted it, then caught my rage, like/How could I not protect her from this awful phase?”). He also says he almost “split his wig” when he found out that his daughter had posted an inappropriate picture online: “Her mother cried when she answered/Said she don’t know what got inside this child’s mind, she planted/A box of condoms on her dresser, she Instagrammed it.” Nas’ response? “At this point I realized I ain’t the strictest parent/I’m too loose, I’m too cool with her/Shoulda drove on time to school with her.” Indeed. It’s compelling stuff to hear Nas grappling with how he should parent his daughter, to hear him admit, “It ain’t easy to raise a girl as a single man,” and voice the (hyperbolic) sentiments of overprotective fathers everywhere: “When she date, we wait behind the door with the sawed-off/’Cause we think no one is good enough for our daughters.”
“Accident Murderers” laments the death of an innocent victim in an urban shoot-out. “You Wouldn’t Understand” praises determination. “Stay” salutes hard-working fathers who provide for their families and warns them against the temptation of seductive home wreckers (“Watch out for desperate, lonely women, hurt ya happy home”).
“The Don” claims Nas doesn’t abuse prescription drugs. “World’s an Addiction” critiques obsessions with sex, drugs and material things, ending with the admission that Nas struggles with all of the above: “So many vices, habits, mine, of course, bad chicks.” He also says, “We all need faith ’cause the world keep changing.” Speaking of faith, Nas mentions clinging to Jesus during a séance he attended as a boy: “Watch the con … channel his mom’s spirit/Goosebumps cover me, Mother’s here, I could feel her/Blood of Christ covers me, our Savior and healer.”
Guest Mary J. Blige voices romantic thoughts on “Reach Out.” “Cherry Wine” features a collaboration with the late Amy Winehouse as both long for an unconditional soul mate.
“No Introduction” recalls falling into a life of drug dealing and crime as a teen (“How could I not succumb?/How could I not partake?/15, got a gun, 16, I robbed a train”), and brags of being a playboy multimillionaire today (“Yeah, worth $200 million now, bicentennial n-gga, flat screens and condominiums/Brazilian women on Xanies, they pullin’ off panties/I’m pushing 40, she only 21”). “Loco-Motive” describes the “good life” as a combination of nonstop drug abuse, unlimited bling and unapologetic adultery: “My religion is reefer/ … Blunt big as a dread/ … F‑‑‑ your ice, I rock rubies, amethyst/I f‑‑‑ your wife, ’cause she a groupie, scandalous/This for my bad ‘hood b‑‑ches, ghetto fabulous.”
Affectionate references to marijuana, often combined with brand-specific shout-outs to alcohol, pop up on “A Queen’s Story,” “Accident Murderers,” “Daughters,” “Reach Out,” “World’s an Addiction” and “Summer on Smash,” as do repeated, sometimes graphic references to casual sex. In “Summer on Smash,” for instance, Nas brags about having sex with women of many different ethnicities.
Violent moments include recollections of Nas’ checkered youth and, it would seem, up-to-the-minute threats against anyone who crosses him. On “A Queen’s Story,” he quips, “I’m to blame for a few faces reconstructed.” We also hear this line: “N-ggas is very hungry for that bank robbery.” “World’s an Addiction” claims, “I’m never squeamish to blood, we can thug, and get out of hand/What’s the options?/Only conclusions is shooting, bullets poppin’.” “You Wouldn’t Understand” toasts “my real n-ggas, only OGs/Certified who kill n-ggas when put in that seat.” And on “Accident Murders,” Nas raps, “This .45 in control, God forgives and I don’t.”
F- and s-words, “n-gga” and “b‑‑ch” can be heard throughout.
“Conservatives don’t understand slang linguistics,” Nas says on “Reach Out.” And on “You Wouldn’t Understand,” he adds, “You wouldn’t understand where I been and what I do/No matter how you try, you never can.”
It’s true that I didn’t grow up impoverished in Brooklyn, moving from the projects to hustling to becoming a rap icon. I can’t relate to any of that. But when Nas talks about the midlife struggles of parenting, I get that completely. And I appreciate it too.
As for the claim that “slang linguistics” are indecipherable to anyone who didn’t grow up in the ‘hood, well, it doesn’t matter who you are or what brand of English you grew up with, it doesn’t take long to understand the gist of Nas’ frequent references to puffing on massive blunts, casual sex and waving pistols around. Those lyrics are hardly inscrutable. No, they’re the same old obvious vices rap has glorified almost since its inception.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews.