There's a glitch in the Hip-Hop Matrix, a departure from the norm: One who walks among the Hip-Hop glitterati, making his rounds on the BET and MTV interview circuits while using his mic as a tool to warn young men and women about the dangers of embracing and glorifying the harsh realities of the streets.
Like Wesley Snipes' Blade, he is a Hip-Hop daywalker, able to shift seamlessly between gritty tales of coming-of-age in Queens and warm memories of dancing in the arms of his recently deceased mother. With seven albums to his credit, his discography reads like a lyrical version of Soul on Ice as his music becomes increasingly positive and targeted towards rescuing younger Hip-Hop fans from the perils of a thugged-out state of mind.
Since the release of God's Son in November 2002, Nasir Jones -- aka Nas -- is fast becoming the poster boy for the (re)burgeoning positive Hip-Hop movement. The video for the hit single "I Can" is raising eyebrows with its consistent rotation despite its overtly positive, Afrocentric message to young listeners. (Have I misjudged cable music video shows all this time? Remember, I said this was a departure from the norm!) Similarly, the video for "One Mic" (Stillmatic, 2001) -- during which Nas wears a T-shirt bearing the likeness of Malcolm X -- was widely heralded as the most innovative Hip-Hop video of the year, winning a number of awards and critical acclaim including an MTV nomination as the Best Video of 2002.
Is it possible for commercially successful groups and artists to maintain thriving careers while including issues of cultural and political relevance in their music? Public Enemy did it throughout the early '90s by raising awareness through dome-splitting singles such as "Fight the Power," "911 is a Joke," "Can't Truss It," "Shut 'em Down," and other tracks eventually adapted to music video. It was difficult to turn on MTV and not see Chuck D. in his trademark black baseball cap flanked by Flav's neck clock and over-the-top antics. Similarly, other groups and artists such as Brand Nubian, Gang Starr, KRS-One and Paris enjoyed varying degrees of video rotation during Hip Hop's first emergence of political consciousness just over 10 years ago. Since then, something went awry: Either the music changed, or we changed. Or both.
Nas is here to take us back to our roots.
His method of kicking "street knowledge," while perhaps an effective means of drawing younger fans to his music by blending cultural/political commentary with the usual themes found in Hip Hop (i.e., pimping, gats, etc.), has been met with criticism from both conscious Hip-Hop purists as well as journalists and culture critics. Felicia Palmer, co-founder of the Hip-Hop news Web site SOHH.com, takes Nas to task for his indictment of the Hip-Hop industry in light of his own occasionally self-indulgent lyrics. In an open letter to him she wrote, "... one minute you're a god emcee, the next you're an iced out baller. It's like mixing Absolut and Hennessy, all you get is vomit."
Perhaps Nas' new outlook on Hip-Hop culture is indicative of a personal transformation that some artists experience as they mature creatively and philosophically. Yet, reluctant to trade in his platinum medallions for cowrie shells and mudcloth, Nas is, without question, keenly aware of the risks of sounding "preachy." He never strays too far from the visceral street narratives for which he is known.
Certainly, Nas is no choirboy. Some of his subject matter (the cautionary freestyle "Pussy Killz" comes immediately to mind) hovers in the territory of precisely what Hip Hop is most known for -- tales of weed smoking, sexual exploits and objectification of women. That Nas "kicks knowledge" on some tracks and "blazes up" on others demonstrates the duplicitous nature of Hip-Hop marketing (i.e., "Let's milk this for what it's worth while pretending to be concerned about the lyrical content"). For better or for worse, an unintentional byproduct of this type of positioning could be that critical messages get to the people that need to hear them the most. Where else in mainstream/commercial media would you hear, "Young boys, you can use a lot of help, you know/You thinkin' life's all about smokin' weed and ice/You don't wanna be my age and can't read and write?"
It's one thing for backpack dwellers to express concern for their communities. But for an artist already on top of his game to do so seems like, well, revolutionary suicide. Only time will tell if Nas continues his artistic/philosophical ascension or succumbs to the tried-and-true formulas of the commercial Hip-Hop industry.
But if anyone can pull it off, Nas may be The One.
KEVIN BRITTON writes about Hip Hop music and its impact on popular culture. His column will appear monthly.