Verse Of The Week: Nas
It’s the end of a new week which could only mean one thing… You guessed it, another Verse Of The Week. We’re headed to Queensbridge to pay a visit to, bar none, one of the greats – who happens to face quite a few issues right about now.
***Before we get started:
I just want to say that it’s been a long time coming. Everyone knows by now that this guy is my all-time favorite rapper. For that reason, I wanted to hold off on doing a Nas record for Verse Of The Week (which I admit is becoming more like the Verse Of The Month… I apologize) for as long as I could because it would be highly predictable of me to do Nas’s verses early and often, but it would also show a lack of fairness on my part.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, please note that this week’s verse deals with a very serious issue. That issue is a very powerful and painful word (here’s a hint, it is comprised of six letters, rhymes with trigger, and can get you killed if used in the wrong situation). In respect of Black History Month and with the recent debate about the term ‘negro’ which will be used to denote African-Americans in the 2010 Census not to mention the recent John Mayer interview, I felt it was time to have a serious dialogue on the matter.
Nasir Jones is no stranger to controversy. He nearly turned the entire music industry against him with the blatant concept and title for his 2006 album, Hip Hop Is Dead. How would he follow that one? In true Nas fashion, he returned with his boldest attempt yet, to name his 2008 album after the word many consider the worst in the English language.
Rappers, politicians, civil rights activists, and countless others chimed in on the decision and the comptroller of New York reportedly threatened to withdraw the city of New York’s investment in Universal Music (which I, for one, certainly didn’t know of until all this came about).
While I knew the word was shocking and hurtful to many, I also knew that the album which would bear its name would be a thought-provoking and honest conversation providing social commentary on the word and race in America overall. Due to the extreme level of pressure the record company was under, the album went Untitled. The message, however, remained and while the album did not break any sales records, below is at least one reason that it probably should have.
Without further ado, I present to you – from Nas’s Untitled – the second verse of “Y’all My N*****.”
“Yo, I was thinkin’ a little bit
What would it take to authenticate my n****-ness?
Ball ridiculous? 26 inches when I call up the dealership?
Aww that’s some n**** sh**
We only out for our own benefit?
We havin’ too many kids? We Claudines? Welfare recipients?
The infamous free clinics is the sickest sh**
Make me think ‘what the hell they clean they syringes with?’
Everybody bleeding, the cops are the demons
Courtrooms full of goons, jail buses leanin’
Handcuffs squeezed too tight on youth life
Few fight they just give in, people used to do sit-ins
They got Nigeria and Niger, two different countries
Somehow Niger turned to n*****, and sh** got ugly
The problem is we started thinking like the colonists
‘Til Noble Drew Ali started droppin’ that consciousness”
Nas begins his verse asking what he would have to do to authenticate an identity rooted in the n-word. Here the use of the word signifies its actual denotation, which basically means “ignorant individual.” He suggests that spending money frivolously on ostentatious and unnecessary items would be acts indicative of stereotypical blackness (the likes of which the most hurtful form of the word is typically used for).
He then goes through a list of stereotypes certain people generally (and quite unfairly) associate with African-Americans, such as selfishness, irresponsible and unwanted conception, and heavy reliance on welfare.
Among this list is a reference to Claudine, a 1970s film about a single African-American mother on welfare who falls in love with a garbage collector. She wants to marry her lover, but the relationship is looked down upon by the community because together the couple would still need welfare to support the family.
Nas goes on to talk about the “free” clinics in which information and certain health services are provided for low-income patients and communities, questioning the safety and competence of such institutions.
He says that everyone is bleeding at the hands of police, a reference to police brutality, and also makes a quick reference to the disparity with which African-Americans fill prisons. He notes that few people actually resist such injustices anymore – a sharp contrast from the days of the Civil Rights Movement in which there were protests and sit-ins in response to these things.
Nas notes the likeness of the n-word to the names of two countries: Niger and Nigeria. He speculates that somehow the name of a country with one ‘g’ evolved into a derogatory term with two g’s.
Nas ends the verse by suggesting that the African-American community (at least in part) has taken ownership of the word which causes such pain because we came to share with our oppressors a derogatory view of ourselves. He cites Noble Drew Ali – a religious leader of the early 1900s who featured racial pride as part of his teachings – as a source of an end to this type of toxic thinking.
It is certainly a profound concept to consider. The word – whether we like it or not – seems to have become integrated with our history and is also a term of identification and definition for many. While Nas doesn’t specifically come out against the use of the word, he uses a few elements of the song to highlight the fact that it may be time to update our brains and tongues.
We’ll start with the chorus, which is reminiscent of a much earlier Nas song, “I Gave You Power.” In that song, Nas speaks from the perspective of a gun which is used to propagate black-on-black crime. In this song, Nas uses the chorus to speak from the point of view of the n-word:
“Try to erase me from y’all memory
Too late, I’m engraved in history (I’m here my n*****!)
Speak my name and breathe life in me
Make sure y’all never forget me (‘Cause y’all give me life!)
‘Cause y’all use my name so reckless
Whether to be accepted or disrespected (And I love it!)
And I love it, especially when y’all do it in public
And I’m the subject
‘Cause y’all my n*****”
From that chorus, it is clear that Nas perceives the word as adversarial and stifling to the progress of African-Americans. The word comments that it’s too late for us to erase it from our memories and that every time we speak it, we fuel it and give it life. We also ensure that the word (or most importantly, the stigma with which it is associated) will never be forgotten. Interestingly enough, this seems to run counter to the “we take power from the word as we continue to use it” argument so prevalent in hip hop right now.
The word insightfully notes that we use it loosely, to show acceptance (term of endearment) and to show disrespect (racial epithet/generally offensive term). This behavior is greatly enjoyed by Nas’s personification of the word, especially when done in public so that others can be influenced by it and exposed to it.
During the intro of the song, Nas uses a sample from a sermon about the importance of being responsible and conscious of the words we use (I’m not sure where it’s from but I wouldn’t put it past you savvy readers to find out). Here’s the intro.
“We use the word everyday
Now we don’t know the capacity of this word
Are we headed for conflict or not? (Yes sir)
Because we did not break down the capacity
Of the same what? (The same word)
Brothers and sisters, this is why we’re hung up in consciousness
We’ve been taught wrong.”
At the end of the song, another excerpt from the same sermon picks up where the excerpt above left off.
“Every word we use, it has a capacity
And if you don’t understand the words you’re using
And understand the capacity of it
You are using words that [are] creating a destiny for you
That you don’t even know, or [aren't] even conscious of!”
While the word has continued to evolve and change with the Black community, going from strictly offensive to much more accepted and nuanced, it seems that a higher level of consciousness, self-awareness, and self-respect will lead us to abolish its use entirely.
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