Now, with this whole controversy emerging surrounding whether or not Nas has used ghostwriters I didn’t think I’d be weighing in. This isn’t an issue that even registers a bleep on my radar. But, I wound up clicking through some links out of sheer boredom, and wound up at this article over at Rappers I Know. So, given that Nas has been a huge influence on me as an artist, I figured I’d at least give it a read and find out what all the fuss is about. It didn’t take long to realize that the fuss has very little to do with Nas, and a whole lot to do with people’s hip hop ideals wherein Nas figures as a central figure.
The Andy Warhol comparison is by no means arbitrary. Andy Warhol and Nas are actually pretty similar if you think about it. Neither are really respected for their art so much as the impact their art had on their respective art communities. It’s less about Warhol’s silkscreens, and much moreso about what those prints did to the art world that surrounded them. The same can be said for Nas, his championed reputation has more to do with how he changed rap, than his actual raps. Nas made two good albums: It Was Written and Illmatic. And that’s generous. I don’t like Illmatic at all. To me it’s a really boring album, but I recognize that when it was released it was largely unprecedented. To me, It Was Written is a great record.
But, I have always been quite obviously outside of the realms of the accepted when it comes to hip hop. Well, until recently, but that’s somewhat tangential (for right now, although it’ll probably be relevant at the end of this post). For a dude like me, there was never a reason to spend much time with Nas after my 2-3 year hip hop initiation. Of course, I’d revisit It Was Written endlessly, but we all know that after It Was Written Nas didn’t put out another solid album. But, that has not had ANY affect on Nas’ reputation. In fact that has even made his reputation more fascinating. The fact is, Nas is a dude who will decrease the overall potency of his artwork every single time he releases a song because the value of his art is connected to a very specific time and place which does not exist in the present. And for people who did exist in that time and place, Nas is an analog for the importance of that time and place. Thus, people’s championing of Nas winds up being less about Nas, and more about the merits of the tenets of a paltry but integral conception of hip hop music.
People don’t talk about Nas in terms of his art. People talk about Nas as an archetype for what are now pretty dated hip hop ideals. Illmatic is essentially the Campbell’s soup can. The can itself is pretty basic, anyone could replicate the image given a modicum of training and discipline. The same can be said for Nas’ music. His skill has never been his strong point. And, the same retort that is used for much of Post-Modernism’s critiques (well yes anyone could do it, but Warhol thought to do it first! Sure, anyone can paint a Jackson Pollock painting, but Pollock did it first! etc.) is apt for Nas. Sure, lots of people could have made Illmatic, but Nas did. And when Nas did make Illmatic it changed rap forever.
I think there’s 2 kinds of people in this world: folks that were deep into hip hop before Illmatic dropped, and folks that got into hip hop after Illmatic dropped. This is a pretty profound divide right here because even though it transcends age, it’s really a generational thing. If you were listening to hip hop before Illmatic came out, then Illmatic marked the beginning of an era. If you started listening to hip hop after Illmatic came out it has grown more and more difficult to appreciate the shift that it inaugurated. That is because you have absolutely no connection to the pitifully small conception of hip hop that it altered to a slightly less pitiful, but still exceedingly small conception of hip hop. That’s not throwing shade on anyone, just stating the facts. From 1990-2010 hip hop was defined by adhering to a strict code of dont’s. And Nas was, and is, the poster child for adhering to that code.
That strict code of dont’s can largely be traced to Illmatic, and thus Nas. For a rather large group of people with very firm ideas about “real hip hop” Illmatic is the tabernacle, the sacred scroll that must be guarded and protected at all costs. People champion Nas not for his music, but for his integral place in the canon. To concede that Nas isn’t that great, is likewise to admit that for at least 15 years folks had their priorities fucked up in hip hop. To take Nas’ ghostwriting in stride is to admit that for 15 years the basis by which we measured the merit of works of art was a lie.
To me, an It Was Written fan, it’s fine if Nas is a ghostwriter. I never saw the dude as much anyways. He was never a rapper who I respected for his lyrics. I don’t think I ever heard him rap in double time. I’ve never heard him flip a tricky cadence, and come to think of it, has Nas ever blacked out on a track? I never listened to a Nas song and said, “Damn, I can’t believe he thought to say that.” He was just one of the first to really put the package together. He was really fuckin cool, and good enough at rapping that the rest didn’t matter. Nas’ reputation doesn’t suffer from having ghostwriters, because the words in his raps are not where the bulk of his merit lies. Who do you think was pulling the ink on Warhols prints? Not Warhol. But it didn’t matter, because Warhol’s work was not bound to a canvas. I know it’s really hard to think of Nas as some kind of Situationist rapper, or a dada emcee, but that’s what he is. If you look to the object—in this case the raps—you miss the majority of the merit. But, if you weren’t invested in the art world that Warhol or Duchamp shook up, it’s very difficult to appreciate the weight of their actions. The same goes for Nas, if you were never talkin about “real hip hop” there’s probably very little here to be concerned with.- Zachg