It Ain’t Hard to Tell: Why Nas is In His Own League
“It ain’t hard to tell, I excel then prevail the mic is contacted I attract clientele.”
These are the lyrics Nas so eloquently spit on ‘It Ain’t Hard to Tell’ which flowed over the haunting sample of Michael Jackson’s ‘Human Nature’ off his debut album ‘illmatic’ (1994). These lyrics are among many that have stayed in the collective conscious of Hip-Hop fans who immediately became Nas fans after hearing his beloved debut. This past week the Hip-Hop legend celebrated his 44th birthday with close friends and thousands of fans around the world. The Queens native’s lyrics have changed an entire generation of Hip-Hop and the style of Hip-Hop itself.
The lyrics on his debut album ‘illmatic’ infiltrated listeners ears like the blunt smoke he rhymed about on tracks like ‘Sittin in Da Park (Memory Lane)’, “Chocolate blunts make me see him drop in my weed smoke”. To understand the Queens rapper one must understand history. History is something that plays a huge role in Nas’ work, from his countless references to ancient Egypt and African civilizations on songs like ‘I Can’ (2002) and ‘Nas is Like’ (1999) to his own personal history in the Queensbridge project housing units where he and his younger brother were raised.
His father, Jazz musician Olu Dara has also played a significant role in Nas’ style as an artist. The use of Jazz motifs such as the cover for the album ‘illmatic’ closely resembling the Jazz album cover ‘A Child is Born’ (1974) by the Jazz group Howard Hanger Trio are subtle but evident when one pays close attention. Nas rhyme pattern has often been compared to the unofficial ‘Godfather of Hip Hop’ Gil Scott-Heron, the powerful poet and singer whose gritty, socially conscious songs influenced what would become the Hip-Hop generation during the 1970s. His dedication to socially conscious lyrics and music with a message has always stood out to fans and listeners across the world.
Even after ‘illmatic’ Nas continued to be original to his style oftentimes at the expense of critics who constantly compared his following projects to his beloved debut. When he was criticized, Nas was never compared with others he was always compared with himself. He did not seek approval from anyone, wanting to be true to his fans and himself he put his heart and soul into every album, regardless of what critics had to say. It is far easier nowadays for artists to stay true to themselves in an era where major record labels do not have the same power they once did over artists. Artists can make a name for themselves and reap most of the benefits because of innovations such as social media, YouTube, and online music sharing websites. It can be said Nas, although signed to Columbia and Def Jam for most of his career, set an example for future artists to stay true to themselves and never compromise their art.
I remember the first time I heard ‘One Mic’ off of ‘stillmatic’ (2001) and the video alone captivated my imagination. The video displayed his vulnerability as a true artist and his willingness to do a video different than a typical Hip-Hop video of that era.
Nas’ impact is worldwide, last year I remember talking to one of my friends whose a foreign exchange student from Saudi Arabia. We were talking about Hip-Hop and he told me his favorite rapper was Nas. He cited the song ‘Patience’ from the joint album he made with reggae artist Damian Marley ‘Distant Relatives’ (2010) as his favorite song.
As of lately, Nas is focused on business ventures such as his sneaker and streetwear store in Las Vegas, ‘12 AM Run’ as well as his investment in multi-media brand Mass Appeal. Nas has always been consistent and true to himself while influencing a generation of artists such as Joey Badass, J. Cole, Bishop Nehru, Kendrick Lamar, Vic Mensa and a host of others who with their originality are keeping the spirit of Hip-Hop alive, making it safe to say Hip Hop is not dead after all. Happy Belated to one of the greatest!