Literature from the Underground

Illmatic, the first album by hip-hop elder statesman Nas, is a masterpiece. Released in 1994, its tales of scowling corner boys, prowling drug addicts, undercover cops, treacherous lovers, and remorseful gangsters are so vivid that you can almost feel your nostrils being singed as Nas brushes the marijuana ash from his clothes. From out the gate, Nas identifies himself as a writer's writer ("see with the pen I'm extreme") and proceeds to prove himself right, offering lines that are poetic ("with more kicks/than a baby in a mother's stomach"), bleak ("straight-up shit is real/and any day could be your last in the jungle"), and cautiously hopeful ("that buck that bought a bottle/could have struck the lotto").

As the legend goes, the frenetic pace of Nas' flow, his complex internal rhyme schemes, and his dense lyricism had people wearing out their cassette tapes, rewinding them over and over again in disbelief. It's the one album in all of hip-hop whose artistic value, regardless of the critic's personal taste, is unassailable. Even Nas' longtime nemesis, Jay-Z, frankly confesses that the first time he heard the album, "the shit was so ahead/thought we was all dead."

Despite not being a commercial success at the time, Illmatic was recognized as a classic almost immediately. A lean album comprising 10 tracks that eschew trendy beats and high-profile guest appearances, its mythical status was virtually assured when The Source magazine -- then still widely known as hip-hop's bible -- broke its embargo on giving albums a five-mic rating (the equivalent of a five-star rating) to bestow the honor on Illmatic. Nas was praised for reclaiming hip-hop from the gangsta rap groups of the West Coast and ushering in an East Coast renaissance that included the likes of the Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z himself.

The new anthology Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas's Illmatic, edited by Michael Eric Dyson and Sohail Daulatzai, is a love letter to Illmatic, a self-conscious effort to preserve the album as a classic of poetic nonfiction. There's plenty of academic work on hip-hop as a musical genre and a cultural phenomenon. But despite being the most distinct and dominant form of poetic nonfiction of the past 30 years, it has yet to be given its due as literature. Sure, your average liberal-arts college has more than its share of rap-focused classes taught by hip professors ready to act as urban-culture guides for wide-eyed private-school kids. (My class at Vassar was called "Literature from the Underground.") But these are seen as quirky electives. For the most part hip-hop is still fighting a dulled American impulse -- the same one that dismissed jazz out of hand as "noise" for so long -- that the artistic contribu-tions of urban black culture are just fodder for the groundlings. If Illmatic fails to persuade the reader of hip-hop's intrinsic value as poetic nonfiction, the editors seem to be asking, what else could?

A sense of urgency permeates the book because many hip-hop lovers and cultural critics believe that the genre has become too commercial, that it's lost its artistic promise. Born To Use Mics creaks under the weight of not simply being an exploration of Nas' strongest album but a declaration of "hip-hop's continued relevance ... its urgent necessity." In the introduction, Daulatzai frets that "Illmatic was either the beginning of the end, or it was the exclamation point on the manifesto that was hip-hop." In other words, Illmatic was hip-hop's pinnacle, the place for those who love it to make their last stand.

The main part of the book is organized into 10 essays -- one for each of Illmatic's cuts. Like the original LP, it is split into two sides (40th Side North and 41st Side South) in homage to the streets that divide Nas' home neighborhood of Queensbridge, New York. At the back is a set of "remixes," essays and interviews not focused on any particular track on the album.

But despite recruiting a stable of interesting writers with strong feelings about hip-hop, few besides Dyson engage with the album as literature. In his chapter, he examines Illmatic's richest track, "One Love," Nas' cinematic epistle to a friend in prison. Dyson expounds on the song's lessons about the social costs of urban isolation, violence, and incarceration. The people of Queensbridge come alive -- from the incarcerated reader's unfaithful lover to the stubborn young drug dealer whom Nas warns about the inevitable violence in his future. Elsewhere in the book, Duke University professor Mark Anthony Neal comes closest to echoing Dyson's passion for the material. He interprets the introspective "Memory Lane" as a meditation on the generational and artistic strings that connect jazz and hip-hop, using Nas' relationship with his father, the accomplished jazz musician Olu Dara. Eddie S. Glaude Jr. elaborates on the historical context behind Nas' harrowing descriptions of Queensbridge ("streets is filled with undercovers/homicide chasin' brothers") on "Represent."

The other authors -- while sometimes brilliant -- tend to wander off like a hyperactive kid in a mall, but that doesn't mean the book isn't intriguing. Daulatzai's piece on "N.Y. State of Mind" dissolves into a discourse on neocolonialism. He loosely ties the song to the idea that the American gangster ethos has been exported across the world. Marc Lamont Hill deftly skewers the class- and race-based perceptions that hide the misogyny of so-called "conscious" rappers and conceal the political insights of emcees more oriented toward the street life -- but Hill doesn't actually quote the track he's supposedly discussing, "Halftime," until the penultimate page of his essay. Kyra D. Gaunt offers a critical and thoughtful exploration of gender in hip-hop, and in Nas' canon in particular. But she's far more concerned with illuminating the hypocrisy of "I Can," a cut from a completely different Nas album, than guiding us through the fantastic boasts of her assigned track, "One Time 4 Your Mind." Rather than convincing a skeptical reader that Illmatic -- and by extension, hip-hop itself -- deserves a hallowed place in the canon of American nonfiction, these tangents seem to suggest that the material is too thin for a group of devoted hip-hop scholars to make much out of it.

One of the most successful pieces in the book is The Source's original review, both because it lets Nas' own words do the talking and because, as the first five-mic review, it's nervously understated. When the reviewer, Shortie (now known as radio personality Miss Info), says Illmatic is "worth the money" you get a fascinating glimpse into a time when all hip-hop fans didn't think of Illmatic as having been handed down on Mount Sinai.

While most of the essays are interesting even if they don't actually engage deeply with the material that's meant to guide them, the fumbles are frustrating. It's hard to watch James Braxton Peterson lecture Nas on the naive Afrocentrism of "If I Ruled The World" (again, not a track from Illmatic). Peterson says that Nas' pledge to "open every cell in Attica/send them to Africa" is a "profoundly stupid idea." Indeed, it would be profoundly stupid, if it weren't an obvious reference to the actual demands of the inmates who led the 1971 Attica prison riot and therefore a bleak metaphor for the impossibility of ending mass incarceration, not mere "racial romanticism." Also, if you're going to stray from the album itself, you might as well make it count. Anyone well versed in Nas' work will wonder how Gaunt spends so much time exploring gender in the Nas canon without noting the two tracks on Streets' Disciple where Nas alters his voice and raps from the perspective of a female gangster.

It's an uncomfortable fact that, deep down, a good percentage of hip-hop scholars really want to be emcees. Born voyages into some cringe-worthy moments when writers try to seamlessly code-switch between contemporary black vernacular and academic-speak, a feat only Dyson has perfected. Most other writers end up looking as contrived as that kid who brought a written rhyme into a cipher and passed it off as freestyle. By "trees," one writer helpfully explains with an ellipsis, she means marijuana. Uh, thanks for the clarification.

The premature declaration of hip-hop's demise in Born's introduction casts a shadow over the entire book. The only problem with this view, which often happens to coincide exactly with the point at which a given rap critic creeps toward middle age, is that it's perennial. (Even Nas himself has pronounced hip-hop dead.) As rapper Common reminds us in the book's foreword, his own nostalgic eulogy for hip-hop's artistic integrity, "I Used to Love H.E.R.," was released the same year Illmatic ushered in hip-hop's East Coast Renaissance. And the hits of 1994 kept on coming. The Notorious B.I.G.'s hectic and haunting album Ready to Die changed rap forever and Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik foreshadowed Outkast's critical and commercial success. The following year, Tupac Shakur struck platinum from prison with Me Against The World. And two years after Illmatic, a little-known emcee named Jay-Z dropped his first album, Reasonable Doubt.

Nas' classic was clearly a beginning, not an end. But hip-hop's decline is a force that gives rap critics meaning, and so, like the Rapture, it remains imminent, even as today's promising young emcees -- Lil' Wayne, Lupe Fiasco, Wale, J. Cole -- have hip-hop heads feverishly parsing lyrics everywhere from the corner to the seminar room.

So maybe it's not that the writers' hearts aren't in it. Perhaps it's that they recognize, on some level, that the urgency is unwarranted. That just as Rakim begat Nas and Jay-Z begat Kanye, there will always be a third, a fourth, perhaps a fifth coming. Maybe that's why the authors have such a hard time staying focused on Illmatic: There's so much else to talk about. That's hardly the symptom of a dying art that needs to be rescued by an album made nearly two decades ago.

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