Change and Uncertainty: Ghostface & Nas

Recently, while writing an analytical piece on a pair of nostalgia-themed songs by Masta Ace and Juelz Santana,  it dawned on me that younger fans and artists view the past differently than their older counterparts. ((It also stands to reason of course that rap fans and artists under the age of thirty have developed a sense of the past that is shaped in large part by their nostalgic elders. In the early part of the ’00s many of the bigger names in rap —Pharell, Missy Elliot, Jay-Z, Nas, etc.— filled their music with tributes and allusions to all things ol’ skool.)) This is an obvious enough truth but it eluded me for some time because I am —like so many of us rap dinosaurs— obsessed with the music and culture of my youth. I grew up in an urban area in northern New Jersey in the ’80s and ’90s; my early years as a music consumer coincide with what many term — problematically, for sure — rap’s “golden era.” When I reflect on my past it is difficult to neatly separate the good associations — the music, the gear, the sense of newness and wonder— from the  ills linked to Reaganomics and the crack wars. My reconstructed memories are a messy mixture of these triumphs and tragedies; the narratives I consult to construct my version of the past are influenced in large part by rap lyrics.

Rap is filled with conflicted, selective retelling. As the genre ages it seems sensible that succeeding cohorts of rappers will record wistful songs about their late ’90s/early ’00s childhood and adolescence. I’m curious as to how this will sound. How will younger artists conceptualize the past? Will they continue the tradition of incorporating social and cultural critique into fictively inflected  autobiographical narratives? Which templates will they consult to construct their view of the history? Which events, trends, and changes will they allude to in their lyrics? My gut sense is that rappers will tackle the past in unforeseen ways as certain social changes —gentrification and the deterioration of inner-ring suburbs and an increase in gang-related youth violence despite an overall decrease in crime ((Further reading and discussion, check this thread at Cocaine Blunts and this NYT article.))— complicate themes and binaries that course through so many “back in the day” songs. ((For example: archetypal rags to riches and criminal come-up tales might be revised to reflect the displacement of low-income residents from housing projects to peripheral urban and suburban areas.))

If Juelz Santana’s “Good Times” is any indication, some younger rappers may choose to remain mired in a past conceptualization of the past. In romanticizing the peak years of the crack wars and its associated music, Juelz indirectly bemoans the alleviation and reversal of the worst social trends of the Reagan-Bush years during the economic upturn of the Clinton era. This might perplex those of us who in retrospect would have gladly traded Eric B. and Rakim’s discography for  a lower homicide rate, but rap nostalgia is never a simple affair. Rappers have longed for a return to hip hop’s past while decrying the social disorder that shaped the genre’s early development and on the same album posit the survivor of the crack wars as some kind of enlightened sage made more whole by the experience. (( This is one possible interpretation of Illmatic and every album that wanted to be like it.))  Juelz’s ambivalence is hardly surprising but his fixation on the lucrative street life of his mentor Killa Kam’s adolescence is seemingly incongruous with a contemporary inner-city reality defined more by mundane dreariness than flashy criminality. ((Admittedly, it is presumptuous to suggest however indirectly that urban and low-income youth are less affected by crime than their ’87 era counterparts, especially given the persistence and even proliferation of youth crime in certain cities in the past decade.))

Rappers and fans even younger than Juelz have lived through enormous social and cultural changes in their short lives, not the least of which includes a migration of discourse and interaction to virtual spaces. I think that in addition to insights on the changing landscape of the  inner-city, younger rappers might gradually incorporate commentaries on recent sea changes in media and technology — the rise of the internet, social media, decline of the music industry, etc.— into their lyrics. For all of my intellectual curiosity, however,  I am too old (read “out of the loop”) to identify current trends among younger rappers with any authority, let alone predict a thematic direction for the genre as a whole. ((Hell, as I edit this I recognize how silly it is for me to even try to speculate how today’s children, tweens, and adolescents view the events of their lifetime, let alone the impact of those events on culture and artistry.)) Instead, I will discuss the ways in which older artists (Ghostface, Nas) have responded to recent social changes.

Download: Ghostface Killah “Stay True”

Ghostface is one of rap’s most effusively nostalgic voices. He pines for a past represented by a flood of sounds, textures, and styles that he reanimates through insistent invocation. On “Stay True,” a haunting song tucked in the center of the prolonged exercise in wistfulness called Supreme Clientele, Ghost begins to hint at his gnawing uncertainty for the near, post-crack future. ((A while back I wrote about similar future-minded anxieties on display in songs by LONS, Yaggfu Front and Abstract Rude.)) The listener is greeted by chest-thumping hustler boasts like “we in the fields with heat” and “we street referees,” but Ghost quickly drops this mode and takes on the role of an elegant, imaginative host. His celebratory stream of consciousness departs from the murky streets on a jaunt to a realm of surreal sartorial elegance. Instead of hustling drugs he hustles his imagination in the hopes that the dashing swagger of  his lyrics will be immortalized alongside finely aged soul classics. He has no other plans; the chorus ((I’m guessing this is chanted by 60 Second Assassin. Confirm/deny?)) spells out the depressingly mundane reality of twentieth century urban America , insisting that “the streets is rough out here, the crack game went and had its years” and asking the obvious and pressing question “what is a man to do?” ((To which Ghostface responds, with his distinct brand of dignified charisma “brotherman, stay true.” In this case, “stay true” seems to mean to adapt one’s hustle to changing realities like the dried up street game.))

Download: Nas “Everything Changes”

After years of spicing up his autobiographical raps with old time gangster lore, Nas takes a moment to acknowledge the changes  underway in the NYC that exists outside of his frozen snapshots on “Everything Changes.” ((From the Lost Tapes compilation, of course.)) After going through the usual motions of waxing nostalgic over things like Le Tigre, Fresh Fest, and gun-free skirmishes ((At the same time reminiscing fondly over the commission of petty crimes like chain-snatching, in true forgivably contradictory aging rapper fashion.)) Nas laments the changing of the guard from the “o.g.” generation of hustlers to the new kids. His narrator is less concerned with the cyclical perpetuation of violence than he is with feeling out of the loop; he sounds genuinely surprised and bothered that the younger generation considers him to be “on the outside looking in.” The hook is insipid and schmaltzy and the first half of Nas’ second verse is a rich man’s complaint about the showbiz life that sounds oh so precious over the shiny, upbeat track. An impatient listener might be tricked into believing that Nas’ literalness is amateurish —especially when contrasted with Ghostface’s nearly hallucinogenic take on the same topic— but Nas eventually comes to his senses to deliver possibly the first realistic impression of post-crack NYC in a rap verse: “Reminisce the block, gambled g’s on the floor/ niggas used to be the man, you don’t see them no more/ Your favorite restaurants and favorite stores?/ They tore ’em down, turned ’em into shopping malls/ The ‘hood is like a ghost town.” ((He feels the need to couch this honest observation in sentimental dreck, but that’s Nas for you.))

These songs are from the earlier part of the last decade and represent the beginning of a good discussion. I am interested to discover how younger artists are documenting such changes ((Passion Of The Weiss posted a great piece on gentrification-wary San Francisco rapper Da Vinci back in August; I am taking it as a good sign that Da Vinci is neither reluctant to speak his mind nor disdainful of taking an objective, documentarian stance.)) so let me know where I should look.

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