Stream: Nas “Memory Lane (Sittin’ In Da Park)”
Nas’s New York pride and resolve must have been piqued when he first heard Premier’s simple but elegant instrumental for the song that became “Memory Lane”; I imagine the challenge to devise the perfect rhyme for the occasion was too bewitching to pass up. The Lee Dorsey drums slam just as hard as the beats on any Superlover Cee and Casanova Rud record, while the mostly unadulterated loop of Rueben Wilson’s “We’re In Love,” —complete with its enchanting gossamer of background vocals— seems to exhale deeply as if suddenly freed from restraint by its captor. The organ and guitar sounds pour out over the drums, tempering but not smothering their hard cracks, leaving room for Nas’s vocal layer to perform its own punctuation. I cannot fault Nas if the beat immediately inspired him to close his eyes and daydream a sprawling city block’s worth of enterprising, low-down splendor.
I don’t mean to suggest, however, that Nas’s “Memory Lane” verses are reducible to the rote transcription of spontaneous ethereal visions. On the contrary, I feel that his lyrics deliberately recreate the sensation of being awed in retrospect. On “Memory Lane,” Nas’s wistful narrator remains entrhalled by the brash pageantry of NYC’s storied 1980s drug crews and the civilians who incorporate bits of their mythic swagger into their own lingo, gear, and outlook. Nas cherry-picks his ancestors and funnels their greatest attributes into one vast, dynamic, heroic amalgamation; “listeners, blunt heads, fly ladies, and prisoners/ Hennessey holders and old school niggas” are invited to embody the street life, deeply considered, and flaunt its magnetic charm. To do so is to straddle the narrowing rift between rebel and outlaw; “Memory Lane” keeps its righteousness submerged but not drowned beneath criminal vainglory.
“Memory Lane” is recognizably Premier, but its syrupy motion and bittersweet sound do not bring to mind signature mid-90s Primo. The song is more haunting than insistent, more smooth than gritty. As if inspired by the spooky, monastic funk of Q-Tip’s “One Love” production to try something new, Premier crafts backing music that does not confine Nas to work within the rugged landscape of a “Represent.” Accordingly, Nas seems to recognize that the rigid realism espoused by the sound and rhetoric of “Represent” cannot fully encapsulate what it feels like to be young, black, ambitious, and unsupervised in the streets of NYC at its darkest hour. In Nas’s view, dropping out of a failing high school to stand on a corner looking out for cops in pursuit of alluring women and fast cash is a nearly inevitable series of mistakes. One’s ability to undo such trifling circumstances thus lies partly in one’s capacity to reinvent himself as a blue-blooded jungle survivor.
The central theory guiding “Memory Lane” —and Illmatic as a whole— is the belief that surest way to insinuate a sense of pride into ghettos is to depict the lives of representative individual residents with a careful balance of sober realism and imaginative optimism. Unseemly conditions — senseless knife fights, drug addiction, the immobile drudgery of street level dealing— are arranged to sit comfortably alongside fleeting victories — the acquisition of trophy girlfriends, luxury cars, and intoxicating neighborhood rep. Transcendent moments that confer the sacredness and austere dignity of History onto the seemingly mundane events of the recent past —the Queensbridge park jams of the ’70s recast as the “ancient manifested” influence on Nas’s music, the new school intellectual emcee envisioned as a revolutionary Christ-like figure — are then interspersed among more familiar images.
Nas takes it even further. The most subversive, risky, and unsettling rhetorical gesture of “Memory Lane” occurs in the second verse. Nas ‘s narrator explains that his memories — surely meant to represent a kind of collective cultural memory— of the crack era’s grandeur are necessarily haunted by the names of infamous dealers and crews like Harlem’s Alberto “Alpo” Martinez and the Jamaica, Queens-based Supreme Team. Their legends are retold and embellished by fiends, hustlers, and laypeople alike; in lieu of a widespread adoption of an uncompromised five percenter/afrocentrist/black nationalist mindset, the royalty of these gangsters remains undisputed. Their territories might as well be the kingdoms of Mali and Songhai; their custom-made clothes and elaborate jewels imperil the appeal of middle-class normality.
Other nostalgic rap songs mention the most obvious and safest symbols of past eras —e.g., furry Kangols, immaculate Adidas sneakers, polished medallions — only to further obscure their connection to illicit hustles or grandiose dreams, the very aspects that make them worth remembering. “Memory Lane” forgoes sterile curation and shallow material fetishism, opting instead to honor its pantheon’s mettle and glory by relating a dauntingly abstracted, slang-laden narrative of the past that rightly refuses to exorcise the present’s most awe-inspiring ghosts. — Thun