As New York City radio DJ Peter Rosenberg puts it, Nasir “Nas” Jones would belong on the Mount Rushmore of hip-hop. The legendary rapper from Queens, N.Y., is set to appear Thursday evening alongside Professor Michael Eric Dyson in Gaston Hall, where they will discuss the state of a culture and art form Nas famously declared to be dead.
There’s some superficial irony to the pairing of Dyson and Nas: Much attention has been given to Dyson’s sociology course on Jay-Z, who battled Nas in the early 2000s for right to the title “King of New York” in one of rap’s the most notorious feuds. Despite some stark differences between these once-rivals, Dyson has campaigned extensively to elevate artistic and intellectual appreciation for both careers. He co-edited the 2010 book Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas’s Illmatic, which offers academic perspectives on the celebrated debut album of a teenage prodigy once known as Nasty Nas.
Nas, now 40, has set a high watermark for rap lyricism over two decades. He has released 11 albums with sales exceeding 25 million, all while evolving into what Dyson calls “the most aboveground underground artist we’ve ever had within hip-hop.” Nas brings the full package — both for his acclaimed catalog, and for his imprint on hip-hop’s defining controversies. He’s a head-turning guest for the Lecture Fund, and Dyson’s efforts to bring hip-hop scholarship to the Hilltop were seen most prominently several years ago through the study of Nas’ former nemesis.
“Sociology of Hip-Hop — Urban Theodicy of Jay-Z” made national headlines when Dyson introduced the unconventional course in fall 2011. Debate over Jay-Z’s artistic merit was instigated by Michael Wu’s provocative column in The Hoya arguing “Jay-Z Not a 21st-Century Homer.” Dyson continues to offer the popular course, and Shawn Carter himself called in via speakerphone on the final day of class last spring.
To the casual contemporary fan, Nas is known for two career highlights: his lyrical prizefight with Jay-Z, and his magnum opus, Illmatic. He has carried the burden of having each new release held up against that iconic debut, and Jay-Z pounced on this pressure in the crushing 2001 diss “Takeover.” “Had a spark when you started but now you’re just garbage / fell from ‘top 10’ to ‘not mentioned at all,’” Jay jabs, hyperbolically, on the track.
Dyson, who spoke with The Hoya on Wednesday in anticipation of the event, addressed the propensity of rappers to deliver their finest work first, noting the analogy there between rap music and literature. “The same could be said of Ralph Ellison,” Dyson said. “Although he only published one book during his lifetime, Invisible Man, it was a monumental classic. Because of the weight of the expectation that rode upon his shoulders as a result of that ingenious debut, it stilted and stymied him for the rest of his life. It shut down his ability to produce after that.”
Nas hasn’t been paralyzed by that initial success, but he has bared its weight. Perhaps the greater challenge for someone of Nas’ stature, though, is balancing commercial interests with artistic integrity. Dyson’s Jay-Z course reviews Carter’s role as a larger-than-rap figure (“I’m not a businessman. I’m a business, man”) and how he memorably explained broadening commercial appeal in the 2003 song “Moment of Clarity,” where he says, “I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars / They criticized me for it, yet they all yell ‘holla!’” Despite significant commercial accomplishments, Nas has never gone that route.
“Both of them represent irony, even paradoxes, in the art form, but there’s no question that Nas’ extraordinary reputation rests in the preservation of his credibility,” Dyson said. “What Nas represents is that pure artist for whom commercial trends be damned. Whether it’s popular or not, he will make his art.”
Selling out was a subject of Nas’ comeback to “Takeover,” the lethal record “Ether.” “What’s sad is I love you / cause you’re my brother, you traded your soul for riches,” Nas raps. Today, being “ethered” is used to describe suffering a vicious lyrical assault. But “Ether” contains at least eight homophobic digs (“Gay-Z,” etc.), and it’s difficult to weigh the good and bad of that iconic battle. Nas and Jay-Z were competing for the throne vacated by the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac, who had both been murdered at the height of their infamous East Coast/West Coast feud. Should the King of New York power struggle be remembered fondly, or with regret?
“I look back on that battle an instructive moment in the evolution of hip-hop culture, both for what it taught us about the nature of competition rhetorically among two gifted geniuses, and the way in which they were able to quash their beef and settle their differences,” Dyson said.
“It’s almost inevitable, and it doesn’t just happen in hip-hop,” Dyson added, “it happens in the academy, it happens in politics. Hip-hop just happens to be the most glaring example of the type of vicious verbal battle that can occur when people are pursuing their goals at the top of their craft in competition with one another.”
Nas has had remarkable longevity in a genre known for fleeting fame. Illmatic received a coveted “five mics” rating by The Source magazine in 1994; Life Is Good, Nas’ most recent LP in 2012, received a rare “XXL” perfect score from the hip-hop magazine XXL. Yet Nas has a goose egg to show for 13 Grammy nominations and six nominations at the MTV Video Music Awards, underscoring an ongoing disconnect between core hip-hop and the American mainstream. “Sometimes there’s a delay of public recognition for even great artists,” Dyson said of those with misfortune like Nas’. “Sometimes, also, the voters just don’t know a damn thing about the artists.”
There’s much to anticipate Thursday night. Will Nas discuss his Untitled album of 2008, which originally was named “N – – – – -” without the censored letters? Will he address whether he stands by his statement made on an album title in 2006 that Hip Hop Is Dead? Will he address ghost writing, of which he has allegedly been a recipient? One can only guess, but there may be hints as to what he’ll be wearing.
As Nas said on “Hope” from Hip Hop Is Dead: “The block’s drugs flowing, didn’t have your own work / You had to have somebody else’s, a small chrome on your pelvis / Starter jacket, blue Georgetown or green Celtic.”