In “Thugz Mansion“, a single from the album God’s Son by Nas, lyrics by the guest star, 2Pac, name a number of famous celebrities that would be present in the heavenly title setting. Someone might wonder who would be best to invite to a similar gathering in heaven featuring anyone, whether dead or living, with a time machine provided to capture a person at a particularly point in time.
It would be great to schedule a debate on truth and myth (which itself is arguably a form of truth). The battle of words would feature two giants of the English language. In one corner would be Nineteen Eighty-Four author, the late George Orwell, a passionate defender of objective truth and opponent of myths masquerading as fact. In the other corner would be the acclaimed rapper Nas back in the year that his album God’s Son was released: 2002.
The remainder of this article includes some reasons why Nas would arguably win the debate, as well as some things that undermine Nas’ often excellent raps released in 2002. It also touches on some of the ways myths, truths and combinations of the two elements can be taken from songs found on the 2002 album.
“Made you look / You [are] a slave to a page in my rhyme book” boasts Nas on the album’s third track “Made You Look“, which demonstrates how wielding statements, even ones that are in a way untrue, can exercise power. “Book Of Rhymes“, another song on the album, also shows how rhymes can act as a lens through which one sees the world and judges it.
That eighth track’s imagery of a rapper looking through his old rhyme books and dismissing much of their content as “weak” or something to that effect also shows how much he had improved in his own eyes as well as giving the listener an interesting window on a craft dominated by arrogant egoism. Additionally, “Book Of Rhymes” echoes the promotion of practice as a means to success, something found in “I Can“, a song that will appear later in this article.
Truth may be stranger than fiction (if they are actually separate) but truth is sometimes the less powerful of the two. While various shades of rock used appearance and big riffs or solos to wow audiences, hip-hop artists have tended to use over-the-top lyrical imagery which, like the work of classic literature, sometimes drew on Christian sources or other religious themes.
“The Cross” theatrical feel is aided by the mock-cinematic introduction to the beat and emphasised by the beat’s skeletal but doom-laden nature. “I carry the cross” says Nas on that track as part of a refrain. Although it is non-literal, it is not exactly an understatement given the role the cross played in the story of Jesus, another proclaimed ‘son of God’.
This imagery is striking but arguably serves little real purpose besides being attention-grabbing. It should be pointed out, however, that Nas probably did not view himself as the messiah when not on show, despite the image he clearly wanted to project.
Therefore, his use of religious symbolism, although not necessarily mythology itself, is employed to form a mythical idea of Nas. Likewise, most ‘gangsta’ rappers are not actually as violent as they might claim despite their lyrics, and everyone, whether a professional performer or not, is multifaceted.
Despite comparing himself to Christ on “The Cross”, such an equation may not be the meaning of the album’s title, which may instead be reference to Christ “finally getting his bride”, in Nas’ words, following Nas’ mother’s death.
That said, it does not render all other potential meanings of the title useless or unsuitable. They are still important, especially if some supposed meanings are not Nas’ intended meaning, since that would result in another powerful myth, this time concerning the title’s meaning.
God’s Son is arguably more commercial in sound and subject matter than Nas’ debut album from 1994, Illmatic, and some of the 2002 LP’s myths are harder to spot. One of the main lyrical themes of the album’s seventh song, the single “I Can”, is: “work hard at it” to “be where [you] wanna be”.
While how mythical that meritocratic idea is, can be disputed, something clearer from that song is that Nas seems to view women as differing significantly from men. One example illustrating this point is, “Ghetto children, do your thing/Hold your head up little man, you’re a king/Little princess, when you get your wedding ring, your man’ll sing “She’s my queen”.
There, Nas appears to see marriage as a woman’s greatest success or biggest motivator in life. This idea, whether Nas believes it or not, is definitely a pervasive myth about women which has affected many people’s view of their supposed collective role. Therefore, it is evident that, even when he probably tries to advance the truth straightforwardly, he actually misinforms, but that is almost certainly unintentional.
The most sexist material on the album, however, is present in one of the final parts of “The Cross”. It suggests that “Out of three women, two out of three will love you but lead you to their own hidden evil” (without saying something similar about men) before using even worse expressions to exaggerate the negative role played by women, another sadly important myth that does little to dispel the idea that rap is full of too many misogynists or those with a mindset not too far from it.
However, on other tracks, Nas speaks really highly of his mother who passed away less than a year before the album’s release, hence showing another perspective on women, one rarely seen in hip-hop. The song “Dance” is just one way in which Nas’ wears his emotions, irrational wishes and religious beliefs on his sonic sleeve in a move foreshadowing the rise of Kanye West’s rap career and those with similarly introspective personas on the microphone.
Emotion on wax was far from new, even amongst hip-hop artists, with one of the pioneers of a more sentimental style being 2Pac, the celebrated and idolized rapper whose vocals appear (posthumously) alongside Nas with J. Phoenix on “Thugz Mansion”. Tupac Shakur’s looming spectre is just one of the ways in which death hangs over even more ‘positive’ tracks, alongside the album title’s association with death and resurrection.
This focus on negative emotions and events that indirectly cause them, could be seen as a form of ‘keeping it real’ or at least projecting yourself as realer, even if it uses imagery that is arguably mythological to some. Nas’ use of religious imagery as well as his assertion of other beliefs in his lyrics could be seen as reflecting such beliefs’ (or similar beliefs’) powerful role as a true component of society for better or worse.
They are still part of reality even if their trueness depends only on the fact that its myths truly mould parts of society. Even though drunkenness makes a drunk person foolish, and Nas seems to acknowledge this, he also speaks on its dangerous power as a reality in spite of its distorting effects: “Sleep on my drunkenness [and] I’ll blow your brains out” he says.
“We [are] all in the grind but look at the beautiful s**t around you” says Nas on the album’s last song, “Heaven“. Thus, he appeals through his words to realism and a down-to-earth attitude as a positive force rather than a justification for grimness.
The liberating nature of discovering non-mythical realities and how many people succumb to damaging myths is also highlighted in the stories told in the album opener, “Get Down”. A common theme of the album is an attempt to shed light to help lead people away from apparent misconceptions. One great example of Nas doing this is “Making hits is easy”. Even though this is arguably also a myth, it is still interesting and contains at least some truth.
Yet another song meriting mention is “Mastermind“, which speaks on a mythical hero who “never” acts in an “irrational way” and “live[s] forever”. While these elements are interesting, the line “these tales are classical” arguably suggests that this ideal is not actually a reality but instead belongs in the era of Greek and Roman mythology.
However, this may not be the message which Nas wanted to convey, even though such male archetypes are arguably myths regardless of Nas’ artistic intention here.
On God’s Son, Nas touches on many realities, showing the listener a very broad conception of truth. It is larger, and in a way cleverer, than the ideas on Illmatic, even if the execution of such ideas is not as grand as Nas’ classic first full-length is artistically.
In fact, the range presented here is so wide that many – including, perhaps, Orwell, were he still alive – might dismiss much of it as being completely lacking in sense, truth or reality.
Given all the true myths uncovered in this article – which are, importantly, all still real in some ways – such a discussion would be fascinating. While Orwell was a champion of justice, fairness and truth, Nas is a figure more mythical than the title character from the novel The Great Gatsby.
But the emcee is also arguably more compelling, and even more realistic, than the recently published collection Orwell On Truth. Plus, he would destroy Orwell in a rap battle, hands down. Just make sure no-one brings up women’s equality if Nas is to surely win – although, of course, Nas’ present views may well differ significantly from those expressed implicitly in 2002.
Words by David J. Lownds