how Nas invented epistolary rap – and changed the hyper-masculine world of hip hop forever

how Nas invented epistolary rap – and changed the hyper-masculine world of hip hop forever

In 1999, during the opening verse to Hate Me Now, Nas positioned himself as the “most critically acclaimed, Pulitzer prize” winning “thug narrator” of his generation. At the time, these lines were seen as just another gem in a long line of highly sophisticated, literary Nas lyrics.

But flash forward almost two decades to 2018, and this once seemingly unfathomable accolade for an artist of the rap genre became a reality for fellow rapper and musical pioneer Kendrick Lamar. In many ways a verbal successor to Nas, Lamar controversially won an actual Pulitzer prize for music. Lamar had picked up the mantle of Nas’s approach to using innovative literary devices in his lyrics.

Like Lamar, Nas is as highly esteemed in the street as he is in academic circles. Rappers and hip hop scholars alike often note the educational, social and political impact of Nas’s work as a contemporary urban storyteller, black public intellectual and cultural spokesperson.

But less is said about his use of literature, and literary techniques to open up avenues of discussion on communal and individual forms of trauma and vulnerability. Nas’s use of these techniques have paved the way for generations of his fellow rap peers to express themselves – often with brutal honesty – for cathartic purposes.

As his nihilistic and visionary “reality storybook” album, Illmatic, turns 30, I ask: who has done more to open doors to self-expression in the hyper-masculine world of rap than Nasir Jones?

One Love breaks new ground

Perhaps this is most clearly demonstrated at the inception of Nas’s career. The Illmatic track One Love (1994) introduced the “epistolary narrative”, or written letter technique, to the rap genre. This literary device had been previously employed by African American creative writing giant Alice Walker for her novel The Color Purple, a book Nas has referred to several times throughout his career.

As journalist, educator and author Dax-Devlon Ross explains, One Love contains “a series of prison letters set to song”, which “effectively began the epistolary sub-genre” of rap.

The music video for One Love by Nas.

This rapidly led to a ripple effect on the technique’s use by rap’s upper echelons. Notable advocates of the technique include one-time rival of Nas, Tupac Shakur, releasing Dear Mama a year after One Love. Jay-Z (another one-time rival) also used the form in Do U Wanna Ride (2006), his own tribute to an imprisoned comrade.

But as critics have gone on to highlight, One Love is deeply personal. It articulates the wide spread forms of trauma in black communities in the US, which at the time was undeniably groundbreaking.

Writing in Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas’s Illmatic, professor of African American Studies Sohail Daulatzai notes how One Love tapped directly into the “carceral imagination” of young American black males at time of its release. This concept relates to a communal way of thinking overwhelmed by the looming prospect of imprisonment that is still relevant today.

While chances of incarceration for black people have dropped post millennia, modern statistics still point to a one in five chance of incarceration for African Americans born after 2001.

Illmatic’s legacy

The overwhelmingly personal and vulnerable nature of songs from Illmatic such as One Love enabled many rap artists to foster a new set of literary tools in their own attempts at illustrating often comparable experiences.

Take West Coast MC Xzibit’s The Foundation (1996) for example. Released two years after One Love, Xzibit utilised rap’s newly established epistolary sub-genre to pen an emotive open letter to his young son. The Foundation addresses themes prevalent in the male African American experience, such as lineage, loyalty, masculinity and the paternal bond.

Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst carries Nas’s mantle.

In recent times, artists are still using the song letter, penning songs such as Kendrick Lamar’s Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst (2012) to elucidate important societal issues in black America.

In the track, Lamar incorporates elements of the epistolary technique to channel the personas of several different characters, in order to capture a range of social and psychological issues relating to his nation.

Nas today

In recent years, Nas has reached a purple patch of creativity, and released a flourish of well received albums, including both the King’s Disease (2020) and the Magic series. This new artistic surge towards the latter stages of his career has again benefited his peers, providing hope for artists over 40 that rap is still a legitimate art form they can engage with.

Considering his achievements, I’ve often wondered at Nas’s lack of canonical status as poet of the modern ages. Is this mainly due to a long-term hierarchy that has stigmatised rap as less valuable than literature? Or, is this more related to Nas’s own humility? When brought into the running of “top five dead or alive” rap debates, Nas is often quick to deflect from comparison, stating that there “ain’t no best”.

Rap can be a force for healing, and a balm for both collective and individual trauma. As Nas said himself in 2022: “I probably don’t need a therapist because I have music.” It’s hard to think of another rapper of his generation who has opened up so many doors for the artform.

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