"Dedicated To The Winners & The Losers..." - Raekwon


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Importance Of Being Escobar: The Role Of Persona, Studio Gangsterism and Reality In Hip Hop

You don't really believe these rappers, do you?

"The shit is real." - Hip Hop, traditional.


There is no bigger fallacy than when a rapper tells you he's "real." He's not "real." Chances are that super thug who claims he sold more white product than Dairy farmers has a master's degree in comparative literature and is simply lying to your face about his glorious tales of his criminal past. I hate to be that punk-snitch kid that told you at recess that "Santa Claus wasn't real but your favorite rapper is most certainly not Superfly, The Mack, Frank Lucas or Cyrus from "The Warriors" . Your favorite rapper is really just Malik Jackson from Brooklyn, music, art student and actor, and you know what? That's actually kind of awesome.

"Reality" as defined by hip hop law is a loose (if not an outright fantasy) approximation of the truth based on a rapper's actual life experiences, the experiences of their communities and the depiction of their world in the media. Rap reality is like margarine. It sort of tastes like the real thing and you make actually prefer it (and it sure as hell spreads easier on a bagel) but it is decidedly not butter irregardless of what Fabio and his glorious flowing locks of hair might tell you. It's simply not the real truth of the lives for 99.9% of rappers. When gangster and hardcore rap was first conceived in the minds of a few like-minded individuals across the inner cities of America, it was primarily the creation of somewhat middle class "art school" kids who grew up near or around the 'hood but were not necessarily affiliated with the gang life they were writing their songs about. For example, Ice Cube was an architecture student enrolled at a college in Phoenix and Dr. Dre earned a scholarship to study mechanical drawing. They crafted songs depicting things that happened to their friends and family around their neighborhood but in a sense, they themselves were able to escape the fate that trapped many of their peers because of their talent and intelligence. They were witnesses to the destruction of the inner cities by the crack trade and the gang life that was birthed by it but they weren't participants.

However, what made early gangster rappers different from their peers was that they made a brilliant intuitive leap in their art that made the burgeoning art form of rap music far more powerful and palpable. Instead of telling inner city stories of gang and criminal life from the point-of-view of an omniscient third person narrator as Melle Mel did, rappers began crafting elaborate and mostly fictional personas for themselves and started rapping from the first person. Thus, the studio gangster was born and rap has become a much richer art form because of it. All hail the Studio Gangster! Bask in his glory!

Perhaps, unlike any other art form before it. Hip hop has done more to blur the lines between reality of an artist's life and the persona he creates in his or her art. Rappers play fast and loose with their personas that help them create dark and immediate pieces of art that not only speak to the actual realities of modern day urban life but the darker parts of soul. Brad Jordan (Scarface) in his early work with the Geto Boys and on his brilliant solo debut, Mr. Scarface Is Back, created a murderous possibly deeply disturbed schizophrenic gangster who challenges our notion of morality. On songs like "Good Girl Gone Bad," can we truly condemn Scarface for his actions even when he does something as heinous as cynically adopt the son of a man he murders when there is a strong chance that Scarface isn't truly evil but simply deeply and truly clinically insane and thus not responsible for his actions? That's some dark and deep shit. Critics of violence and sex in rap music rarely acknowledge the literary merits of rapper's music and the role of the fictional persona choosing instead to simplify and associate the fictional persona that rappers' create for themselves with the reality of their lives. It's hard to believe that Snoop Dogg is a gun-toting violent gangster when he is coaching his kids football team.

However, there has been one persona in rap music that despite the general consensus of brilliance and canonization of his creator has been unfairly maligned over the years since the character's debut on misunderstood but criminally underrated album, It Was Written in 1996: Nas Escobar, the red-headed step cousin of Nasty Nas, himself. For the five of you that don't know... in the year of our lord, 1994, Nasir Ben Olu Dara Jones gave to the people of Earth his debut album in the slums of the Queensbridge Project, the Holy Bible of Hip Hop itself, Illmatic. The album was instantly hailed by critics and hip hop fans alike for it's undeniable lyrical brilliance and Nas was soon crowned the Poet Laureate Of Hip Hop.
What makes Illmatic so special is that it feels like a true slice-of-life portrayal of a young artist living in the slums of New York. We feel over the brilliant ten records on the album that we get to know Nas as a confused but brilliant young artist trapped between the allure of the street life and the hope of a dream that he'll make it of the notoriously violent projects by the only way he knows how...rapping. No other piece of art in hip hop has been able to capture better what it means to to be young, black and gifted in the projects as Illmatic does. We feel that we get to know the real Nas at the end of the record which helps to understand the befuddlement so many people had when Nas returned in 1996 adorned in a pink suit not as Nasty Nas the Rebel to America but as Nas Escobar, black mafioso.

It's important to remember that, in '96, mafioso rap had taken off due in large part to Raekwon's success with Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and Biggie's chart dominance after Ready To Die. Those artists had created memorable narratives based on their supposed gangster past and the population was eating up their large than life characters. Nas felt that he had to compete with these bombastic portrayals of gangsterdom and thus Nas Escobar was born. The Escobar character was a radical depature from the way many hip hop fans had been introduced to Nas and many of Nas' original fans felt that he was selling out because of it. Where Nasty Nas was quiet and subdued, Escobar was flashy and violent often dressed in loud, expensive suits and smoking a large cigar. The image didn't seem to necessarily gel with the image that Nas had portrayed and perhaps because of this a lot of people found It Was Written to be very disappointing.

Time has been kinder to It Was Written and it's generally accepted these days to be a damn good album but still people mock Nas for attempting to go "gangsta" with the Escobar character and failing to an extent. However, I think if we dig deeper into the work of Nas we'll find the Escobar experiment to not be that far from the music that he's created. Nas is one of the few mainstream rappers that experiments with the notion of concept and persona. Over the years, Nas has made numerous songs (both successful and unsuccessful) that experiment with a traditional notion of narrative. His most brilliant and famous example, "I Gave You Power," uses the device of Nas' speaking from the perspective of a gun. On a song that could have wallowed in cliche', Nas brings pathos and personality to the gun who itself grows tired of the endless violence that he is a part of. The song becomes a metaphor for the cylce of violence as the gun believes that he is going to escape the drug trade but is instead dragged right back into the thick of violence. It's powerful stuff. Nas has many other examples where he experiments with narrative and persona as when he raps from a female perspective going as far to distort his voice on "Sekou Story" and "Live Now", as well as telling a story backwards on "Rewind" and from the perspective of an unborn child on "Fetus." In this concept, Nas portraying himself as a drug lord doesn't seem that out of character. Over the course of his storied career, Nas has continued to remain an enigma and in part because he keeps changing and experimenting with his persona.

Ultimately, what critics of rap fail to understand is that it should be treated as fiction. While, it often maintains a first person voice in the music, gangster rap is ultimately on the same literary plane as film, television and literature. It may shock and offend you but Notorious B.I.G. is no less an artist than Mario Puzo. Biggie just happens to rap even if he wants you to believe that he's a hustler. Now if we only get rappers to stop believing their own damn hype. Fuckin' studio gangsters...


Nas' - Street Dreams from "It Was Written" (1996)

19 comments:

Trey Stone said...

I Am... > IWW. just saying.

as far as the whole gist of this article...i'd like to agree with it, and the thing is you're basically right, but the problem i see is that most rappers today make a point of claiming they really did this stuff. with the older guys you're talking about, i think there's a difference -- Dre's disavowed his "thug" status, Nas's said he never sold coke, Jay's addressed the whole "keep it real" shenanigans in "Ignorant Shit," etc. etc. but with dudes like Jeezy, Clipse, 50, T.I., and even a more left-of-center rapper like Wayne they seem to be obsessed with being perceived as "authentic" (i'm thinking mostly the first three here.) i think that's why the whole "it's just entertainment" movie comparison used by dudes like Jay and 50 is weak, because people know that movies are fiction, whereas some of the kids listening to this stuff probably take it way more seriously than they should.

Renato Pagnani said...

Trey,

There is no way that I Am... is better than It Was Written, and that's conceding that there are some legitimately great songs on I Am....

Passion of the Weiss said...

I always thought It was Written was unfairly maligned. I still think Illmatic is the better record, but I often find myself wanting to hear It Was Written when I want to hear a Nas record.

However much Nas shouldn't have been made fun of for the Esco character circa It Was Written, he certainly should have been mocked for the Esco on the Firm album. Time has not been kind to that one. Not even getting touching the Nastradamus phase.

Trey Stone said...

well renato, i mean one of my favorite songs on IWW is the Dr. Dre-produced joint everyone seems to hate. so i'm probably just crazy.

I Am... would be good all the way through if he had replaced the two stretches of bullshyte. "Favor for a Favor" through "Ghetto Prisoners" and "Big Things" through that song that sounds like "P.I.M.P." to be precise.

Jesus Shuttlesworth said...

i have a question: why is it OK that Raekwon goes from smoking cracks and weed to cristal and beef with Colombians while nas gets a lot of shit? i think it has a bit less to do with just what he's saying on the album, since he is near the same level of rapping as illmatic. i was a bit too young to have arguments with people about this, but i think production by the trackmasters did not help his case for making the shift. rae had the rzarrector in his corner, setting a a very grimy mood, giving the sense that while rae is doing all these high profile things, he's still "in these streets." nas, meanwhile, samples sting, and people call him a jackass. and did no one have a problem with "eye for an eye" or "verbal intercourse?" Esco was born on that album and the infamous.

DocZeus said...

Jesus-

That's a very good point about the Trackmasters. I never knew why those guys were so universally hated but they seemed to cause seizures in '90s hip hop fans. I've always been kind of neutral on them. Sure, they were definitely poppier than their counterparts but it's hard to deny how dope "If I Ruled The World" is.

It's Nas' best single outside of "Made You Look."

padraig said...

the transition from self-admitted "studio" gangster mindset to the current obsession with street credibility reminds me a lot of black metal, the gangster rap of white guitar music (minus the accessibility or widespread impact, of course). Venom, the first "black metal" band, were basically Motorhead plus a bunch of references to Satan and Countess Bathory, total shock rock in the Screamin' Jay Hawkins tradition. They didn't take any of it seriously - but a bunch of Scandanavian kids who weren't in on the joke did, very much so, and 10 years later dudes were burning down churches and killing each other (obviously that narrative leaves out a lot of details).

What I'm saying in comparison to gangster rap is that the orginal artists knew exactly what they were doing - mixing fiction and truth to create art - but the hordes of kids who grew up listening to them didn't pick up on that finely tuned mix of reality and fantasy. Consequently an entire faux-gangster culture sprang up, separate from the actual drug dealers and gangsters, even if there's some overlap. That's one of the reasons, aside from the endless parsing of tired cliches, I find a lot of gangsta rap after the mid-90s to be unlistenable - the element of black humor of The Geto Boys and/or duality of stuff like Ready to Die or It Was Written are noticeably missing and we're left with, at best, smart dudes like the Clipse trying to find the 1,000,000th way to talk about pyrex and triple beams.

Sorry, I realize this comment has almost nothing to do with Nas - it's just something I thought of while reading your post.

Jesus Shuttlesworth said...

doc-

i agree with you on both points. i can enjoy their beats from time to time, but when they do almost all of "big willie style," or "jigga that nigga," i can totally understand why rap fans hate them. they can set a real lame mood when they want to.

Trey Stone said...

yeah, padraig said kinda what i was getting at, 'cept a lot more articulately.

our difference being that i enjoy my share of newer thug/coke rap that sounds great sonically but can be argued has no redeeming social value. hypocritical? maybe.

Trey Stone said...

as for the Trackmasters, i read 'em described as "second-rate Hitmen" before, which i'd call accurate. i like my share of their beats -- yeah, including "Jigga That Nigga" -- but i wouldn't consider them A-list producers. don't know anything i've heard from 'em that i'd call really unique or innovative

txcaddyking said...

Very good read.

I like Nas regardless of his persona. I have not heard all of his albums, but for the ones I have, they are enjoyable. I like the fact that he shows different emotions and is not just telling me how much better his life is than mine because he doesn't care about anyone else. One song will make me want to nod my head, the other may have me calling my mom to tell her I love her.

Ass Hat said...

sorry, doczeus, but cyrus from 'the wariors' IS my favourite rapper.

good read, that excepted, though i still reckon nas hasn't made an end-to-end decent album since illmatic. production is one reason, but his weakness for a gimmick - studio gangster or alex haley-esque seer or whatever - always seems to impede.

the brilliance of illmatic is that there WAS no gimmick - it still sounds relevant because nas wasn't relying on any traditional modes, or tapping into any current trends - just rapping.

Amphibian said...

I thought Hip-Hop is Dead was Nas's second best album. That thing had some serious fire to it.

I recall hearing some commercial on the TV in the next room and shouting "THAT'S CHRISETTE MICHELE, YO!"

I think the slow loss of humor in gangsta rap really kicked in when "authenticity" became an advertising monolith in the late '90s. Every shitty and half-way decent product sought to present itself as authentic and thus more worthy of the hard-earned dollars of the American consumer.

Look at Google with its lack of ads on the main page. Look at Dark Side of the Moon still selling albums with zero advertising. Look at Reasonable Doubt going platinum six years later.

sizzle88 said...

doc, this is a great post. probably the best i've read on here. one minor quibble is that i don't really think ready to die can be categorized as mafioso rap. biggie definitely adopted that style, but i don't really see where it can be found on ready to die. and i'd say without a doubt in my mind that biggie is in fact a better artist than mario puzo.

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