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)