#NowReading: Born To Use Mics–Reading Nas’ Illmatic

Written By: Michael Eric Dyson

(Via Daily Mathematics):

Released in the twilight of rap’s golden era, Illmatic is widely considered to be the greatest hip hop album of all time and is frequently held as the yardstick by which all other contenders are measured. Illmatic was also one of the most anticipated albums, dropping three years after Nas’s breakout introduction on “Live at the Barbeque” and subsequent tracks (“Halftime” from the Zebrahead soundtrack and “Back to the Grill” off MC Serch’s solo debut). During this period of eager hope, Nasir bin Olu Dara earned praise as the second coming of Rakim, with bits of Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane, Q-Tip, Chuck D and Slick Rick notably embedded in his style. Before he even dropped his album, Nas – a teenager at the time – was viewed as a hip hop prophet. At twenty years of age, Nas released Illmatic, epitomizing the expression “show and prove.” Over fifteen years after its release, Illmatic continues to engulf fervent discussions in contemporary rap circles. Borrowing its title from a line in “N.Y. State of Mind”, Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas’s Illmatic is the first in a series of anthologies centered on classic rap records.

A literary scrapbook of sorts, Born to Use Mics observes Illmatic through a panoramic lens, with a roster of talented writers taking an all-encompassing snapshot of the making and meaning behind Nas’s ’94 opus. Various broad-reaching topics are pulled from lyrical portions throughout the album. For instance, author James Braxton Peterson uniquely dissects “The World Is Yours”; drawing upon the song’s Scarface reference, Braxton assesses the analogous term “dead presidents”, describes the crack epidemic and critiques American hyper-capitalism. Similarly, Sohail Daulatzai – who is also co-editor of the book – interprets “N.Y. State of Mind” in the “post-9/11 world”, discussing American imperialism. Daulatzai points out in the introduction: “While Born to Use Mics is about exploring hip-hop through Illmatic, it’s also about exploring America through Illmatic, reflected and refracted through the prism of Nas’s poignant street poetry.”

Many of the authors’ perspectives on the album feature a political tinge, some more well-fitting than others. Discussing “One Love”, for example, Michael Eric Dyson’s criticism of America’s prison industry paired with an honest narrative of his brother’s incarceration comes across as both poignant and appropriate. On the other hand, Kyra Gaunt’s entry on “One Time 4 Your Mind” which examines gender identity and conflict, while valuable, draws more from Nas’s “I Can” music video than anything else. Consequently, her feminist dissertation – while relevant to “Nas” as an overarching topic – has nothing to do with the song it’s meant to discuss and feels more than a bit out of place.

As an anthology on the same subject with contributions from various writers, repetition isn’t uncommon. The advantage of a book like Matthew Gasteier’s Illmatic entry in the 33 1/3 book series is the singular flow of one author covering the album. Many of the contributors to Born to Use Mics rehash the same ideas frequently. For instance, Nas’s jazz-based influence from his father, Olu Dara, is commonly and repeatedly cited. At the same token, Born to Use Mics benefits from a wealth of diverse perspectives. Reading Nas’s Illmatic, with its symposium format, earns its title appropriately as each essay reflects upon the album’s impact on the writer’s life. Analyzing the lyrics of “Life’s a Bitch”, for instance, Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr.’s essay on father/son relationships titled “Time is Illmatic: A Song for My Father, A Letter to My Son” offers a true-to-form presentation of Nas’s work that’s as universal as it is personal.

Of course Born to Use Mics digs deep into the music itself as well. Marc Lamont Hill recounts the historically contextual release of “Halftime”, Nas’s debut single. Mark Anthony Neal, in his essay on “Memory Lane”, discusses the intergenerational “bridging of the gap” between jazz and hip hop. Adilifu Nama pens a thorough discussion on the 1:45-long intro “Genesis” (interestingly enough, the last track recorded for Illmatic), focusing on its cryptically-revealing dialogue and the significance of its Wild Style influence. In addition to the song-by-song essays on the album’s track listing though, Born to Use Mics also features a hodgepodge of interviews, narratives and magazine write-ups – including The Source’s notorious 5 Mic review on Illmatic, written by Shortie (you might know her as Miss Info). The book closes out with an interview with Bobbito Garcia offering first-person accounts you’ll only find here.

Bottom line: Folks who love Illmatic will want to pick up a copy of Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas’s Illmatic to gain an even greater appreciation for Nas’s artistry – a brilliant companion to a brilliant album. And to the others who just don’t get it, you’ll need to pick this up in order to understand why you’re dead wrong. Because really, it ain’t hard to tell.




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