“When Israel was in Egypt’s land/Let My People Go/Oppressed so hard they could not stand/Let My People Go”
“Dwelling in the Rotten Apple, you get tackled or caught in the devil’s lasso.”
20 years ago, from the 40-Side of the Queensbridge Housing Projects, Nas graced the world with his seminal album Illmatic. At the time he wrote it, Nas was only a teenager, but he rapped with the experience of a seasoned street dweller. While Nas wanted to hold on to the “essence of adolescence,” the decay of Queensbridge wouldn’t allow him to remain a boy. The illusion of post-civil rights progress was so inflated that someone had to speak truth to the lie that all was well in black America. Nas took us in to see first hand the streets that claimed the life of his best friend Ill Will only 2 years prior, where the police disproportionately targeted African Americans, and the damage of the drug war plagued an entire community. Illmatic was the true story of life in the Rotten Apple, and much remains true today.
20 years later, the capstone of Rap’s golden era in slated for reissue in April. When reflecting on the album’s longevity and impact, Nas quoted the African proverb, “What’s past is prologue,” attributing much of his continued success to the Illmatic’s landmark status. It’s exactly this continuity with that past that distinguishes Illmatic, particularly its roots in the narratives of oppression found in Negro Spirituals. The spirituals were slave songs that both painted the brutality of the slave enterprise and showed the resiliency of the human spirit. Much like the Blues tradition, Nas brought that same pathos of grief and the fight for freedom to settle on black life in urban America. Like the spirituals and sorrow songs of old, Illmatic was the lament of a new generation.
“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child a long ways from home.”
“Life is parallel to hell, but I must maintain.”
One task of slavery was to completely dehumanize Africans by stripping them of all tribal ties and family connections. Husbands were separated from their wives. Children were ripped from the arms of their mothers. They were herded like cattle onto slave ships–with ironic names like Hope and Desire–to be bought and sold because they were viewed as commodities rather than human. This forced isolation caused many Africans who were formerly strangers to band together and create a new sense of community. Although barriers of language, religion and lifestyle existed, there was a universal longing for liberation expressed in songs that brought them together. These songs later became known as “Spirituals,” taken from the exhortation of Ephesians 5:19 to speak “in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” The sound of the spirituals used some of the rhythms and instrumentation of the authors’ African roots, while the content was an indigenous expression of hope from a people displaced in what seemed to be a God-forsaken new world. The Negro Spirituals emerged as a means to communicate, comfort, and fight for hope in the midst of such darkness. By song, the slaves were wringing from their present circumstances every last drop of truth and faith. The spirituals are fundamentally anthems of hope in God’s deliverance, but such beauty emerged from dark ashes. Disjointed Africans forged community from a common struggle. The spirituals and sorrow songs weren’t just the cries of their singular authors, but as Miles Fisher, author of Negro Slave Songs in the United States, calls them, “The aching, poignant cry of an entire people.”
Illmatic became the communal cry for those who were caught in the trap of the ghetto. It gave language to a people who were otherwise rendered anonymous. Illmatic was verbal therapy, an emotional decompression of the brutal circumstances facing those who were stuck in the trap of poverty and public housing. Before you even listen to Nas’ rhymes, the cover begins his story. On it you see the dense high-rises of The Bridge Projects where Nas called home. To take it all in you have to look through the eyes of Nas as a young boy, foretelling the albums first person report of life on the fringes of society where the worst of America is most vividly depicted. But Nas knew he was speaking for more than just himself. He raps “for listeners, blunt heads, fly ladies and prisoners.” AZ, the only feature artist Nas’ brought in on the project, says they’re “destined to live the dream for those who never made it.” The boldness to mourn together among the suffering community has long been a feature of black America’s music, and Nas wasn’t the first to do it with Hip Hop, but he was certainly one the best.
“And before I be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.”
“Life’s a b*tch, and then you die.”
The crushing weight of slavery bore so heavily upon the authors of the spirituals that they questioned whether God even heard their cries. Surely, God never felt further away than when a slave was raped by a master while the husband was rendered a powerless spectator. “Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel, deliver Daniel, deliver Daniel? And why not every man?” asks one spiritual. Those words are more than lyrics to a song. They’re a question hurled to the heavens asking God why He seems idle in the midst of suffering.
Nas went through a similar existential crisis. Circumstances were so grim in The Bridge that Nas felt much like a prisoner counting down the minutes until his release. He adopted an “eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” mentality. In his eyes it was hard to escape the entrapment of the ghetto so you might as well live it up while you can. A superficial listening of Illmatic may lead one to believe that it’s just another record filled with the stereotypical rap bravado that exalts drugs and money. But the album begins with the sound of the NYC subway barreling down it’s tracks, presumably making it’s way to the 21st Street-Queensbridge station, where all the Bridge residents would unload and make their way back to the squalor of the projects. It’s from that platform that you look and see that Nas’ rhymes about drugs and sex are more than just reckless youthfulness. They’re the cry of a young, black man searching for consolation to the struggles of life in Queens. Across ten tracks, Nas confronts doubt, identity, and conflict. Illmatic reminds us that the struggle is real, and the sorrow we experience from it doesn’t have to be hidden away.
The glaring difference, however, between the spirituals and Nas’ sentiments on Illmatic is that the spirituals cried for justice while Nas settled on the inevitability of suffering and hardship within the Queensbridge Projects. Slaves looked heavenward for the hope of liberation, but Nas felt alone among the suffering community, only finding hope within himself. In a moment of sorrowful transparency on the track “The World Is Yours,” he says, “Born alone, die alone, no crew to keep my crown or throne I’m deep by sound alone, caved inside, 1,000 miles from home.” In 2 bars he encapsulates the nihilistic ethos that existed throughout much of Hip Hop. There’s an unfortunate realism here. One that gives the album its raw authenticity while also keeping Nas from imagining an alternative for the Queens street dweller. He’s after the “come up” to rise above with his accumulation of wealth and record sales, but he never looks beyond himself to ask why things remain the way they do. For Nas was a forgone conclusion.
“There is a balm, in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul.”
“Won’t even run about god’s. I don’t believe in none of that sh*t, your facts are backwards.”
But the authors of the spirituals were able to see something Nas never could. Their lament was more than just a step into the darkness–it was a calling for the light to account for it’s absence. Their unbearable pain was the impetus to search for God and to demand justice from Him. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote,
Through all of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope–a faith in the ultimate justice of things. The minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and calm confidence. Sometimes it is faith in life, sometimes a faith in death, sometimes assurance of boundless justice in some fair world beyond. But whichever it is, the meaning is always clear: that sometime, somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins.
Lamenting is paradoxical in this way: it demands honesty or else it’s not real. You confront God with doubt and blame. You weep. You mourn. Yet tucked behind your tears remains a hope that He still hears you, and that He’s still good. He provides a peace that surpasses understanding. Sometimes that peace comes through deliverance, when God defeats your enemies and brings you into a land of promise. Sometimes it comes in knowing that although you suffer now, you never suffer alone. Jesus’ cries on the cross echo in your heart.
For the authors of the Negro Spirituals, Christianity was more than just the naive acceptance of a set of religious beliefs force fed by their masters. After all, most of what they knew of Christianity was a giant contradiction. There were chaplains on slave ships. They were beaten by Christian plantation owners just before they journeyed off to church. Christianity was even used to validate the institution of slavery in America. Instead, the spirituals are songs that emerged from an encounter with a personal Christ, a savior well acquainted with such suffering who offered the promise of freedom in Himself. David Goatley, author of Were You There? Godforsakenness in Slave Religion, says, “The God of these spirituals was no abstraction, but a Being who took an interest in the lowly slave and interceded on his behalf.”
If the past of Illmatic is really to serve as the prologue to Nas’ present life, you have to wonder what he finds his hope in now. He’s accomplished all of the fame and success he yearned for on the album, but even in ’94 when the album first dropped, Nas whispered of a day when eventually momentary satisfaction will fade away. In his first line of “Life’s a B*tch,” he asks, “I’m saying, that’s what it’s all about, right? Clothes, bankrolls and hoes, you know what I’m saying. Yo, then what, man? What?” Maybe he’s finally arrived at the “what” and can see that the world needs more than a come up to make its way out of this peril. It needs redemption. The spirituals were able to tap into a reservoir of hope embedded deep within the human soul because they had the courage to wrestle with God in the “what” until he made good on His promise. May we have the courage to do the same.