Hip-Hop: An Introduction (part one of an indeterminate amount)

I have felt compelled to speak on institutional racism, its relation to music and the way music is received for a while; this is not a blog on that. I have far more humble aims for this sporadic series-to-be. Hip-Hop in lieu of this vague concept of institutional racism (which I will address one day, I promise) has been culled from classrooms and is still consistently scoffed at on an intellectual, musical and creative level. Funnily enough, it is often disparaged by people who have only ever been privy to “what’s hot” (a common gripe of the oft hated ‘real music fan’) in Hip-Hop which OBVIOUSLY is not the be all and end all of the genre and culture. My aim in this series is to highlight, through the music, precisely why Hip-Hop should command your respect, attention and appreciation via key tenets of emcee or beatmaking (and producing) skill. I want this series to encourage people to become fans of the genre and bigger fans of music in general as a result.

To kick things off I am going to start by taking a glance at a gem of a track which is even slept on by the most ardent rap aficionados. The first hallowed tenet, tackled by Nas, is the age old art of storytelling which, ever since the Brit Slick Rick popularised it, has been a rite of passage for any respectable emcee. The song in question is “Undying Love” from Nas’ heavily bootlegged and thus severely weakened, third LP “I Am…The Autobiography”.  Aside from the stodgy, poorly sung hook this song is oddly overlooked in Nas’ catalogue. The tale is one (as you may have gleaned from the title) of almost Shakespearean love and deception.

The track is appropriately backed by solemn guitars and strings provided by mid 90s Hip-Hop staple L.E.S. which is more than functional in providing a cinematic backdrop for Nas to animate.

“Pacino life, G a roll, casino dice
at the Mirage, Vegas strip, neon lights
Gamblers, puffin cigars, couples and stars”

Immediately apparent is the Mafioso tone of proceedings (which was incredibly popular during 90s rap). Also apparent is that Nas does not skimp on detail, namedropping the Mirage, adding a layer of authenticity to the first scene in the tale. This is supplemented by the quick fashion in which the opening bars are delivered, providing a sense of the “fast life”. Nas, within this opening scene still ensures his bars are complex, assonance and internal rhymes already prevalent.

Once the scene has been set Nas provides a first look of his own personal mind-set, “telling my wife who I was dancing with like I was fuckin’”, this signals the transition into the tragedy. Although Nas is away on ‘business’ he manages to find time to call his wife during his heady Vegas trip (communicating where his heart really lay). He juxtaposes this immediately by communicating his mood via the setting of his return.

“flew back, Monday evening, from the bottom, where the sun was beaming”.

From here he chronicles a play by play approach to his home where wariness begins to creep in, initially taking the form of self-reassurance.

 “she must be inside and can’t hear
Probably upstairs, in the mirror, doin her hair”

The tension rises as Nas enters the home where he expertly ups the anxiety by describing the heart-wrenching nuances of the impending tragedy, touching on the “lipstick marks on like three empty coronas” and eventually stumbling on the betrayal itself, mid-flow. The first verse ends with Nas registering the events he witnessed after initially being “froze[n]” with disbelief. This (after the crappy hook) leads to Nas’ absolution.

Nas kicks off the second verse by quickly consorting with a friend communicating his intentions brutally and effectively.

“”Son you home early — they wiped you out that quick?”
I said, “Nah,” showed him the plastic with nine in the clip”

Nas then expounds on the depth of the betrayal, adding back story to his Vegas trip which reveals to the listener the depth of his former affection. He then delves into the deed of the last act which features an excellent double entendre (“say goodbye to your undercover friend”) before the whole situation then spirals out of control into a bloody car crash (that’s not a spoiler, just a metaphor).

Throughout the song Nas does not sacrifice technique in his storytelling but uses it as a device to alter the tale’s pace and purpose which is apparent from the opening, almost flashing images, to the confessional tone applied at the end of the second verse. In short, this song is an exhibition of the possibility that rap has to offer listeners, providing a form of communication that is neither purely musical or purely poetic, the nature of stricture of rhyme schemes lends a freedom in providing film (or TV) like quality to narration which is completely different in other genres of music. Hip-Hop lends itself to the conversational caper of which this song is one of many.