Nas - One Mic (2001)
I'll admit, my history with Nas isn't the most enlightened and tasteful. I heard nothing from his brilliant 1994 debut album Illmatic for the first six years after its release, then I didn't think much of it when a pair of alternachick friends played it for me at my megadrunk, college-town going-away party. Yet I did buy a used copy of the clean version of Nas' poppier 1996 follow-up It Was Written. Because of the huge fucking hit "If I Ruled the World" and the lesser fucking hit "Street Dreams." Listened to that album a handful of times, shelved it and didn't give Nas a fair chance until, oh, last summer.
Enter iTunes. Given a state of the art Mac laptop, a few idle nights on the Internet and a credit card with a few grand left on it, I went on a ridiculous song-shopping spree and garnered myself all kinds of new music for consideration. Among the binge, a half-dozen tracks spanning the Nas catalogue, and my favorite quickly became "One Mic," a haunting, mid-tempo, introspective rebuke of financial obsession and call to violent revolution.
Enter TiVo and the VH1 Soul channel. I taped a four-hour block of videos several months ago and have surfed through its contents at least a dozen times since. There are eight to ten gems buried among the filler, but the main reason I never deleted the VH1 Soul block was director Chris Robinson's video for "One Mic." Which completely nails the spirit and lyrical progression of the song, getting quiet when it needs to be quiet and manic when it needs to be manic and ultimately restaging the mid-'70s Soweto student riot in South Africa.
Music video trivia factoid - the Soweto scenes in "One Mic" were not actually filmed in Africa, as was widely believed at the time. As a 2002 pre-Video Music Awards fluff piece on MTV.com reveals, Robinson and Nas were restricted by immediate post-9/11 security concerns and the rapper's promotion schedule and ended up staging the Soweto uprising in Los Angeles. But the attention to detail in the costumes and shantytown buildings could fool even the most ardent African Studies major at the liberal arts college of your choice.
Nas spends most of the video sullenly rapping the lyrics from a chair in a yellow/green-tinted desolate room lit with a single naked bulb whose color bleeds down into the frame - pulsating with the song's beat thanks to Robinson's instruction that the cameraman open and close the shutter in time with the snare drum. On the streets of an American ghetto, we see the police pull over and harass a group of young black folks for no apparent reason - the brothers run, the cops shoot, the population reacts, the tension rises. That's the first verse.
Contrast this with the second verse, the Soweto sequence, in which a street activist riles up the populace of the shantytown while military riot police close in. Rocks are thrown and sticks are swung while Nas wanders among the chaos in a white T-shirt depicting every revolutionary you could imagine.
Then, in the third verse, the only one to start loud and get quieter as it progresses (the others start soft and progessively build), we see the people who make up Nas' army. There are young girls studying in their bedrooms while wearing headphones and lip synching the song's lyrics. There are buff, cagey motherfuckers in prison cells. There are gang bangers who want a way out of the lifestyle. These are the people Nas wants to have grab up guns and fight for their rights and be prepared to "die with nines out." Or, in the radio version, "fly with mindpower."
MTV - for all its tolerance of pimping, promiscuity and mass-alcohol consumption - isn't about to let anyone advocate taking up a gun and taking back the power. Still, quizzically, Nas' lyric forbidding mothers-to-be to abort their babies because he wants more warriors is left intact. The message is out, and the results from fans are in: "Aye aye, Nas, no more safe sex. The condoms are hereby flushed. You hear that, baby? Nas wants me to come inside you, for the good of the people. Sounds like fun."
"One Mic" is one of the most extensively rewritten rap songs I've ever come across, when you compare the PG lyrics in the video with the R-rated ones from the album track. And, fuck, call me old-fashioned, but I like the resonance and thoughtfulness of the clean version better than the original. Here's an example:
VERSION A (R-RATED):
"Writin names on my hollow tips, plottin shit /
Mad violence who I'm gon' body, this hood politics /
Ackowledge it, leave bodies chopped in garbages."
VERSION B (PG-RATED):
"See my name in the hieroglyphs /
Like Osiris and Isis, parables are written, it's not papyrus /
Acknowledge it, we been long tricked, time to come out of it."
The focus is off the means to the end and more on historical parallels in the rewrite, but the theme is the same. Nas wants to arm his people, look to the wisdom of the past for inspiration and exact justice for the centuries of wrong-doing from one people to another. Rewrites only go so far - when the song's ultimate moment of truth comes along, MTV chops the words into an unsolved "Wheel of Fortune" puzzle. The words in brackets in the following passage completely disappear:
"I let the [shit] slide for too many years, too many times
Now I'm [strapped] with a couple of [macs], too many [nines]
If y'all brothaz really wit me, get busy, [load up the semis]
Do more than just hold it, [explode the clip] until you empty
There's nothin' in our way - [they bust, we bust], they rust, we rust."
And remember, Nas is committed to this premise - he doesn't care about bling or economic status. All he needs is one mic, one pen, one girl, one gun, one blunt, one bottle of Bicardi 151 and one God to teach him how to be like Jesus. (GOD: Well, Nas, for starters, Jesus didn't carry guns or drink 151 or sample Sting ballads from the Ten Summoner's Tales album. Work on those, and I'll show you how to cast demons into a pig. It's a cool trick.)
It took a decade for me to admit this, but Nas, you're a fucking genius. I'll even understand if you don't spare me when the revolution comes.