Nas- The World is Yours: The Beauty of The Sample in the Context of Hip Hop [Single Review]
When I (and many other people) said that Kendrick is the ‘Man of the Moment’, I have to add that Nas would have to be, at the very least, one of the founders. He stands next to Biggie and Tupac Shakur as one of the most influential rappers of the 90s.
Why I want to take a step back (oh my days.. more like a leap…I’m getting old) 22 years to 1994, is because I want to look at how Hip Hop music (note that I mention the music, and not the actual rapping itself) is constructed and composed primarily using samples of other music. There are primary reasons for this, some of them could be the financial ease of using other music, rather than hiring session musicians and recording new original tracks. There are more creative reasons for using samples, which I feel are just as, or even more important than the money. The idea of sampling can be based on the idea that you can take someone else’s work, and add your own interpretation or meaning to it, which is there the rapping itself comes in over the top.
Back in 2014, I got the amazing opportunity to see the world premiere of a documentary “The Hip Hop Fellow” which provides a pure academic perspective on the construction of hip hop songs. In a nutshell, sampling gives us a chance to re-tell and re-contextualise the stories and the music that people have written in the past. An overlooked point the documentary touches upon is how this has the power of appealing not only to the younger generations listening to the new music, but their parents listening to the old samples. When talking about this song inparticular, Nas was revolutionary in tying jazz and hip hop together to allow the kids and their parents to listen together at home, and both find something they enjoy about the song.
The song itself is built on a sample of the Ahmad Jamal Trio’s ‘I Love Music’, a song by one of the most prolific small.group jazz pianists of all time. In my youth, I always used to say that rap music was ‘always about the problems’. I am happy to say I no longer generalise like that, there is a lot of frustration you can hear in the music, but it gets so much deeper than that. It’s not just complaining, it’s a genuine narrative of life, and some lives just aren’t fair. The song discusses the essence of struggle. It starts right off with a reference to one of the strongest figures to face adversity, Ghandi. Nas creates a sense of optimism, or a desire to succeed out of this. But it’s contrasted with another lyrical aspect, found in the hook ‘The world is yours’, a quote from none other than Tony Montana, the main antagonist of the iconic film Scarface.
The contrast comes from the fact that success in the face of adversity, does not come without struggle, and it’s not always bright and shiny. We all know that Montana didn’t get to the top in the most legal of ways, and his fall from grace was less than ideal. The contextualisation of these words in the song, on a shallower level, can stem from the fact that a lot of rappers tend to ‘own the world’ at some point in their career. This plays into the meaning of the song, as well as another set of lyrics regarding the ‘rotten apple’ which I take as a reference to New York City’s nickname. This song shows the signs of critiquing the ‘American Dream’. The dark and dirty truth is that success comes with struggle. We struggle to get to the top, and not only that. We struggle amongst ourselves.
I want to add in a quick discussion of the music video, which adds meaning and power to the song. There is one image that speaks out to me clearer than day. And that isn’t the globe spinning, the images of wealth, or even the kids in poverty. Its the picture frame of a black sailor (most likely a dead father, or relative) sitting on top of the T.V. set the child is watching. I’m hit with the image of loss, and the irony of a military ‘mugshot’ as a final (fake) snapshot of how we want to remember our lost loved ones, with ‘honour’ and ‘glory’ rather than lying bloodied and weak, dying in vain for people who couldn’t care less.
The idea that ‘the world is [ours]’ carries with it the weight of deciding not only our own futures, but the futures of all the people in this world. There are some powerful images of people, from all races and walks of life in this picture. They, as well as we, all go about our own personal struggles in life, but when we come together, much in the way that Nas brings generations together through two generations of music, we can beat the struggle.
Some people have the tendency to bash sampling as ‘composing made easy’ or even going as far as saying that it’s not really composing, because it’s ‘stealing other people’s work’. I think those people really need to look at the music from a different perspective. We need to see it for the deeper meaning. Things are done for a reason, and there is a reason that this song is considered to be one of the greatest rap songs ever produced.
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