Politics that Matter in Nas’s "Illmatic"
Keywords:Nas, Illmatic, Hip hop, Materiality, Urban ecology
This essay focusses on a single, seminal piece of American hip-hop music: Nas’s Illmatic. Taking prompts from ANT and new materialism, and from Bruno Latour more specifically, I argue that Illmatic can and should be read as an exploration of the specific urban ecology from which it originated. This ecology is one of the urban landscape of New York’s housing projects as much as of the social practices of their inhabitants. At the same time, it is a concrete articulation, to borrow Latour’s famous phrase, of the racist policies that those who planned and oversaw its construction aimed to enforce. Though Nas’s music is often thought of as not as explicitly political as that of Public Enemy or KRS-One, a reading of it in this context reveals that it has no less political potential. Throughout the album, there is a detailed and complex engagement with the housing projects and how they contain and modify the possible mental landscapes of those who inhabit them. Incarceration, a central question for both Nas and Black America, must then be thought of as something that is not limited to the milieu of the prison. Instead, it is the prevailing condition in the urban ecologies of the housing projects. This imprisonment Nas understands in two ways: materially and mentally, working on bodies and working on minds. The very possibilities of thought are limited and formed by the ecologies of concrete that they take place in. Ultimately, through a close and careful reading of Illmatic, it becomes clear that the oppression of African Americans is not simply a social one: it is material. The housing projects themselves are an attempt to construct an urban environment that constrains thought, to make impossible the imagination of an alternative.
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