I have always been interested in how we as listeners engage with music. I’ve realised, as of late, that the actual process of listening is something that can be messed with. Rather than just listening passively, the process of going out and schooling ourselves about the background of an artist, and actively reaching an understanding of the relative spaces and places that influence an album can be critical, crucial, and absolutely essential to interpreting the art work.
Our understanding of albums as works of art is not necessarily limited; there is an infinite array of meanings and readings in these works. Now it’s obvious for most people that listening to an album or a song is just a passive process, and people are always asking me why we can’t just play shit without having to make a big deal out of it. I’ll admit, I was the same. But more and more, there came instances where I would be listening to a track and it would just hit me; something weird was going on. The music resonated with something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. These moments became more frequent and lead me to really scrutinize what was going on. I realised that these were, (apologies in advance for this weird tangent I am about to go on), moments of divine spiritual communion between me and the dude (or female) on the ‘other’ end of the song. There comes points in the music where I am just so overcome with emotion, but I don’t know what that feeling is, let alone where it derives from. I just feel what is being said; there are these internal reverberations of the ideas that drive the music.
I often found myself simply concluding, “yo, this is some real ass shit.” After some deep thought, however, I realised these moments of resonation with an artist and their music were not freaky, one-off experiences in which the stars aligned, but rather experiences can be manufactured. By actually going out and experimenting with how we engage as listeners, we can fabricate the conditions necessary to really connect with the music. Our new understandings can have exponential effect on how we see ourselves and how we see the world.
Let me elaborate.
Recently on the 19th of April Nas’ Illmatic celebrated its 21st birthday. If you don’t know (or just live under a rock) it’s the greatest hip-hop album of all time. There simply is no argument. It just is. It isn’t my personal favourite, but even I’ll admit in my heart of hearts it’s the best. You may like Allen Iverson, Lebron James or Kobe Bryant, but everyone knows that Michael Jordan is the king. The exact same goes for Illmatic. While Illmatic turned twenty-one, 6 days later on the 25th of April, Mobb Deep’s The Infamous celebrated 20 years. Another album that resides atop the Mount Rushmore of “Greatest Hip-hop albums of all-time.”
So it’s been an interesting week for me, reflecting on these two albums. I took time out and really engaged with these works, I made an event of it, to just sit and just listen. And yeah, they sound great. Mobb Deep (Prodigy and Havoc) and Nas all spit murderous rhymes on their respective pieces. There are some killer, killer beats on each album and it’s clear how the two aided East-Coast hip-hop’s rise to prominence in the 1990s. Initially, my listening experience was largely the same as it was the 50 times other times I heard these albums.
But then it hit me, I had a moment again, one of pure clarity every, pre-existing ideas was relinquished. My readings into the music completely changed when I held the two albums in conjunction with each-other – they suddenly existed within a weird space of mutual dependence. By contrasting each album’s differences, a unique dichotomy emerges, whereby the true understanding of one album is best understood in juxtaposition with the messages of the other (and vice versa). It simply comes down to awareness; listening to one album while keeping in mind the underlying ideas of the alternate. It’s a musical practice that I had never before considered, let alone applied. And truth be told, it happened by accident, when I was listening to them both last week. With this, my listening experience completely changed, the overall appreciation for the albums reached its apex.
For me to articulate the experience, you need to know the context of these two albums. The Infamous and the Illmatic were both born out of the same city, in fact the same housing projects, in Queensbridge, New York. Both of these art works serve as two different pieces of social commentary on the same type of life in the projects. With an array of personal references to the ubiquity of drugs, crime, violence and poverty in the projects, Nas and Mobb Deep both continually testify to the conditions that keep African Americans trapped in a perpetual cycle. How these two albums approach these issues are fundamentally different, but this contrast is instrumental to understanding each album individually.
The Illmatic, released in 1994, encompasses all these heavy issues, but there are optimistic intimations woven throughout all the tracks. In the face of all these problems, there is ultimately hope. Hope in the lyrics, hope in the narratives, hope is even orchestrated in the musical production. There are various layers of warmth throughout the album. You have tracks like “The World is Yours,” “One Love,” “Life’s a Bitch” in which the aforementioned conditions are outlined in grave detail, but Nas seems to have this way of tying everything back to hope – whether it be to live life to the full, or to take “Words of wisdom from Nas try to rise up above/ Keep an eye out or Jake (a.k.a the police) shorty wop/ one love.” He develops this beautiful idea of human flourishing, in spite of the adversity that is the cold reality for most living in the projects.
The Infamous on the other hand is, well, just the opposite. If the Illmatic represents hope, this album represents hopelessness. The production on this album is a work of art in itself; the sound is a sea of choppy drums, waves of eerie hooks that fade in and out, and just cold, cold, cold lyricism. Man, this album is heavy, real, and fucking scary. “Cradle to the Grave” is emblematic of all of this – the idea being that in the projects, young black youth literally exit the cradle and head straight to their death. In the opening verses, a friend of Havoc and Prodigy’s is shot, but instead of taking heed, the two seek revenge. In the latter verses, the duo plan what they will do to their enemies. They take us through an endless cycle that Havoc and Prodigy are both aware of, knowing ultimately “the cradle to the grave is where I’ll end up.” Mobb Deep provides the dark alternative to Nas’ outlook, a distinct this “this world is fucked so im just gonna get mine whatever way I can” mentality. Because “Fuck a 9-to-5, I get the loot with ease/ Don’t even need a degree/ to earn a six-digit figure.” It’s scary, but the reality is, if you have no way out, you just gotta play the hand you are dealt.
To realise the relationship between the differences in these two albums, in the context of the social situation, is to fully appreciate them as art works.
Personally my revelations after realising the relationship between these albums leaves me feeling that there is a hope, hope that society as we know it can progress, that through all the bull-shit we can rise up above. But on the flipside and in reality, if we do not examine and criticise the existing political, economic and social institutions that are the catalysts for crime, poverty all of the issues touched on in these work to flourish, well shit, there is no way out.
It’s crazy really, when reflecting on these revelations, that they all stem from my engagement with these two albums, by simply changing the process in which I engaged with the music I have inadvertently (and fortuitously) altered my understanding of the world!
And what a cool position to be in, constantly changing, constantly re-aligning my values, my perceptions and understanding. Maybe this is what I have been trying to get at with all this. Part of the enjoyment of music (and all art forms) is that our ideas are subjects to change. Actively thinking about how we think in regards to music (even people, societal issues or just our ideas about ourselves) we do not impose restrictions in the meanings of these works.
Who knows, a year from now, I may be completely wrong, everything I now think or in this case realised may just be a load of shit – but that’s cool.