“One Mic.” One of my favorite rap songs – which ricochets through Nas’ divided mind. The song is so Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that it’s stirred my fascination for years.
But first, how it all began. I recently discovered that the brilliant “One Mic” was actually jump-started by Nas’ younger brother, Jabari “Jungle” Jones. For once, one of hip-hop’s greatest lyricists was at a total loss for words. As reported in AllHipHop:
“Year after year. Another album after another album. Record company bullsh*t. Life, life. So, I couldn’t write,” Nas admitted during a Fun Fun Fun Fest performance in Texas last weekend. “And I listened to what he said, and he gave me the first four lines and then I took it from there. My brother said this—He’s not a rapper, ‘All I need is one mic…’”
One Mic – Nas
Now, I’m pumping this old school joint because the moment I heard it back in 2002, I was struck by its urgent lyrical power, its stirring imagery, and especially its total contradiction. For all that, I’m still trying to figure out what “One Mic” is really about.
On one hand, Nas aspires to higher spiritual planes. He opens with, “All I need is one mic, one beat, one stage… One God to show me how to do things his Son did.”
Then in the midst of contemplating the divine, Nas flips to his present reality, hood politics: “Writing names on my hollow tips, plottin’ sh*t / Mad violence who I’m gon’ body, this hood politics.”
Murder, violence, police harassment, all create an indescribable rage that explodes like a hail of gunfire in the song. Nas busts at cops. He calls for backup forces Black Panther-style, “Hoodrats, don’t abortion your womb / We need more warriors soon”. The anger feels reel, but it feels unorganized. Who is Nas really mad at? Is it just the racist cops? Or is it the unexplainable injustice of being born in the hood – a physical, emotional and psychological war zone? Perhaps he’s enraged at feeling trapped; trapped in a battle he doesn’t want to fight, but has to fight. Or maybe his anger is more amorphous… Perhaps Nas is angry at the real enemy – powerlessness.
The second verse of “One Mic” seems to be about forgiveness. “All I need is one blunt, one page, and one pen / One prayer – tell God forgive me for one sin.” That sin turns out to be shooting twin Glocks at all his haters – which is almost as many bullets as Jesus had years. 33 years. 32 shots.
Perhaps “One Mic” is then really about bringing awareness to inner city violence, even at the brink of death. Nas describes funerals getting “shot up” and “n**gas” shooting at their enemies from wheel chairs in an endless cycle of revenge. My God.
But then if Nas is raging against all this violence, why does he partake in it?
“I let this sh*t slide for too many years, too many times / Now I’m strapped with a couple of Macs, too many nines / If y’all n**gas really with me get busy, load up the semis / Do more than just hold it explode the clip until you empty!”
Blank stare. This part always confused me. Is Nas endorsing killing, or just enacting the adrenaline of clapping back at an enemy? (The song does feel like a blood rush at that part). It also feels like a battle cry, a war drum. But if “One Mic” is a call to arms, who is Nas calling us to fight?
In the final verse, Nas puts his crown on, illustrating that perhaps the song is really about surviving and maintaining power in a world that wants to strip it clean away. In the concrete jungle that is New York, Nas declares that he’s just one man but “what I stand for speaks for itself”. He has no weaknesses, but always has to watch out for everlasting beef (and faithless b***hes). So he crowns himself a king. And for surviving his childhood, Nas deserves that crown: “The block was ill as a youngster / Every night it was like a cop would get killed, body found in a dumpster.” That’s like growing up in Iraq.
Nas comes from a raw, real, chaotic place. He splits conscious between his peaceful inner self (where he’d like to be) and his raging warrior self (where he is).
Although, I may not understand all the contradictions, one thing’s for sure: Nas raps from his soul. And he only needs “One Mic” to do so.