Tracks two and three...
You Can't Stop Us Now
Salaam Remi, with whom Nas has worked more than any other producer this decade, based this track around a sample of the Whatnaut’s “Message From a Black Man”. Unlike RZA, who recently sampled the same track on his latest Bobby Digital album in raw form, Remi masks the central melody in a heavy baseline. The sound actually makes me wonder whether he sampled the song or just interpolated it. He also adds soulful blaxplotation-sounding horns as a lead into the chorus, sung by Eban Brown, who has been a member of both the Delfonics and the Stylistics throughout his career. He replaces “me” with “us” in his version of the classic hook. The track overall has a more polished yet similar feel to that of previous Remi-produced Nas songs like “Made You Look” and “Thief’s Theme”.
Nas’ two verses on “You Can't Stop Us Now” run through a range of topics which add together to make the song a singular, astute statement of Black Pride. His first verse is an exploration of African American history in a series of poetic, internally-rhymed individual statements which are able to stand unaccompanied as powerful proclamations; his first line is: “From Willie Lynch to Willie Hutch” – six words that, alone, serve as a potent summation of the plight and triumph of blacks in America. Other lines like “from gold to shackles and back to gold” as well as “slave food turned to soul food” have similar effects and the verse ends with Nas claiming, “Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag / Bet she had a nigga with her to help her old ass." I could not imagine a better verse examining African American heritage with such celebratory vitriol.
Nas approaches the second verse from a present-time point-of-view and assumes the task of exposing hypocrisies in the interpretations of African versus European culture. He uses the Michael Vick case as a talking point: “Gave a Blood time / Cause he fought with his canine / Bestiality / Humane Society / Go to China, see how they dine / See what they eat / Better yet ask PETA whoever / Which animal makes suede? / If not for suede would you have survived the Dark Ages?” He goes on to address Sammy Davis Jr. who “helped pave the way for Southern crankers and them Harlem shakers”, which has led Nas to assert, in the ending of his verse, “Now we getting our papers / They try to censor the words / To stop our money coming / But you can't escape us / Haters."
The Last Poets declaration, in between the first verse and the chorus, that, “as James Baldwin says, you can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world considers a nigger” provides a literal link between Nas’ poetry and the original concept of Untitled, a discourse on the word “nigger” and an attempt to strip it of its rhetorical power.
This song’s keyboard-driven production from J. Myers and Dustin Moore has a smoothed-out ‘90s R&B feel to it. The beat is not bad by any means, it's slightly unremarkable. Its breezy style makes it easy for one to hear the song without actually listening to it. That’s unfortunate because “Breathe” is probably Nas' most personal song on the album and his rhyme-schemes are awe-inspiring.
The lyrics are concerned with the true meaning of freedom in a free country, especially for a high-profile black man. His verses touch upon the theme of subliminal racism in white America which is present throughout the album. We get a glimpse of him at his most somber while contemplating his own identity. His paranoid, seemingly infinitely internally rhymed verses run quickly through his various anxieties (child-custody battles, police racial profiling, money and fame) and he portrays a world where everyone either wants part of him or wishes him harm; his chorus repeats the question: “Can a nigga just breathe?”
The concept of the song fits well into the whole theme of Untitled. It is the lament of a man who, despite all of his accomplishments and contributions to society, still feels unable to transcend the American subconscious from which a word like “nigger” was able to become dominant.
Had the production been a bit more interesting, this would have been an instant classic. It's still damn good though.
To be continued…