Nas, Illmatic – ‘One Love’ BREAKDOWN
Nas’ ‘One Love’ incorporates the vocals of Q-Tip on the hook who is from Queens like Nas. He is a revered rapper and producer and a member of the legendary hip hop group ‘A Tribe Called Quest’. The track was also produced by Tip with his chorus playing after each verse repeating ‘one love’ (x16).
The song begins with a short conversation before the first verse. Throughout this section, Nas sets out his verse as letter to one of his friends in prison.
The opening line, ‘What up, kid? I know shit is rough doin’ your bid’, details the hardships of one of Nas’ friends in prison doing their time (‘bid’). This sets up the conversation between him and Nas throughout the verse. Nas congratulates his friend on his new son and asks, ‘why don’t your lady write ya?’. The convict was incarcerated during the birth of his son and his partner left him and moved on due to this.
‘I was like, “Yeah”, shorty don’t care, she a snake too’
This line has a few connotations. The likening of ‘shorty’ to a ‘snake’ represents deception and downfall which may be a reason for Nas’ friends imprisonment. The use of the ‘snake’ also symbolises a passive, nonchalant attitude which comes across as cold and unforgiving. Nas may be tapping into his views on women which are similarly expressed in many of his songs.
‘But yo, guess who got shot in the dome-piece,
Jerome’s niece, on her way home from Jones beach club’
The image of being ‘shot in the dome-piece’ which is the act of being shot in the head. It’s a violent picture and paints the reality once more of life in the neighbourhood Nas and his friend live in. The information of ‘Jerome’s niece’ adds a personal note to the murder and is a specific detail landing the event in actuality; it is a tangible experience. ‘Jones beach club’ is a setting for the event and juxtaposes the often tranquil beauty of the beach with the violent and brutal murder. These two lines are a story in their own right with Nas’ storytelling brilliance shining through at the age of 20!
‘Plus little Rob is selling drugs on the dime
Hanging out with young thugs that all carry 9’s’
We can infer that ‘little Rob’ is a kid on the block who has recently been immersed in the drug dealing, armed weaponry tradition of the hood. This is a comment on how the youngest and most innocent people who have no prospects fall into this lifestyle. The ‘young thugs’ are almost a new generation of criminals and them ‘carry(ing) 9’s’ (guns) shows the hostility and danger of these streets. Nas is telling us and his friend about the rift in peace being amplified by these new thug editions.
The end of the verse concerns Nas asking his friend to say hello to other friends who are in prison, ‘Herb, Ice and Bullet’. The use of nicknames are commonplace in almost all cliques, gangs or hoods and so on. He ends the verse by telling his friend he ‘left half a hundred in your commissary’ as a payback from when Nas was in desperate need of it. This exemplifies their friendship.
Verse two is a second letter and starts off with the bar, ‘Dear Born, you’ll be out soon, stay strong’, as a moral boost for another one of Nas’ incarcerated friends.
A few lines down is an 7 bar story about the person ‘Born’ shot returning to the hood and befriending one of his homies. This is the epitome of betrayal especially when Nas reveals that the befriended was given Born’s gun (‘Your man give him your glock’). Nas uses the classic New York phrase here ‘Word to mother’ to display his shock at the deceit.
‘But I heard you blew a n***a with a ox for the phone piece’
Just like in ‘Halftime’ when Nas says that he is ‘as ill as a convict that kills for phone time’ the impatience and forcefulness of stabbing someone for this cause is reiterated. Here, Nas gives a real example. The interconnectivity between information in prisons and the outside world are seen as Nas says that he ‘heard’ about the news. The term ‘blew’ often refers to a gunshot but here it is referring to an ‘ox’ (razor blade).
‘Last time I wrote you said they tried you in the showers,
But maintain, when you come home the corner’s ours’
Nas references the last time he was in contact with Born. The connotations of “dropping the soap” is of rape. Born is being checked up on by Nas as this almost happened ‘in the showers’ last time he visited. Nas tells him to ‘maintain’ (put up with it and persevere) until he gets out and they can run ‘the corner’s’ (drug zones).
The verse ends with the lines:
‘I hate it when your mom cries,
It kinda makes me want to murder, for reala,
I even got a mask and gloves to bust slugs, but one love.’
Nas is so angry when his friend’s ‘mom cries’ that he wishes to murder the person(s) responsible for Born’s prison time. He tells us that he has the equipment ‘for reala’ in ‘a mask and gloves to bust slugs’. This is refuted however when he says ‘but one love’ to show that he will not resort to this. The contact between Nas and Born’s mother is another sign of solidarity between him and his friends.
The final verse is a mammoth 40-bars long and encompasses Nas views on society.
Nas starts off by questioning why his ‘Mind’s in another world, thinkin’/ “How can we exists through the facts?”/ Written in school text-books, bibles etcetera/ F*** a school lecture, the lies get me vexed-er’. Nas notes that his ‘Mind’s in another world’ as he realises that life lessons and skills are not taught in schools e.g. unwritten rules/ laws of society. Essentially, he is referring to his imagination. Nas is portraying his views on the American school system which drowns pupils in facts. The mention of the ‘bible(s)’ is a question on religion and its purpose; Nas clearly has little faith in God in this line.
‘So I be ghost from my projects,
I take my pen and pad for the weekend,
Hittin’ L’s while I’m sleeping’
The respite of ‘the weekend’ is when Nas leaves the ‘projects’ to write uninterruptedly. The terms ‘ghost’ refers to leaving/disappearing (see ‘Ghost’ (1990)). While doing this, he is smoking heavily, ‘Hittin’ L’s’, which reflects Nas’ lifestyle and use of drugs as a relaxation tool. The ‘pen and pad’ are a staple of writing so are the basic necessities for noting rhymes, raps etc.
The next two lines carry the notion along as Nas refers to this ‘two-day stay’ as a way ‘To relax my dome’. He has ‘no phone’ and ‘left the 9 at home’ so is really taking it easy and removing himself from the hustle and trouble of the hood. Without a ‘phone’ he cannot be disturbed and by not bringing his ‘9’ (gun) he is in a safe, non-threatening environment.
Nas notes his stress during this particular week. He likens his experiences on the corners leading to insanity in the reference to the psychiatric hospital ‘Bellevue’. He also likens this to ‘eight to 10’ years at ‘HDM’ (House of Detention for Men) in Riker’s Island. He sums this up when rapping, ‘A future in a maximum security state pen is grim’.
‘He inhaled so deep, shut his eyes like he was sleep,
Started coughin’, one eye peeked to watch me speaks’
Nas is talking about a youth who is smoking with him and trying to keep up to impress and act cool. This reflects the nature of a child being unsuited to smoking drugs, yet such a pastime is common in deprived neighbourhoods.
‘I took the L when he passed it, this little bastard,
Keeps me blasted and starts talkin’ mad shit’
Nas is commenting on the amount of weed this kid has on him and notes how it causes the kid to ramble on about ‘mad shit’. He contrasts the youth of the kid, ‘little bastard’, once more to extenuate his vulnerability.
‘I had to school him, told him don’t let n*****s fool him,
‘Cause when the pistol blows,
The one that’s murdered be the cool one’
The streets are indubitably dangerous and murderous and Nas ‘had to school him’ on how to handle himself in this environment. The theme of education in this verse is present once more but is applied in the realistic way Nas notes wishing for earlier in the song. Nas lays down the stark nature that killing someone makes them a martyr which is a more prominent position of respect.
Moreover, the murderer will go to jail. The flamboyant person showing the fruits of their criminality is more likely to get murdered than the humble criminal so Nas is advising him to stray from a life of excess. The idea of a ‘cool one’ can also relate to the cold temperature of a dead body.
‘Then froze, only to blow the herb smoke through my nose,
And told my little man I’ma ghost, I broze’
Nas is telling ‘little man’ that he stopped to exhale ‘herb smoke’ and proceeded to leave (‘ghost’). The term ‘broze’ was described by Nas in a Genius interview ‘instead of leave, let’s breeze…I’m breezin’ yeah I broze’. So ‘broze’ is the incorrect use of grammar for the term “breezing”. It’s a reflection of neighbourhood slang in Queens for Nas.
‘Left some jewels in his skull that he can sell if he choose’
A clever play on words. ‘Jewels’ are nuggets of wisdom Nas is aptly planting in the kids mind (‘his skull’). The literal meaning of ‘jewels’ is of jewellery, which is expensive, so Nas says ‘he can sell if he choose’ i.e. pass on this knowledge to others.
‘Words of wisdom from Nas: try to rise up above’
Rising ‘up above’ can act as an incentive to inspire people to fight injustice in society and is a reference to rising to a higher plane of knowledge and acclaim. Nas is an important figure and he quotes himself as a vital form of advice for empowerment. Rising up out of the negativity of the hood is also a meaning to the bar.
The final bar is a word of advice to the kid to ‘Keep an eye out for Jake’. The “Jakes” are a slang term for the police and Nas ends the song on this note to reflect his fears that the kid will be susceptible to the police given his path of crime. This advice marks a hopelessness or precariousness to proceedings for the kid.
This song is a great comment on social injustice and the prison system.
The idea of ‘One love’ is a statement of unity and peace and goes against forms of violent empowerment (e.g. parts of the Black Panther movement) to promote the ubiquity of ‘love’ as the ultimate solution to all injustices.
It is also worth mentioning that the title of this track is an homage to the iconic Bob Marley song of the same name.
The first two verses are in the form of letters to Nas’ convict friends whereas the last verse concerns a youth whose influences and belief systems are malleable. Throughout the song Nas demonstrates his ability to tell a story vividly and succinctly in the rap form and it seems to always pay off.