#HipHopEd Poetics

By Timothy Jones, #HipHopEd

My rhymin’ is a vitamin held without a capsule

The smooth criminal on beat breaks

Never put me in your box if your s*^! eats tapes

The city never sleeps, full of villains and creeps

That’s where I learned to do my hustle, had to scuffle with freaks

– Nas, NY State of Mind

  nas&mikeAs I was traveling across the country today and thinking about our #HipHopEd chat in celebration of National Poetry Month my mind was on Nas. I have been thinking about Nas a lot and myself as we commemorate the 20th anniversary of “Illmatic.” I look at the progression of Nas as a man from “Illmatic” to “Life is Good” in some ways similar to my development as a young man being shaped by Hip-Hop to becoming an older man who is also committed to also shaping Hip-Hop. I thought about the above lines from “NY State of Mind” as a quick example of Hip-Hop’s poetic value and like great poetry is open to interpretation beyond the identification of the figurative language present in the lyrics.

A #HipHopEd Analysis:

Nas is a continuum in the legacy of impactful Black Poets that have used words to paint the artistry that is our existence in the inner cities and beyond. Think about the first line where Nas uses metaphor to substantiate his rhymes as vitamins without the capsule. The capsule on vitamins masks the often nasty taste and makes the administering of the vitamin easier. Nas is stating that his rhymes are just as beneficial as vitamins but not as easy to take and digest. The year is 1994 and Michael Jackson is cemented as the King of Pop with worldwide appeal. It is typical for new Hip-Hop artists to take shots and or draw comparisons to whoever is looked upon as the being at the top of the rap game. Nas takes to a whole different level by equating his ability to lyrically dance on beat breaks to that of Michael Jackson. Nas was crafty in selecting “Smooth Criminal” as the comparison because in this song, Michael Jackson is dressed like a Gangsta and is even holding a gun. Nas showed the ability to equate himself to Michael Jackson in a line the screams out street credibility.

The next two lines are great examples of personification where Nas mentions a radio eating and the city of New York never sleeping. For those who are old enough to remember cassettes where the tape could get caught within the radio and get tangled and destroyed. New York City has historically been called the city that never sleeps because there is always something to do in the city. Nas took this metaphor that was initially attached to a statement of the pace and life style of the better parts of the city and explained what happens in the hoods within the city because the hoods don’t sleep either. You can also take the smooth criminal reference Nas made as a qualifier of a level of association and distinction from the villains and freaks that he interacted with while growing up in Queens, NY.

This is just a quick example of what you can have students do with a knowledge of figurative language and their inherent knowledge of their coded language and culture coming together to critically examine lyrics. As your students master this process with lyrics that they select and are familiar with you can transition and challenge them with poetry and creative works within any school’s curriculum and watch your student’s critical thinking skills come alive.

Nas’ “illmatic”: Lessons in Reflections Curriculum Sample


By Timothy Jones, Chief Visionary Officer, #HipHopEd

As a 20 year old Nasir Jones wrote and recorded on of the most renowned albums in the 40 years of contemporary Hip-Hop history. “Illmatic” is an album that can be viewed as a coming of age narrative where Nas speaks from being 10 years old on “Halftime” by saying, “Back in 83 I was an MC sparking..” to a 20 year old young adult on “Life’s a B&^%h” by saying, “ I woke early on my born day, I’m twenty..” The album cover features Nas at 7 years graphically imposed with the ghetto behind him but you can see the ghetto scene through the picture as well. This duality of the image of the ghetto being visible behind and through a young Nas symbolizes the power of the influence that the environments and neighborhoods are having on children as they grow. The ability of Nas to articulate his story with a combination of accepting and challenging his reality is a skill that fosters a resilience that all young people need to develop.

“The Lessons in Reflections” is a curriculum designed to invite youth in middle school to look at the narrative of “Illmatic” through select quotes from 8 of the 10 songs on the album. The songs “One Love” and “Represent” do not have selected quotes but the titles of these songs will be used to develop activities for the youth. These quotes were selected on the ability to use the words to challenge young people to better understand where Nas was coming from and for them to view their own neighborhoods to assess the influence that their environments can have on their development. The reflection process is one where the youth will look at themselves as individuals and as members of their communities. The youth will begin to evaluate what aspects of their environment are obstacles versus opportunities based on how they see themselves and how they want their lives to play out in the future.

The content of “Illmatic” is graphic and discusses themes such as drug use, women and violence and sex in a manner that is not appropriate for a classroom or after school setting to be played in its entirety. This is another reason why the quotes were selected because the over arching theme of evaluating oneself as they develop within a given environment is a lesson that young people must learn and understand as they transition through the various stages of development as a child and an adolescent. The focus of the curriculum will be targeted at helping young people navigate through the “Industry (competence) vs. Inferiority” stage according to Erikson’s Psychosocial Stages. This stage is where the young people begin to have their world expanded and the influence of seeking the acceptance of their peers grows in importance. This stage also introduces young people to their environments in a way that requires them to determine their place within their environment as they begin to spend more time away from home.

On the next series of pages is an outline of the selected quotes and suggested guided questions for the rap sessions and activities that will be designed to engage middle school/high school youth through Nas’ “Illmatic”: Lessons in Reflections.

Nas “Illmatic” Quotes (Grades 6th-12th)

1. The Genesis
True indeed, knamsayin’, but when it’s real you doin’ this
Even without a record contract, knamsayin‘”

What are some things that you like to do that could possibly lead to careers? Is the purpose that you are doing these activities for money, careers or for the love and how it makes you feel?

2. NY State of Mind
“I never sleep, cause sleep is the cousin of death
Beyond the walls of intelligence, life is defined
I think of crime when I’m in a New York state of mind”

We know that natural sleep is an important bodily function. Sleep in this sense means to move without thinking or to not pay attention. The reference of sleep being a cousin of death is showing the relation that sleeping in the slang sense can have with death. We can also look at sleep as wasting time and how wasting time and behaving in certain ways can mean the death of our dreams. Create a handout that allows the students to create a list of statements where the complete the following: I sleep when I _____ instead of doing ______. Have at least five of these statements with possible different fonts.

Beyond the walls of intelligence life is defined means that there is always more that we can learn because our intelligence is limited to what we have learned and life is so much more. This is a call for all of us to become lifelong learners because it takes a life time to learn about life. This quote can challenge you to look at the world through a balance of your imagination and your intellect. What do you see with your imagination that you can use your intellect to make a reality? How do you increase your intellect? How do you increase your imagination? How can you define life? Create a handout with two pair of glasses. One labeled “Intellect” and the other “Imagination.” Students will list how their lives are defined by each and then on the bottom of their list they will make some observations as to how the definitions of life can become one in the same as they increase their intellect and foster their imagination. (I&I)

What do you think about when you think about Washington DC? What is the DC state of mind from your view? Use a storyboard handout with three squares and lines on the side of each square. The students will draw a scene and explain what is taking place on the side of each scene. (You can substitute Washington DC with your home town)

“Life is parallel to hell but I must maintain”

Parallel can mean equal to or similar to but parallel in math means: “Lines are parallel if they lie in the same plane, and are the same distance apart over their entire length” This definition means that no matter how bad life may be it never touches what we view as hell or eternal destruction. This mindset or point of view can help us maintain. What are some of the things that you see in your life or the lives of people that you know that you believe are bad? How do you maintain (continue) to have a positive outlook on life in spite of the negatives you see in life? Create a landscape handout where the word “Life” is written down both sides of the margin. Then have a set of parallel lines either running diagonal or through the center. One part of the handout will be representations of decisions that can result in lost freedoms and opportunities in life. The other side will be representations of decisions that result in obtaining freedoms and opportunities in life.

*This is a sample set of activities for these two songs.  If you are interested in partnering in the development and or implementation of this curriculum please contact Timothy Jones tdj6899@gmail.com