I’ve been listening to a lot of trap or mumble rap or whatever it’s called now—Playboi Carti, 21 Savage, Kodak Black—which can be enjoyable if soul-sapping in the aggregate. But descending a YouTube rabbit hole recently, I had the fortune to re-stumble on a gem of a clip from Peter Spirer’s 1997 hip-hop documentary, Rhyme & Reason. It moved me deeply. At a cultural moment in which top rap acts seem most interested in merely documenting and celebrating their improbable good fortune, and when upstarts come and go like the weather, all the while reveling in their ignorance, it’s particularly striking to hear the then-21-year-old Nas reflect on himself and his trajectory out of Queensbridge with genuine modesty and earnest ambition for self-improvement. It’s all the more shocking when you realize that, at the moment of the interview, he has already recorded Illmatic, which many devotees consider to be one of the finest hip-hop albums of all time. He should have every reason to have a swollen head. And yet …
“I be thinking about going back to school,” he tells the interviewer. “Because … my knowledge is limited right now, and there’s a lot of things I don’t know about that I could take advantage of as soon as I learn about it.”
Speaking from an empty stairwell, he then pivots to a level of self-awareness that I can’t imagine a young rapper displaying today: “I’m not no big drug dealer with 25 years on my head; I sing rap records and I can make my bread. I’m not no doctor or lawyer … but I’m 21, with a start.”
I’m 36, and that is inspirational.