Nas is known for writing his rhymes down, for carefully constructing his songs before hand. This song is one of the places where you see that Nas is a writer. There have been some hip-hop songs that effect me this deeply, but the song "Rule" is perhaps the only hip-hop song that has made me cry just from reading the lyrics. The lyrics are even more impressive because they don't try too be too impressive with either the vocabulary or the wordplay, but come from their meaning.
There are two obvious facts about the song: first, it is seemingly about 9-11, and second, it borrows a chorus, sung by Amerie, from the 1980's pop staple Everybody wants to rule the world. Within that, the song's lyrics move around from point to point, with the unification in the song coming from Nas' emotional emergency, and from obvious and not-so-obvious conclusions the listener can make. I will give a little sample reel of some of my favorite lyrics:
Everyday as a child,
I would think I was part of the USA and be proud
Nas isn't writing an angry, ideological rant. Students of hip-hop and of American culture know that the early 1990's, it was common to dissect and criticize the entirety of American culture from various view points. For various reasons, this isn't going on in the same way. Nas isn't standing outside the system, criticizing it, but talking about his own experience in it.
Ancient kings from Egypt, up to Julius Caesar
Had a piece of the globe, every continent
Yo, there's Asia, Africa, Europe, France, Japan
Pakistan, America, Afghanstan
I like this part because besides some of the obvious meaning in the lyrics, it is an updated version of what MCs were doing as far back as the late 70s, when they would call out the buroughs of New York City to their audience.
But since the beginning of time it's been men with arms fightin
Lost lives in the Towers and Pentagon, why then?
Nas may seem to be engaging in some fatalism here, but he also may be stating a plain fact. Wars have been going on for a long time. Throughout the song, in many places, Nas just states facts and lets the listener put two and two together in their own head.
All this hate can't last forever
It's time that we stand together
Everybody wants to rule the world
World peace, world peace, world peace,
The chorus of the song, sung by Amerie, is almost generically uplifting and positive. Its a great hook, though, and also gives some contrast to the other lyrics.
I want land, mansions, banks and gold
The diamonds in Africa, oil in my control
The world's natural resources, all its residuals
But then comes foes, I have to guard it with missiles
There have been better explanations of the connection between people's greed and their never-ending wars, and the world system could be explained in more detail, but considering everything else touched on in this song, it is a good explanation.
Y'all know that's my style, to hit you at the right time
No other compares to what Nas write down
A hip-hop song, even a hip-hop song this weighty, can't exist without some bragging. This bragging isn't idle, and actually may be the key to the entire song. The line about "to hit you at the right time" I will discuss in closing.
Ain't nothing without struggle, listen up, it's critical
We used to fear arms, now the weapons are chemical
In Hip-Hop, the weapons are lyrical
To be the best you challenge the best, and the blessings are spiritual
These four lines I feel are the key to the entire song. I myself, and probably plenty of other Americans, may have forgotten what it was like when we heard of the first Anthrax deaths, when we really didn't know whether chemical weapons might kill thousands of people at once. Not that we aren't still afraid of that, but we have grown accustomed to it. Nas sidesteps the entire niche of hip-hop that is obsessed with paranoia, because he now points out that being targetted doesn't make you special anymore. Its a very stark reminder, and then he throws it into contrast with the fact that hip-hop culture is still vital, because it teaches people that struggle doesn't have to be based on fear and anger, to avoid losing, but that it can be a positive thing done for spiritual reasons. The fact that we live in a state of very real fear makes this need for spiritual uplift more pressing, not less.
Yo, what this war has shown me is, whatever you want out of life
Whatever you feel is rightfully yours, go out and take it
Even if that means blood and death
After the uplifting last verse, and the happy pop chorus, the spoken outro seems a little jarring. It shouldn't be surprising, however, since rappers love arguing, and rappers like Nas and KRS-One like arguing with themselves by contradicting what they have previously said. I don't think Nas is purely doing this, although the entire song "Rule" constantly brings up contradictions. I think Nas may also be pointing out, in his own way, that if people wanted to reach for peace and happiness with the same vigour as they went out to fight, they could get it. In the end, peace is rightfully ours, and we should go out and take it.
Earlier on, I mentioned Nas' statement about "to hit you at the right time". I was riding the bus the other day, and thought about the fact that if I had suddenly lost all my memories of the last ten years, the first difference I would notice is that the cell phones are smaller. Despite everything that has happened in America since 9-11, it seems to have not caused the cultural change it might have. I don't think that the upheavel has really gone by, it is just waiting to come out in the culture. Nas wrote and released this song relatively soon after the attacks, when they were still an obvious item of attention. Now, in 2005, they are ever present, although they are in some way being digested. In the next few years, although maybe not until the start of the next decade, we will see cultural exploration of what happened. And when we do, many of the songs and movies and books may bring up the same conclusions, points, and more importantly, energy, that Nas showed in this song.