28 May 2024

"Black Republican" by Nas ft. Jay-Z (2006)

I had already (ghost)written about Black Republican (2006) a year and a half ago, while working for Song Meanings + Facts.  Since then, I discovered that historically, there was such a thing as a "Black Republican".  So I decided to reexamine the track to see if there was any connection between its lyrics and the historical term "Black Republican".

INTRODUCTION

Nas's debut joint, Illmatic (1993), is the best pure-rap album I ever had the pleasure of listening to.  There's no R&B singing, no gimmicks and only one guest star.  Yet every track manages to keep the listener's attention throughout, which is the most difficult task that rappers, if not musicians in general, are faced with.

I haven't really been much of a Nas fan since.  He suffered from a professional malady that's common to rappers.  That's being a young, hungry artist with an amazing product at the beginning of their career but, once fame and riches are achieved, the impetus to generate quality output falling off.  But that's just my opinion.  I had a homey back in the day who would always argue that musically, Nas could do no wrong.

In any event, I haven't been compelled to listen to any of his albums since 2001's Stillmatic.  By the time that project was dropped, being Nas's fourth studio project, his music career was noticeably trending downwards.  However, the rapper remains a regular recipicient of Grammy nominations, including winning one for Best Rap Album for 2020's King's Disease.

WHAT WAS A "BLACK REPUBLICAN"?

Back during the days of American slavery, African-Americans could not vote.  Technically, most Blacks in the United States weren't even "African-Americans" per se, as it wasn't until 1870 that they became "equal citizens under the law".

That was right after the American Civil War, during a period known as Reconstruction.  That was also when African-Americans were first granted the right to vote.

It wasn't really like now, where voting advocates had to go out of their way to convince African-Americans to exercise that right.  Back then there were some Black people who were reluctant to vote, though apparently out of fear more so than simply not caring.

But by the looks of things, most were eager to participate.  These were people who experienced slavery firsthand and thus were well aware of the dangers associated with political power falling into the wrong hands.  So they knew what time it was.  In fact, African-Americans were so eager to vote during Reconstruction that militant racists committed murders or even massacres to dissuade them from doing so.

A group of prominent "Black Republicans" from the Reconstruction Era.

These days, Barack Obama, Joe Biden and co., i.e. the Democrats, are generally viewed as the political party sympathetic to the Black cause.  But that wasn't the case during Reconstruction.  It was rather the Republicans who embraced the African-American cause in the South, while the Democrats sought to retain White power.  So on one hand, you had "Black Republicans".  And on the other, there was the "Southern Democrats".

To reiterate, being a Black Republican in the South was extremely dangerous.  White vigilantes were still powerful enough to not only systematically intimidate Black voters in general but Black Republicans in particular, including those who were voted into office.

THE LYRICS

That's an interesting history lesson, but it doesn't appear that the song Black Republican is that deep.  Nas has always been known as an intellectual rapper, and Jay-Z's lyrics have become more profound as he's aged.  But most hip-hop artists don't appear as if they're adept in history.  And most hip-hop fans aren't looking for that type of content anyway.

It becomes more or less clear from the chorus that the homeys aren't referring to a "Black Republican" in the historical sense of the word.  For instance, the typical Black Republican of the Reconstruction era was not rich.  Most of them were akin to slaves who had just been freed after the Civil War.  So it wasn't like they had a bunch of "money... coming in".

Rather, Nas and Jigga refer to themselves that way as an analogy pointing to their wealth within the context of the present-day Republican Party.  Republican Presidents, like Geroge W. Bush and Donald Trump, are known for being from the upper, richer echelons of American society.  But to note, this track was dropped in 2006, before Trump became a Republican.  It also came out a couple of year before Barack Obama, a Democrat and friend of Jay-Z, became US President.

But that said, there obvously isn't anything serious going on in these lyrics, at least not from a political standpoint.  The hook isn't so much about the artists' wealth as it is their commitment to the 'hood.  The rappers set out to prove that even though they have made it, they haven't lost touch with their street roots.

The most-interesting passage is arguably Jay-Z's verse, because he uses the opportunity to poetically expound on a real-life fractured relationship with a close friend.  When I first heard this song back in the day, I thought that he may have been talking about his friendship with Nas.

Remember that at the turn of the century, shortly before this track was released, Jigga and Nas were engaged in a serious rap beef against each other.  Earlier, when I said that Nas's career was losing steam, what helped him gain some much-needed momentum was Ether, his classic diss track aimed at Jay-Z.  That's something I always like to point out when it comes to these rap beefs, which is that they tend to sell songs.

So when Black Republican came out, it was like a surprise release.  This was back in the days before internet usage became as ubiquitous as it is now.  So many of us didn't even know that they had squashed their beef circa the end of 2005.  It was the dropping of Black Republican, their first collaboration, which made that fact known to the world.

But the issue with that theory, believing that the first verse is about the relationship between the two rappers, is Jigga and Nas are from two different parts of NYC and did not grow up slingin' together, as put forth in the lyrics.  Both started their music careers circa the early 1990s.  And I would venture to say that both indirectly benefitted from the death of Tupac, who was a mutual enemy.  But there was never any indication during the 1990s that Jay-Z and Nas were actually friends.

Through the power of Genius, what has rather been concluded is that Jigga is rapping about an old homey of his named DeHaven Irby.  According to the lyrics, this is someone whom he profitably sold drugs with when they were teenagers.  But unfortunately, they were so successful that the likes of wealth and women destroyed their relationship.

Jigga never mentions DeHaven by name, but their former friendship has helped propel Irby into semi-celebrity status.  In other words, even though he and Jay-Z never buried the hatchet, DeHaven proceeded to make a name for himself by talking about their relationship and Sean Carter's pre-fame life.

In one of those interviews, he stated that Jigga has the tendency to 'overexaggerate' when it comes to his drug-dealing past.  That's an interesting observation within the context of Black Republican because, unlike Jigga, Nas isn't necessarily known as a hustler-turned-rapper.  But in his verse, Jones does imply at least once that he's moving weight (i.e. 'slinging pies').

Maybe, if that was in fact the case, Nas was referring to having gotten into the game after he blew up as a musician.  Rap is a genre which celebrates certain forms of criminal activity, including drug dealing.  It's a line of work that's extremely dangerous and therefore, in the eyes of many disenfranchised people, illustrates a willingness to put one's life on the line in hopes of making it big.  So it's pretty well known that most rappers like to come off as if they are or were street-wise criminals.

But Nas has never really been on it like that.  The narco implications aren't as strong in his verse as that of Jay-Z.  Nasir presents himself more as a survivalist and someone who is cognizant of the setbacks of coming up in the ghetto.

The cover art to Hip Hop Is Dead (200d), Nas's eighth-studio album.

THE INSTRUMENTAL

What really makes this track outstanding is its instrumental.  The lyrical presentation is exceptional, harping back to the era when Jigga was at his lyrical peak.  But the instrumental is one of those types that only the most-skilled rappers dare approach.

Black Republican is from Nas's 2006 studio album, Hip Hop Is Dead.  The track was co-produced by L.E.S., a musician who had been working with Nasir since Illmatic.  The other producer is Wyldfyer, who was one of the rapper's regular collaborators circa the late-aughts.

The instrumental of Black Republican is highlighted by a sample from The Godfather Part II (1974).  It slaps so hard that when Nas heard it, he knew Jay-Z would be down to jump on the track.

CONCLUSION

Nas and Jigga went on to collaborate on a few other tracks, though seemingly none as memorable as Black Republican.  The genesis of their previous beef dates back to Nasir failing to show up, as scheduled, to participate on Jay-Z's debut album, Reasonable Doubt (1996).  In more recent times, since 2005 and the subsequent dropping of Black Republican, they have become cool, even if not besties.

For instance, I still believe that Jay-Z may have been referring to Nas on the third verse of Thank You (2009).  By then, Nas had become known more as a rap legend than someone who was still dropping hot tracks.  And that's more or less how he's perceived to this day, besides being a successful businessman, though not on the same level as his fellow "Black Republican".