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Hip Hop Culture Politics: “I Can”, Nas

Amongst the influential rap artists of the 1990’s was Nasir Jones, more commonly known as Nas or by his self-proclaimed name, “King of New York”. Although his street credit and reputation has fluctuated throughout his 24-year-long career, he’s proved to be one of the greatest lyrists of all time.

From the beginning of his career in 1991, Nas has impressed his audience and the industry with his ability to compose intelligent lyrics and superior narratives. [1]

Back in the 90’s, the majority of mainstream rappers were gangsta rap and their careers ended there. While Nas did rap about urban street life, his longevity within rap music and Hip-Hop stems from “his willingness to explore new aspects of himself as he matures”. [2]


In 2003, Nas released what critics identify as his most introspective body of work. Inspired by the death of his mother, from earlier that year, as well as other emotional experiences from throughout his lifetime, his seventh album, “God’s Son” redefined his role as a social and political figure. [3] Although the seventh song featured on the album, “I Can” was identified as one of his more commercially viable tracks, it encompassed great value and influence. For the full lyrics refer to the bottom of the page.

The song begins featuring a children’s choir reciting the chorus. Within the first two verses of the narrative, Nas warns his audience (“B-boys and girls”) of the realities that exist throughout urban communities, such as education deficiency, drug abuse and the sexual exploitation of minors. The third verse, Nas introduces a radical narrative of black politics intended to educate his audience on aspects of historical African culture. In doing this, Nas is attempting to restore pride, confidence, and the desire to succeed into African-American communities.

Through the lyrics, Nas is attempting to achieve social and political development by producing change in limited aspects of society. [4] The theme of the narrative being, the youth has the power to determine the future. The message being if you believe in yourself and work hard, you can become and be where you want to be.

“I Can” was a hit, inspiring its Nas’ audience to date. A student recalls her seventh grade teacher, forcing her class to not only sing the “I Can” chorus at the beginning of every school day, but also to have the lyrics memorized. The student, Dominique Carson reflects the routine at first as annoying. Then states, “12 years later, I thank Mr. Duncan for allowing us to memorize the lyrics to Nas’ song because it has instigated my growth as a person, sister, daughter, friend, and child of God”. [5] She explains how the African historical narrative, fulfilled an educational element many rap artists neglect to incorporate, yet would make their work more meaningful. By incorporating education, the audience has an opportunity to learn from the song, creating long-term impact.

Carson identifies, “Read more, learn more, change the globe”, as one her favorite lyrics from the song because it “exemplifies how and why we strive to make our mark in this world”. [6]

Although Nas uses a less violent narrative than both the N.W.A and Tupac, the audience still undoubtedly understands his feelings and experiences. Society accepts Nas as a social and political figure because early in his career, he acknowledged that there is more to life than life in the hood. As Nas grew older and more mature, he strongly pushed the message through his music.

In a 2013 CNN interview, Nas is asked how his music can be called socially responsible and at the same time, glorify violence. His response was, “Don’t blame me; blame our wonderful country, America. And you can’t even blame America. It’s life. Blame life. I talk about life, and I make universal music with an American style – and that’s what I do… I know one thing: People put too many labels on music”. [7]

“I Can” is conscious Hip-Hop because it depend society’s understanding of the world. The narrative encourages everyone to be larger than life and to pursue his or her dreams, despite adversity and oppression. “Nas created an anthem that reminds everyone that we shouldn’t give up on ourselves” [8]

“I Can”, Nas


I know I can (I know I can)

Be what I wanna be (be what I wanna be)

If I work hard at it (If I work hard at it)

I’ll be where I wanna be (I’ll be where I wanna be)


Be, B-Boys and girls, listen up

You can be anything in the world, in God we trust

An architect, doctor, maybe an actress

But nothing comes easy it takes much practice

Like, I met a woman who’s becoming a star

She was very beautiful, leaving people in awe

Singing songs, Lina Horn, but the younger version

Hung with the wrong person

Got her strung on that

Heroin, cocaine, sniffin up drugs all in her nose…

Coulda died, so young, now looks ugly and old

No fun cause now when she reaches for hugs people hold they breath

Cause she smells of corrosion and death

Watch the company you keep and the crowd you bring

Cause they came to do drugs and you came to sing

So if you gonna be the best, I’ma tell you how,

Put your hands in the air, and take a vow

[Chorus – 2x (Nas and Kids)]

I know I can (I know I can)

Be what I wanna be (be what I wanna be)

If I work hard at it (If I work hard at it)

I’ll be where I wanna be (I’ll be where I wanna be)


Be, B-Boys and girls, listen again

This is for grown looking girls who’s only ten

The ones who watch videos and do what they see

As cute as can be, up in the club with fake ID

Careful, ‘fore you meet a man with HIV

You can host the TV like Oprah Winfrey

Whatever you decide, be careful, some men be

Rapists, so act your age, don’t pretend to be

Older than you are, give yourself time to grow

You thinking he can give you wealth, but so

Young boys, you can use a lot of help, you know

You thinkin life’s all about smokin weed and ice

You don’t wanna be my age and can’t read and write

Begging different women for a place to sleep at night

Smart boys turn to men and do whatever they wish

If you believe you can achieve, then say it like this



Be, be, ‘fore we came to this country

We were kings and queens, never porch monkeys

There was empires in Africa called Kush

Timbuktu, where every race came to get books

To learn from black teachers who taught Greeks and Romans

Asian Arabs and gave them gold when

Gold was converted to money it all changed

Money then became empowerment for Europeans

The Persian military invaded

They heard about the gold, the teachings, and everything sacred

Africa was almost robbed naked

Slavery was money, so they began making slave ships

Egypt was the place that Alexander the Great went

He was so shocked at the mountains with black faces

Shot up they nose to impose what basically

Still goes on today, you see?

If the truth is told, the youth can grow

Then learn to survive until they gain control

Nobody says you have to be gangstas, hoes

Read more learn more, change the globe

Ghetto children, do your thing

Hold your head up, little man, you’re a king

Young Princess when you get your wedding ring

Your man is saying “She’s my queen”


Save the music y’all, save the music y’all

Save the music y’all, save the music y’all

Save the music

[1] Yvonne Bynoe, Encyclopedia of Rap and Hip Hop. (Greenwood Publishing: 2005).

[2] Yvonne Bynoe, Encyclopedia of Rap and Hip Hop. (Greenwood Publishing: 2005).

[3] JSmoove, “20 Years and counting: Nas’s impact on Hip Hop”, The Randall Barnes Experience (2011). Accessed April 10, 2015.

[4] Parker Blackburn, Nicole Waldron, Cassandra Fisher, Page Little, “Nas – I Know I Can” (SOCY 1001, University of Colorado, Boulder, 2012).

[5] Dominique Carson, “Nas’ “I Can”” Soul Train (2015). Accessed April 10, 2015.

[6] Dominique Carson, “Nas’ “I Can”” Soul Train (2015). Accessed April 10, 2015.

[7] Eliott C, McLaughlin, “A case for Nas, hip-hop’s finest MC”. CNN (2013). Accessed April 10, 2015.

[8] Dominique Carson, “Nas’ “I Can”” Soul Train (2015). Accessed April 10, 2015.


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