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New American Songbook

Location: How You Are Where You Are

Danny Clinch

Location is more than latitude and longitude. Where you are is one part of it, of course, but how you are—and even more, how you are where you are—is also ‘your location’. I was reminded of this recently by two distinct pieces of music: the 1994 album ‘Illmatic’ by Nas, and Macklemore’s just-released song ‘White Privilege 2’.

Nas’ debut album, ‘Illmatic,’ is the album that changed hip hop. It sounded amazing in 1994, and it still sounds amazing now--fresh and riveting. A lot of that is attributable to the incredible skill that Nas displays: Beyond the technical act of rapping, Nas is a brilliant storyteller.

On ‘Illmatic’, the where is the Queensbridge Housing Projects in New York, but what shines through is how Nas positions his geography: a city consumed by crime, a community that remembers life before crack; a people caught between the twin menaces of lawlessness and law enforcement. It is a shining polemic—it’s as much an indictment as it is an album.

In ‘White Privilege 2’, Macklemore is also concerned with location, but in this case it’s about how and where he is as a white person within both hip hop culture, and more generally, the current civil rights movement. It’s an interesting exercise, and definitely provocative if you can get beyond Macklemore’s insistent self-centeredness.

But in this case, the rap is so disconnected from place that it lacks substance despite the density of its material. It’s a reminder that our physical surroundings do a lot to inform our ideologies: The gravity of geography can give weight to the otherwise ethereal politics of place.