While the gun has become a staple image in hip-hop music, Nas, Pharoahe Monch, and Styles P proved that it can also be a compelling character in its own right.
The narrative voice in hip-hop has been among the most fascinating elements to unpack. For writers like Kendrick Lamar, coming-of-age tales like “Maad City” gave him room to experiment with the reliability of memory. DMX created fleshed-out characters and staged plot-driven dialogues across the “Damien” trilogy. Jay-Z and Immortal Technique elevated themselves to omniscience and wove complex and winding stories, their detail rendered with cinematic flair. Some, like Eminem on “Stan,” embody another voice altogether; such focalization gives freedom to explore dark corners, a different lens through which the world can be examined. The flexibility of the art form lends itself to a variety of expressive possibilities. In certain cases, a rapper might even look to embody an inanimate object, opening the door to strange new perspectives.
While guns have been frequently mentioned in thousands upon thousands of rap songs, they’re often flaunted as tools. As a means of protection, intimidation, or simply enacting violence -- senseless or otherwise. To say they’ve become a staple image in hip-hop is certainly fair, but seldom have rappers taken it upon themselves to speak on behalf of the weapon. To give an otherwise inanimate object distinctly human qualities. 2Pac may have anthropomorphized his weapon on the classic “Me And My Girlfriend,” but the song played out from his point of view. Nas took it one step further on It Was Written, his 1996 follow-up to Illmatic and a classic in its own right. On the DJ Premier-produced “I Gave You Power,” Nas embodied the gun itself, speaking as it held agency, desires, and concerns.
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At times, Nas even spices in moments of personality, making the track feel like a violent take on Toy Story. “Besides me it's bullets, two vests and then a nine, there's a grenade in a box, that TEC that kept crying,” reflects Nas’ unexpected protagonist. “Cause he ain't been cleaned in a year he's rusty, it's clear / he's bout to fall to pieces cause of his murder career.” As the song progresses toward its climax, the narrator’s agency is revealed; though the gun is meant to be used against a man’s old rival, it willingly jams, sick and tired of its own violent purpose. “I didn't budge, sick of the blood, sick of the thugs, sick of wrath of the next man's grudge,” raps the gun, itself a more compelling personality than some rappers. It’s an interesting perspective to be sure, and one that left an impression on listeners when Nas first unveiled it.
Though it was hardly the first moment of complex hip-hop storytelling, “I Gave You Power” was certainly one of the earliest songs to take on the voice of an inanimate object. One that, as the title points out, has been long associated with power, a desired quality in the rap game. By stepping into the mind of what we know to be an inanimate object, Nas draws attention to the pursuit and eventual damnation of absolute power, providing an elaborate deconstruction of the old adage if you live by the gun, you die by the gun. And while it’s a theme infrequently explored, Nas is not the only artist to have taken on the voice of a weapon. On Pharoahe Monch’s 2007 album Desire, the lyricist penned “When The Gun Draws,” a haunting song rapped from the perspective of a bullet. Unlike Nas’ protagonist, Monch makes it clear that his own possesses no agency, instead responding to the actions of others.
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“Good evening, my name's Mr. Bullet, I respond to the index when you pull it,” he raps, opening the track over Denaun Porter’s spooky production. In fact, Monch’s bullet appears to enjoy the carnage it sows. “I lust to change brain matter to oatmeal,” it raps, vivid in its chosen imagery. “And when I kill kids, they say shame on me / Who the fuck told you to put they names on me?” Though this bullet does seem attuned to his own personal history, it seems relatively apathetic to its role in causing mass devastation; in other words, it knows its lot in life, accepts it, and takes clear pleasure in enacting it. “My attitude is cold and callous,” it declares, almost proudly. “Killed kings in Tennessee, presidents in Dallas.” In contrast with Nas’ gun, Pharoahe’s bullet doesn’t seek to rewrite its own destiny, nor intervene in any given user’s quest for power. It serves a singular purpose with infinite outcomes, seeming to enjoy its role as the universal equalizer; where the gun seeks to play God, the bullet takes perverse pleasure in playing the diligent pawn.
It’s clear that taking on the voice of both gun and bullet alike open many existential doors. Themes of responsibility, of senseless violence, of vicious cycles are all touched upon in both Nas and Pharoahe’s chosen works. Yet this doesn’t have to be the case -- sometimes, stepping into the mindset of a gun can be done in the name of comedic relief. Gallows humor, to be sure, but comedy all the same. Such is the case on Styles P’s warm and amusing “Nobody Believes Me,” off his 2002 debut album A Gangster And A Gentleman.
On that track, Styles finds himself in conversation with both his gun and his knife, who stand at odds over the illusion of favoritism. Gun, played by Lox lyricist Sheek Louch, feels that Styles has come to favor Knife, as played by Ruff Ryders’ alumni Cross. “You ain't busting me off, it's like I don't belong to you,” he laments. “Man, listen, used the knife twice in a row, tell me if the plan switching / Cause we used to get around together, we used to put n***s down together, tell me if it's now or never.” Curiously, this gun’s willingness to engage in violence differs from Nas’ own, to the point where Styles’ hammer is straight-up bloodthirsty. There’s little to unpack in this case, simply that Pinero is formidable and treats his weapons with tenderness, love, and care. In that sense, “Nobody Believes Me” is a rare sort of gangsta rap classic -- one that masks its murderous nature beneath a soothing and borderline gleeful veneer.
It's a testament to the power of focalization, and hearing Nas, Pharoahe, and Styles P's varying takes on gun violence showcases further depth to their creativity. Particularly in the former two cases, responsibility is shifted entirely upon the listener, encouraging them to draw their own conclusions on gun violence. And in the process, these new perspectives serve to provide a fresh take on a familiar image, imbuing them with character and observations of their own. Perhaps more artists should consider turning toward the inanimate -- who knows what manner of compelling story might lie untold?