Nas + Beethoven = a surefire kid pleaser hip-hop jam.
Welcome back to school, folks! In my county, this is our third week, but I know some folks are just pulling into their classrooms right now for the first time since June. And others have been back for several more weeks. Either way, it's back to school season, and I figured I would flood your faces with five songs that can turn essential tools in your classroom.
In this case, even if you don't study the musical-cultural connections of this song in your room, it can easily become a theme song for your kids; either that or a really great call & response to do with them throughout the year. (I'll have to remember that in case I ever do end up teaching elementary school.)
Intro: Born Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones, Nas is considered one of the most culturally formative rappers of 1990s hip-hop. Along with widespread critical appeal & remarkable level of influence (having collaborated with P. Diddy, Jay-Z, Kanye West and many others and having been cited by Lin-Manuel Miranda as one of his biggest stylistic & compositional influences), Nas has garnered 13 Grammy nominations. "I Can" appears on Nas's 2002 album God's Son. The song charted at #12 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2003, in the Top Ten of both the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks and the Hot Rap Tracks charts, and at #58 in the year-end Billboard singles chart. "I Can" remains Nas's highest charting single to date, one which critics also viewed as a milestone for positive, progressive rap music.
Spoiler Alert: The main (& immediately recognizable) sample of this song is Beethoven’s Fur Elise, arranged in 4/4 time.
Analysis: The intended audience of "I Can" is young children, as the chorus is call & response between a single child and then a larger ensemble. The sample (or quotation?) of Beethoven's "Fur Elise", played in 4/4 rather than its original 3/4 in order to fit the song's beat patterns, appears in the video at :16 in. A corresponding harmonic line (not written by Beethoven) to the main melodic sample is heard during the second repetition of the chorus (at 1:18). It could be interpreted that the sample of "Fur Elise" is intended to mirror the early piano playing of a young student. The sample of "Fur Elise" is played throughout the song and serves as the song's main melodic & harmonic framework. The song also samples drum work from The Honey Drippers' 1973 song "Impeach the President".
Considerations for Teaching: Although at least one critic belittled this song as a "Stay in School" jam, Nas comes through with his characteristic realism, discussing the very real dangers of drugs, sexual abuse, and materialism that young people face. Although it might be better suited toward a secondary school audience (grades 6-12), Nas specifically addresses girls as young as 10 years old in the lyrics. In addition to giving warnings to young people, Nas also discusses the history of the African continent and its people, in the final verse of the song giving clearly delineated reason for hope for young African American children. Although some of the situations described in the song might border on the mature, it is a fantastic classroom resource and an important song for teachers to use as a discussion point in class.
Additionally, Nas's final lines of the song refer to the Save the Music charity, which works to provide musical instruments to schools in order to jump start dormant music programs. Nas has been a supporter of this charity, and you can find out how you can become one, as well, here.
Here is also a student blog about this song, from a student in a former ClarkU music history & criticism seminar course. (That sounds like it was a really awesome course.)
Also, if you've never checked out WhoSampled.com yet, YOU MUST because it is an AMAZING tool!! The side-by-side comparison on this song is like whoa.
Artist Note: In 2018, Nas was accused of spousal abuse by his ex-wife, singer Kelis. She reported that he was abusive even while she was pregnant with their child.