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Nas, born 1973, is an American rapper and songwriter. This line appears on Nas' debut album Illmatic (1994) which received universal acclaim from both critics and the hip-hop community and is frequently ranked as one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time, achieving this title for it's introspective poetry and social commentary. The album's lyricism and storytelling has also attracted the attention from the likes of Oxford and Harvard who have invited Nas to deconstruct his art. The Source ranked him #2 on their list of the "Top 50 Lyricists of All Time".

This line in particular continues to be quoted through it's simple yet multi-layered nature, resonating with a wide audience from different backgrounds. It's meaning can be prescribed to suit the listener as it can be construed in different ways - 'I never sleep cause sleep is the cousin of death' - for Nas, he was writing specifically about the crime and drug infested projects in Queens, New York. His paranoia filled words relatable for anyone who has come from a similar environment to how Nas was raised - an institutional trap where danger is omnipresent. The lyric also applies on a philosophical level as sleep is commonly slang for negligent - as one would be if sleeping. With this context we see the line could either mean 'be aware of your surroundings because death is round the corner' or about not living to your true potential, and by living this way you are closer to death then being 'alive' in a spiritual sense. This brings us to a deep-seated question about working towards happiness, all while seamlessly being wrapped into Nas' world living in New York projects.

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Nas' Illmatic (94')

Early brainstorm

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1st Digital experimentation / brainstorm

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julian opie blur album cover.jpg

Julian Opie's work for Blur's Greatest Hits album cover inspired my approach to experimenting with a similar digital aesthetic that felt simplistic yet memorable, just like the quote itself. The use of colour and basic tonal shifts are effective in portraying the personalities of each band member and is something I want to mimic when digitally representing Nas. The colours might be less playful however to embody the realities the quote addresses.

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2nd Digital experimentation / brainstorm

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Henry Chalfant subway graffiti.jpg

Henry Chalfant is a photographer based in New York who captures graffiti art on sides of the subway before authorities remove them. Him and Martha Cooper have made it their job to record and document this street art before they disappear, shining a light on its place in culture, especially in New York which is very much at the heart of the movement. Being such an ephemeral art form Chalfant and Cooper's work is highly sought-after, and due to it's diligent nature a rarity.

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Selection of images from visit to New York, 2016

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I took these pictures while in New York for a school trip. These images were the ones that stood out to me, likely through their use of colour and the stylistic portrayal of famous faces. What the street artists above have done for Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Bruce Lee I wish to do for Nas

David Carson damon albarn cover.jpg

David Carson is an American graphic designer known for his experimental typography and magazine design. For this project I drew inspiration from his theme of covering his subjects eyes. This can be an effective way to represent different ideas. In my project I might be using it to cover Nas' eyes to symbolise how the quote can apply to anyone who understands not just the person who said it.

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Blackletter font (above left) I chose as a source of inspiration initially because of it's resemblance to the font used on the cover of Illmatic to spell out 'Nas'. I appreciated it's calligraphic style and this became something I wanted to adopt as a 'hand-written' looking font I felt suited the personal and authentic subject matter of the quote. I wanted to blend a font like this with a type of graffiti-style font (represented above right) as an ode to street art which is an integral part of hip hop, especially in New York where Nas is from.

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scan of each letter from my sketchbook (bottom left) and the final edit (bottom right)

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final design:

The quote is motivational for people of different ages and backgrounds. The design would be seen on sides of buildings, made into stickers to collect + spread around towns and cities. It could be used for skateboard designs (this fits Nas' background being a part of hip hop culture which also encompasses skateboarding.) As it's a motivational quote it could also be seen in libraries (this would also fit into how the quote is part of contemporary literature and poetry) or on sides of gyms

nas poster 1.jpg

Project Evaluation


For this project I showed my research of hip hop culture and graffiti artists and how the two link. I also show how my initial visual ideas effected my final outcome, showing my brainstorming and experimentation. There is an adequate amount of idea development in my blog and evidence of exploring different type texts. I experimented with use of photoshop and used what I learnt to achieve my final outcome. I researched Julian Opie and how approach to album covers as well as her visual style. I also presented relevant images of street art in New York from when I visited. I drew inspiration from David Carson into my project while developing possible ideas. However, I ended up changing my mind. For this project I should have used more experimentation of different materials and methods although I do prefer to stay within the lines of drawing in my sketchbook, scanning them, and editing it in photoshop at the moment. The end user context is clearly defined as I explain how it is a motivational message for people of different ages and backgrounds.

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