Hip-Hop Fridays: Album Review, Nas "Stillmatic"
Almost 6 years ago, to the very day, in December of 1995, I was with Nas in Manhattan, at a recording studio as he was laying his vocals down for the cut "Silent Murder" for his second album, It Was Written. In between laying his first and second verse for the track which was produced by the late Stretch, Nas explained to me how he hoped, through this second LP, to distance himself, in terms of his lyrical style, from the growing legion of Hip-Hop artists who literally changed their rap styles from 1994 to 1995 in order to sound more like Nas. Nas seemed more irritated and disgusted by what he had to do than he seemed confident of the success of his plan, although he framed his strategy in the best of manners. I told him that I thought that the way he could differentiate himself would be through a natural and further evolution of his lyrical content rather than a radical change in his rhyme style. He agreed and he told me that he had put something in "Silent Murder" for me that demonstrated that he could do both - refine his flow as well as elevate his lyrical content. It was at this particular studio session that I would give Nas, as a gift, two books, one of which was Our Saviour Has Arrived by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. For over a year, off and on, we had discussed various readings that I thought would deepen his flow and satisfy his insatiable appetite for knowledge. Nas is truly a student of not just his craft, but of the science of life itself.
I never really felt that Nas ever recovered from the "trauma" of how radically he revolutionized the rap game in 1994. And I never subscribed to the idea, held by many, that the numerous artists who emulated the Queens artist had successfully found the formula that was the key to Nas' success.
Regardless, through various business moves and partnerships, Nas went in a direction that I feel unnecessarily made changes to his flow, image and lyrical content. It is just one man's opinion but I feel that Nas was never comfortable with the painful process of his personal maturation as an artist and the forces and individuals that almost exclusively sought to make him more commercially appealing. As I would see him at industry events or speak to him occasionally over the telephone in 1996, I could tell that he had lost his balance, creatively speaking, as others began to represent him to the public and position his image in a way that offended Nas' fan base. This was something that Nas saw coming in advance and something that we had talked about in particular, in the fall of 1994.
One day, back in November of 1994, in his apartment, at the time in Long Island, we had a three-hour discussion on how he could balance those two competing forces, of his development personally as an artist and his growth professionally, in the music business and beyond. We discussed everything from producers he should work with, fashion endorsements he should make as well as how he should handle his unintentional but natural appeal to women. It was deep and a serious discussion. At one point, as a result of our conversations, I would even setup a lunch meeting with him and I, and Rakim and one of the rap legend's advisers. But the meeting for a few reasons never happened. A principal reason was that Nas was not ready to evolve his career in certain ways. But he was honest about that.
It could be argued that Nas has not regained his equilibrium as an artist since his first album, Illmatic. Until now, that is.
With "Stillmatic" Nas has almost perfectly made the transition from his Hip-Hop classic. And he is clear that the problem does not lie with him staying ahead of the game in terms of his style but rather in re-claiming what has always been his unique essence - his style, his vision and his personality, while freeing himself from the burden and shadow of his own making - an all-time Hip-Hop classic.
On the album's captivating but too brief title track, Nas gets to the crux of the matter:
A yo the brother's stillmatic, I crawled up out of that grave, wiping that dirt, cleaning my shirt.
They thought I'd make another Illmatic, but it's always forward I'm moving, never backward stupid, here's another classic...
Made it through my youth walking very thin lines, ages 7 to 9. That's the age I was, on my album cover.
This is the rebirth, I know the streets thirst water like Moses, walking through the hot desert, searching to be free.
This is my ending and my new beginning nostalgia, alpha and omega places, it's like a glitch in the matrix.
I seen it all, did it all. Most of y'all are pop for a minute, spit a sentence then the game will get rid of y'all.
Y'all got there. But y'all ain't get it all. I want my style back.
Hate to cease your plan, its the rap repo man.
To them double-up hustlers, bidders, niggas who real, professional stick up kids, dreaming for mils, let my words guide you, get inside, from Crips to Pirus, this is survival.
Blood of a slave, heart of a king..." Amen.
We should have seen this coming, I think. Anyone who heard Nas on Jadakiss' album is probably still trying to figure out why Kiss left his verses as they were recorded on "Show Discipline". Kiss is a very nice MC, as we should all recognize by now, but Nas' flow on that album made Jadakiss look like he was exercising on a treadmill. Kiss' verses are not bad if you really listen. It is just that Nas is so good that it makes you feel like Jada came up short.
Nas' Stillmatic is one of the best put together albums, in sum, that I have ever heard. Everything, starting with the order in which the songs are placed on the album is near perfect. The album flows like a movie as Nas moves you in and out of various subjects. It really is a theme album that few Hip-Hop artists make.
After the title-track, Nas steps to his business with Jay-Z, in "Ether". I think "Ether" is good, better than Jay-Z's most recent reply (for very specific reasons I will get into next week) but not as good as H.O.V.'s "Takeover". But even Beanie Sigel called into Philadelphia's Power 99FM last week to reveal that he too, is knocking "Ether" right now, which he called a "body shot" to Jay.
There are some standouts on the album, like "Rewind" where Nas actually rhymes "backwards". Only Nas could come up with this. He delivers his rhymes giving an account of an incident, in reverse with the latter events coming first and the song ending at the beginning of the incident. Unbelievable.
"One Mic" is another unique song, demonstrating Nas' creativity and maturity as an artist. Here the Queensbridge native rhymes over a Chucky Thompson co-produced track that dramatically builds in rhythm, tempo and reaches a crescendo or climax at the end of each verse. Nas quietly starts each verse at a whisper-level and then ends with a rapid delivery flow and his voice at an almost yelling volume. Unlike most rappers, Nas rhymes perfectly sitting on snares and bass drums for emphasis and allowing the pianos and strings to speak for themselves. A master piece.
"Destroy and Rebuild" already has the streets buzzing as Nas takes on Prodigy, Nature and Cormega in a self-described effort to clean up his own backyard. The song goes into the public dis category that we don't care for too much, but the way that Nas delivers it is with so much sophistication, and is so witty that it may be easy to keep this one on wax. He certainly sells out-of-towners on the possibility that he should be elected the Borough President of Queens. Clever.
Although they are not the best tracks on the album Nas scores big with "Rule", "My Country" and "What Goes Around" which skillfully represent Nas's commentary on the events and aftermath of "9-11"in the backdrop of the discrimination and poverty that Blacks still experience in the inner city.
Nas makes a plea for world peace while still sounding like NWA, in reference to how he feels about the criminal justice. And of course we love the "Move over Colin Powell or just throw in the towel" line on "Rule".
Nas, so far, has put out the best "9-11" responsive tracks. Not sounding too corny while not compromising the truth. Nas is saying even though everyone understands the pain caused to America by what happened in September, Blacks can't forget about their present and past experience in this country. No multi-platinum rapper can provide the social commentary, with the ill-flow and courage to criticize Hip-Hop artists' behavior like Nasir Jones. Especially on "What Goes Around" where Nas takes America, rap artists' embrace of drug use, and men who hide their homosexual lifestyle from their female partners (resulting in the spread of herpes), all to task. Impressive.
The album has something for many with lighter tracks like "BraveHeart Party" featuring Mary J. Blige, which may be the weakest of all tracks. "You're Da Man" , produced by Large Professor, which takes it back to the Wu-Tang era of hard beats and sampled voices. It is good to see one of the best producers of the early 90s back with Nas. It is only right considering the masterpieces that Large Professor laced Nas with on his first album. He too is stillmatic.
And we love the very smooth D.J. Premier-produced, "2nd Childhood" that Nas works perfectly, painting pictures of immaturity in the city. The way Primo laced the track you will think you went into a time warp and its the late 70s or early 80s.
The album is a must-have, probably a classic. But that has to be determined by those youngsters who come down the road, not people reviewing albums in their very first week out. Now, with Stillmatic, maybe Nas can close the chapter on the A.I. (After Illmatic) Age of 1995-2001. He deserves that.
Next Week: On The Nas vs. Jay-Z thing...
(Of course albums reviewed contain explicit descriptions, graphic depictions and material that is offensive)
Friday, December 21, 2001