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No matter what brilliant permutations may be in store for post–“Hey Ya!” hiphop, it’s hard to imagine much that could measure up to the beautiful hell that Nas made of mid-’90s New York. From the suicidal tendencies of Biggie to the Shaolin escapism of the Wu-Tang Clan, the music of hiphop’s most recent golden era was rich with different interpretations of what it meant to be young, drifting, and black in the dystopia of the Rotten Apple. But of all of the fine product created, Nas’ 1994 debut, Illmatic, was the best of the best.
One of the most celebrated albums in the history of hiphop, Illmatic seemed less a collection of songs than a near-cinematic rendering of life in the Queensbridge projects. By pairing Nas’ grimy, hyperrealistic lyrics with production work by the likes of DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and Q-Tip, the album managed to transport outsiders to an world where “all the old folks pray to Jesús,” “that buck that bought a bottle could’ve struck the lotto,” and “each block is like a maze/Full of black rats trapped” without losing one shred of hard-core credibility.
But when the industry began to shift from melancholy to celebratory a few years later, it seemed as if Nasir Jones couldn’t handle the change. Other artists figured out how to successfully transfer skills honed in hard-core, making the spending of money sound just as good as the street-level quest to obtain it. But not Nas: Without Illmatic’s five-mike Source rating to fall back on, his career probably wouldn’t have survived all those throwaway singles and alter egos.
After a decade of growing pains, though, Nas again has a solid idea of who he is—or at least who he wants to be. Save for the brief relapse that was his 2001 beef with Jay-Z, the 31-year-old rapper has rid himself of much of the venom that was once his trademark. He’s distanced himself from the quarrels of the QB, is getting married to “Milkshake” minx Kelis, and has basically left the days of drinking Moët with Medusa behind him. His latest, the 25-track, double-disc Street’s Disciple, explores the adult themes of shifting priorities, the importance of family, and the error of one’s youthful ways. Maturity, however, seems to have come at the expense of eloquence.
In the past, Nas assumed that listeners didn’t know about the struggles explored in his music. As a result, he tried that much harder to make them come alive. But on Disciple, it’s as if he thinks that because everyone is familiar with the white-picket fence, 2.5-kids ideal, he doesn’t have to explain what it really means for him. Other MCs have built entire careers around extolling the virtues of putting away childish things, but when Nas talks about how his entire life has changed, his rhymes don’t reflect similar progress.
With a clunky track and leaden rhymes, “Getting Married” finds Nas at his least evocative. Indeed, rhymes about riding in a limo to church and watching his bride walk down the aisle are as dryly worded as an Emily Post– approved wedding announcement: “Headed to the chapel, my niggas laughin’, and it’s baffling/’Cause just a year ago, it’s weird though, I knew I’d get married.” Nas used to temper such sentiments with a little bit of salt, but here he’s all sugar. Even that part about how “the hos gonna miss me” comes off as treacly.
Equally disappointing is “War,” with its shiny, easy-listening track and misleading title. The song is ostensibly about the fight to stay cool when surrounded by stress, but Nas quickly loses that theme and falls into more talk of the two ladies in his life—his fiancée and his daughter. And instead of discussing how their love and support help him weather the problems of the world, he just gushes. “Got a office on Broadway, business in Jamaica/Tell my daughter try the hardest so the best schools’ll take her,” he rhymes. “And I’m late to a date with my wife, I realize/I stop to shop, had to get her some type surprise.”
This over-the-top softheartedness is hard to swallow, but it’s not as bad-tasting as Nas’ attempts to deliver raunchy material with the holier-than-thou hindsight of a reformed man. Even on “Remember the Times,” a kinky history of the numerous notches on his bedpost, Nas presents himself as a pitchman for the family-values set. The song itself is preceded by an intro in which Kelis playfully asks her man which woman from his past he would bed one last time before their nuptials—a setup leads into a long review of his conquests over, appropriately enough, a pimped-out ’70s beat. Sure, the horn- and string-laden track is appealing enough, but something about hearing a guy extol the joys of monogamy while simultaneously flipping through a sexual scrapbook that includes one woman who “used to try to eat my excrement” and two who “sucked juice out my urethra” just doesn’t sit well.
To be fair, the project isn’t this horrible throughout. It’s not as if Nas had lost his ability to deliver a powerful pun or rhyme on beat, and Disciple’s various producers—longtime collaborators L.E.S., Salaam Remi, and Chucky Thompson, plus a couple of guests—pull some appropriately old-school samples from the crates: George Clinton, Lyn Collins, Barry White. Nas also has plenty of pent-up political rage that he’s all too happy to unleash, dropping bombs on everyone from the black actors of WB and UPN sitcoms to, of course, George W. Bush.
On the Q-Tip-produced tirade “American Way,” Nas even manages to bring Kelis into the studio with some amount of success. “Yeah, I think about this every day/That’s the American way,” she deadpans infectiously on the song’s seesawing hook. “Shit.” Elsewhere, the rallying lyrics—“Who you gonna elect, Satan or Satan?/In the ’hood, nothin’ is changin’”—prove that Nas has indeed changed and grown, and here he’s not artlessly ramming that fact down listeners’ throats.
“A Message to the Feds, Sincerely, We the People” and “These Are Our Heroes” similarly provide welcome respite from tepid rhymes about Nas’ personal life. In fact, any song that puts the MC’s gilded tongue and quick wit before his professed maturity succeeds. “Thief’s Theme,” the dark first single, samples Iron Butterfly’s “In-a-Gadda-da-Vida,” and is told mostly in the present tense—although Nas does sneak in the fact that he’s “speakin’ on my old life.” “I take summers off, ’cause I love winter beef/Started ’87, with the shotty in the sheep/Three-quarter-length beige, dressed to kill,” he raps, finally delivering the almost obsessive level of detail he’s celebrated for. “Bust a shell at the ground, pellets hit the crowd/
Nobody like a snitch, everybody shut they mouth/Woolrich, Carhartt, gunpowder stains/Smellin’ like trees, sinsemill’ on the brain.”
In these familiar surroundings—haunting music and discomfiting lyrical content—Nas’ growth as an artist is on full display. He’s not talking about improving with age, but the quality of the material lets us know that he has. Also notable is “U.B.R. (Unauthorized Biography of Rakim),” an homage to another Queens native who “invented a new sound.” The execution is a little shaky—it’s hard to squeeze someone’s entire glorious career into a 3 minutes and 38 seconds—but the idea is so brilliant that is makes up for a multitude of sins. Over a sparse beat that has a steady synthesized hand clap as its predominant feature, Nas simply presents a time line of his hero’s life (“First million-dollar deal ever in rap/18th Letter did that”), preaching to the kiddies in a way far preferable that of his sappy, youth-geared 2002 hit, “I Can.”
To take a break from talking about one’s own life and views to focus on another rapper is about as selfless as it gets in mainstream hiphop, and it’s the most enjoyable grown-man moment on Street’s Disciple’s whole 88 minutes. But for Nas to keep his music on a pace with the strides he’s made on the personal front, he might do well to take a good, hard look at himself. He’s got to study his own impeccable sense of scene in order to make his family portraiture as interesting as the tales of victims-cum-criminals that he once spun. No one should begrudge Nas the settled-down life. But until he can figure out how to get the joy he’s obviously experiencing to jump off a record, no one should really be listening to him, either.CP