Search the annals of hiphop history, sift through all the one-hit wonders, the lifers, and the truly great MCs, and you will not find another rapper who has done so little with so much as Nas. Arguably the most talented MC to ever sign a record contract, Nas has allowed his career to become a series of crushing disappointments for rap fans. In the trajectory from his near-mythical origin on Main Source’s “Live at the Barbecue” (his line “When I was 12 I went to hell for snuffin’ Jesus” is holy in rapdom) to his current feud with Jay-Z, Nas has virtually defined the phrase “wasted potential.”
In beginning, Nas was a stunner: There simply is no better depiction of urban black male life in hiphop than his solo debut, 1994’s Illmatic. The album is brilliant for what it doesn’t say. Glorification of crack, guns, and hos is kept to a minimum, and the nationalist didacticism that characterizes some of his later work is absent. Instead, Nas just serves as a tour guide to some of America’s more neglected streets, offering harrowing observations throughout.
On “Memory Lane (Sittin’ in da Park),” Nas succinctly set the parameters for his walk into the shadows: “Is it real or showbiz?/My window faces shootouts, drug overdoses/Live amongst no roses, only the drama, for real/A nickel-plate is my fate, my medicine is the ganja.” On “N.Y. State of Mind,” he explored even darker corners: “In the PJs, my blend tape plays, bullets are strays/Young bitches is grazed, each block is like a maze/Full of black rats trapped, plus the Island is packed/From what I hear in all the stories when my peoples come back, black.”
Each subsequent album has peeled away another layer of the greatness Illmatic created, revealing a talented but very ordinary MC. Nas’ first mistake was to jettison the all-star production team of Large Professor, Pete Rock, DJ Premier, and Q-Tip in favor of the questionably talented Trackmasters, who helped him turn in the lamentable sophomore effort It Was Written. But the rapper reached his all-time low with his glitzy collaboration with AZ, Foxy Brown, and Nature, the Firm, whose 1997 album is everything Illmatic is not: bombastic, gaudy, and empty.
This is the specter that the new Stillmatic must battle with, and Nas knows it. The album, at least according to its intro, is his “new beginning, nostalgia Alpha and Omega.” Nonetheless, Nas has pulled in a few figures from his past: AZ, who blazed across Illmatic’s “Life’s a Bitch,” returns on “The Flyest,” Large Professor pops up for production on “Your da Man” and “Rewind,” and Premier returns to offer backing on “2nd Childhood.”
That track is anchored by a throbbing bass line as well as Premier’s trademark scratching, helping to make Stillmatic the most solidly produced record from Nas in quite a while. Even the Trackmasters make decent use of a Tears for Fears sample on “Rule.” It’s not a great song—and it still has that vapid Trackmasters quality—but the hook lifted from “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” works surprisingly well with Nas’ social commentary.
The most powerful track on the album, however, is crafted by the underrated Salaam Remi. Best known for resurrecting the Fugees with his remix of “Vocab” and his production on “Fu-Gee-La,” Remi is that rare hiphop producer whom we don’t hear from enough. His contribution, “What Goes Around,” is powered by conga drums, a subtle guitar riff, and reggae chanting. But the track is even more notable because it is one of those rare moments, contained on every post-Illmatic Nas album, when Nas recaptures that glimmer of greatness. The song begins with a standard portrayal of ghetto life (“Shots riddle the block/Little children and elderly women run for they lives/Drizzlin’ rain come out the sky every time somebody dies/Must be out my fuckin’ mind, what is this, the hundredth time?”) but quickly reveals itself to be meditation on what it means to be a black in the wake of Sept. 11. After reflecting on both slavery and the government’s genocidal wars against Native Americans, the track ends on a powerfully dark note: “What is destined shall be/George Bush killer, ’til George Bush kills me.”
The beauty of “What Goes Around” is how Nas asserts the otherness of African-Americans, even during a time of national crisis. Although he avoids overt references to the attack, Nas brilliantly conjures the alienation of poor urban blacks: “The Chinamen built the railroad, the Indians saved the pilgrim/And in return the pilgrim killed ’em/They call it Thanksgiving, I call your holiday hell-day/’Cause I’m from poverty, neglected by the wealthy.” The closest Nas comes to directly mentioning 9/11 is a brief monologue in which he notes, “Even the most greatest nation in the world has it comin’ back to ’em/Everybody reaps what they sows, that’s how it goes/Innocent lives will be taken.” His message, however, couldn’t be clearer.
Despite the force of “What Goes Around,” Stillmatic is plagued by a glaring problem: Jay-Z. This has little to do with the name-calling contest the two have been engaged in recently; this is about workmanship. Like Nas, Jay-Z has produced his share of mediocre work. But though he lacks Nas’ talent, Jay-Z has an untouchable work ethic. He rarely produces great albums, but Jay-Z also rarely produces a verse that is without a quotable line.
To pull off the Jay-Z-style pyrotechnics that are required to prove himself the better rapper, Nas is reduced to parlor tricks such as “Rewind,” in which he tells a story backward. It’s a creative device but nothing more: Nas’ narrative is simply a story of shooting someone, with no implications beyond that.
On “Got Ur Self a…,” he’s reduced to recounting dubious personal history to establish his greatest-of-all status: “The boss of rap, you saw me in Belly with thoughts like that/To take it back to Africa I did it with Biggie/Me and Tupac were soldiers of the same struggle.” Poor lyricism aside, this is interesting revisionism, given that the last time we heard from Tupac, he was dissing Nas harder than Jay-Z.
Nevertheless, the real problem with Stillmatic is the problem with all of Nas’ recent LPs: Talent gets you into the discussion; it doesn’t make you the king of it. This fact is lost on Nas, who believes that he deserves the crown of rapdom for one great album. Stillmatic is better than most of Nas’ previous outings, but it still exemplifies doing too little with too much talent. It is another disappointment, another F exam from the smart kid napping in the back of class. CP