Jesal's Artist of the Decade Series - Nas
Realizing that this decade is nearly up, Jesal 'Jay Soul' Padania decided to start a series of special features. The aim is simple: to find out precisely who the "RapReviews.com Artist of the Decade" is - and reward them of course. Expect everyone else to follow his lead! You can read the previous entry for Common HERE.
Within the first three years of this decade, more things happened in Nas' world than in your entire lifespan. Scratch that – SEVEN of your lifetimes. His career was – although some disagree – in turmoil; he resurrected his reputation during the most personal, non-death related, and breathtakingly thrilling beef with another contender for Greatest MC, Jay-Z; his mother died of cancer; he met his future (and now ex-) wife, R&B superstar Kelis; and, amidst everything else, he released nigh on four albums (two of those being compilations). For that period, at least, Nas finally delivered on the promise of "Illmatic" – in terms of sheer fascination. Yet, whilst he may have won the battle with Jay-Z, Jigga won the war, in all non-artistic terms, as his career has gained momentum on any number of fronts. Nas cannot legitimately claim the same thing. But aside from playing Top Trumps Hip Hop edition with their lives, it is strange to think now that they buried the beef and have finally crafted three fantastic songs together. A ‘deadly duo' album from the two of them would be, perhaps, the last great achievement yet to occur in the rap game. Plus, you know, it would be real good, too.
"I got this locked since '91, I am the truest,
Name a rapper that I ain't influenced..."
Yet for all of Jay-Z's successes, he has still always been in awe of Nas the ARTIST. Sure, Jones has developed a worrying reputation for weak beats, but, how best to put this? At the end of Jay-Z's career, he will have an amazing "Greatest Hits" collection. At the end of Nas' time in hip hop, he will command a stunning "Best Of..." compilation. There is a major difference between the two, artistically-speaking. Nas is the player that didn't win all the trophies, but was more gifted in the purest essence of the game. Criticism abounds regarding his present day approach, reliant on shock value album titles – with insufficient relevance to the issue at hand within the actual content. But if Nas doesn't say it, who else will? These other dudes are on a gravy train that they are too afraid to alight. Nas doesn't need to care anymore, and he is catering for a different audience now, a more mature one that can think on their own. Let's look at his albums in the Noughties, with unofficial scores that have the benefit of hindsight...
Is "Stillmatic" really a 5 mic or 10/10 classic? With the benefit of hindsight, no. However, is it one of the greatest comeback albums in hip hop history? No doubt. Sure, it completely conflicts with itself, resulting in more mixed messages than a 2pac LP. But who cares? It was thrilling, it resurrected LYRICISM and POLITICISM in rap, and look at how much more effort MC's put into their wordplay the following two years, plus bringing in more social themes. It may not have aged particularly well, and there are a few lesser efforts on it – meaning that his rival bettered him with "The Blueprint" – but it is still a very good effort, and it restarted his faltering career. (8.5/10)
Cool Songs: Stillmatic (Intro), Ether, Got Ur Self A..., Rewind, One Mic, What Goes Around
"The Lost Tapes" (2002)
Strictly speaking, this isn't an actual studio album in the traditional sense. However, since it consists entirely of solo songs from Nas that he recorded in a studio, it should count. Also, it rocks. A grouping of previously bootlegged or unreleased tracks, this was a short sharp shock of awesome lyricism, and many, unofficially, consider this to be the closest cousin we will ever get to "Illmatic II." Either way, it proved remarkably consistent throughout, and was a superb listening experience. Do I wish that "No Ideas Original" had replaced "Braveheart Zone Out Frat Party" or whatever the fuck it was called? Yes, but this results in a great listen in its own right with "no cameos, no hype, no bullshit!" (8.0/10)
Cool songs: Doo Rags, Nothing Lasts Forever, No Ideas Original, Purple, Black Zombie, Poppa Was A Player, Fetus
"God's Son" (2002)
Whilst this may prove controversial, "God's Son" is arguably THE quintessential Nas album. What about "Illmatic" or "Stillmatic" – even "Hip Hop is Dead"? His debut, stunning though it was, is actually a very carefully constructed set-piece album from team behind a wunderkind. "Stillmatic" is a great comeback LP. "Hip Hop is Dead" was well-rounded but he undercooked the concept. (Don't even get me started on "It Was Written"). But why is "God's Son" so important? Is it his BEST effort? No. Does he say lots of important-sounding things? Not particularly. However, GS is the sound of Nas in his element, relaxed, confident – in the zone. It is his most personal opus, and there is no hidden agenda: here, he is simply talking about himself and his life in thoroughly skilful ways, over (mostly) great music. As ever, a few tracks are droppable, but it is the best representation of him as a living, breathing person – not a mythical ideal. (9.0/10)
Cool Songs: Get Down, Made U Look, Last Real Nigga Alive, I Can, Book of Rhymes, Thugz Mansion, Revolutionary Warfare, Heaven
"Street's Disciple" (2004)
Ahhh, Nas takes on our old foe, Sir Double of Albumville. SD was the first 2-disc set from Jones, and why not have a stab at it? It probably hastened his departure from Columbia Records a touch quicker, too, depending on the nature of his contract. There are three main producers – the genial Salaam Remi, L.E.S. and Chucky Thompson of The Hitmen – and they cover most of the of 25 or so tracks. A decade after his landmark debut, it was clear that Nas had matured as a lyricist, but also as a man. He could see the bigger picture, and he was even getting married. The album itself, for the most part, worked well enough – not quite "Life After Death" but a whole lot better than "Blueprint 2." You could cull a few and make a great Long Play (in the classic sense) and this was his foray into albums for the iTunes Playlist generation. Overall, solid with quite a few memorable moments. (7.5/10)
Cool Songs: A Message to the Feds, Disciple, Sekou Story, Just A Moment, Street's Disciple, Bridging the Gap, War, Thief's Theme
"Hip Hop is Dead" (2006)
This is where Nas enters the shock title era. For future generations, it may be difficult to imagine how much genuine debate this provoked at the time. Rappers, fans, critics... Everyone agreed with or disputed the HHID claim. And that was the point – it proved a real kick up the ass to a genre that had become bloated, lazy, obsessed with corporate bullshit, not to mention half the things that made it EXCITING in the first place. Frankly, hip hop is still all those things, so it may not have single-handedly saved the rap game, but like "Stillmatic," it helped to influence another generation of MC's. The music on the album was surprisingly good, following his half-move to Def Jam, although (as ever) there are a few skippable tracks. My first listen brought real disappointment, but after a week, it was lodged in my head – and as an album, it is the truest representation of Nas the Artist, warts and all. (7.5/10)
Cool Songs: Money Over Bullshit, Where Are They Now, Black Republican, Let There Be Light, Can't Forget About You, Hustlers
Or "Nigger" to the rest of us. Controversy abounds once more, but this time it wasn't just about lil' ol' hip hop. This was real and true social commentary, about being black, the use of the word "nigger" and, ultimately, free speech. In the end, his line from "Breathe" was SO spot on: "In America, you'll never be free..." And it is true simply because, in the USA – the land of the "free" – he couldn't give his album the name he wanted. That says MORE, ultimately, than if it had been called "Nigger." Unfortunately, the album itself didn't live up to expectations. It was grown, mature and lyrically stunning. But musically and conceptually, it left a lot to be desired. Although it works comparatively well from start to finish, when broken down and analysed, it was definitely an opportunity lost, and that is a direct result of the beats. Aside from the first and last songs, if Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson had been hired to do the whole thing – with it turning out like his worshipper/stalker Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black" – then this "Untitled" album could have surpassed "Illmatic." But they didn't, so it didn't. (7.0/10)
Cool Songs: Queens Get the Money, You Can't Stop Us Now, Breathe, Fried Chicken, Y'all My Niggaz, Black President
Notable Guest Appearances:
"Streets of New York" (Alicia Keys); "Everything I Love" (Diddy); "Letter to the King" (The Game); "Success" (Jay-Z); "We Major" (Kanye West); "In Between Us" (Scarface)
OVERALL ALBUM AVERAGE: 7.9/10
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