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No Country for (Old) Rap Men: Nas is like… pretty good

A flawed genius but a true prodigy nevertheless

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In the wake of Commongate, it was pointed out to me that I’ve never written a positive article about Nas since I started posting stuff on Unkut Dot Com way back in 2004. In the spirit of positivity and general good vibes, I’m willing to extend the proverbial olive branch and make amends by focusing on all of the great stuff that Nas Escobar has contributed to rap.

Illmatic is a great album, and for many people the best hip-hop album ever created. It’s not, however, a particularly entertaining record in a lot of ways. Before its release, I was gassed-up by Nas’ amazing performances on ‘Live At The BBQ,’ ‘Back To The Grill’ and his incredible contribution to the Zebrahead soundtrack, ‘Halftime.’ There I was, back in 1994 when I was still young enough to wear Nike and Lacoste tracksuits and sported cheekbones that made Vanilla Ice’s head look like a bowling ball by comparison, eagerly awaiting the new king of Brag Rap to unleash 120 minutes of offensive punchlines and witty put-downs over loud Large Professor drums. What I got was less than 40 minutes of highly sophisticated, introspective observation and self-reflection over some sparse, moody instrumentals. It was undeniably brilliant, but I wanted a modern day LL Cool J in ‘Rock The Bells’ mode—in short, ‘Halftime’ repeated 14 times.

This is entirely my own issue, since Nas had greater ambitions beyond his initial ‘Nasty’ persona who boasted about waving automatic guns at nuns and a young Harlem renegade named Big L was more than willing to pick up the gauntlet and run with it when he made ‘Devil’s Son.’ The unfortunate by-product of my personal expectations not being met have resulted in public statements about how I prefer Akinyele’s Vagina Diner and The Beatnuts Street Level to Nas’ deservedly lauded debut. I’m not claiming that they’re technically superior works of art—certainly in terms of lyrical complexity they’re a world apart—but as varied and well-paced pieces of audio entertainment? They’re more my ‘bag,’ as it were. That being said, I do appreciate the genius of Illmatic and own three different copies of it.

The only other Nas album I purchased with my own money was Life Is Good, which features that amazing QB park jam throwback ‘Reach Out,’ ‘Loco-Motive,’ and the best rap break-up song ever, ‘Bye Bye.’ This is standard fare for his long players, as superior songs such as ‘Nasty,’ ‘Serious,’ and ‘Talk of New York’ find themselves condemned to iTunes bonus tracks or white label status. Here I am, complaining again—this isn’t going very well, is it? But therein lies the rub, folks (nullus). While it’s easy to pass judgement on Nas’ album sequencing and production choices, the fact remains that he’s still recorded more amazing rap songs than just about any of his contemporaries. When Nas is on, he is fuckin’ on, and has provided the world with some of the finest examples of Great Rap Music over the past 20 years.

Kool G Rap was the original king of street narrative from out of Queens, and when he invited Nas to join him on 1995’s ‘Fast Life’ it served as a sort of a passing of the torch. Nas built on the rock-solid foundations laid down by G Rap, Rakim, and Tragedy Khadafi to elevate rapping to new standards (and new Stan-tards, if his rabid fanbase are anything to go by), and for that he deserves our utmost respect. That doesn’t exempt him from criticism by any means, but it’s also something that no amount of songs with Swizz Beatz or Esco Jeans adverts can take away, either. Most importantly, Nas has never made a song about a woman who’s actually a metaphor for hip-hop, and it’s difficult for me to find the words to express just how much I personally appreciate that.

Nas has also been blessed with some of that Peter Pan pixie dust, much like actor Jerry O’Connell, in that he could still pass for a college student in a teen movie even though he’s in his early 40’s, and therefore he can still date 20-year-old models without looking like their creepy uncle. Well played, genetics! Slightly more importantly, Nasir Jones kept the flame burning for Queensbridge Rap during a period when many music fans were seeking their kicks outside of the Tri-State area, and took the art of rap to new levels of complexity and nuance that we could only dream of in the mid-’80s, and for that he deserves to be hailed as a true rap legend. A flawed genius, but a true prodigy nevertheless.

Just make an album with Alchemist already.

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