With The Lost Tapes II on deck, Mr. Jones reassesses the second half of his storied career
On his undisputed classic from a quarter century ago, Illmatic, Nas observed “I got so many rhymes I don’t think I’m too sane,” so its unsurprising that on July 17, Nas will release a second version of The Lost Tapes.
This new set covers unused rhymes from 2006’s Hip Hop Is Dead to today, and as with his production from that period, it is sure to be polarizing. The snippet heard on a trailer released July 2 is promising, vintage Illmatic-level Nas even, as he shows off his high-vocab, acrobatic and tangential style. However, like the musical magician to which he aspires (and has often achieved), he’s only showing us what he wants us to see. There’s plenty of “lost” material floating around the interwebs and fans, in anticipation, have even crafted their own versions of The Lost Tapes II. It’s the gift and curse (not to stoke a quashed beef) that has followed the Queens rapper since he burst on the scene at a supernova level we’ve never seen before or after. It’s no exaggeration to say there’s never been a hip-hop debut quite like Illmatic.
VIDEO: The Lost Tapes II trailer
It takes a certain level of gall to sample yourself on the opening track of any album, let alone in the opening seconds of your debut record. Nasir Jones was then, is now, and presumably never has been one to shy away from doing things his way. It’s also impossible to question his sheer narcissism (he had a 2008 hit “Hero” and yes, he meant himself). In his defense, his bars on Main Source’s album track “Live At The BBQ” were already the stuff of legend well before Illmatic dropped. It was a notoriety that set the young MC up for the impossible task of having to live up to years of almost-implausible hype on his first LP. He’d have to release the perfect record to not disappoint — and that’s what he did with Illmatic.
Ok, let’s quickly address its one glaring flaw, unfortunately smack dab in the middle of what would be the first full song most rap fans would hear from the Queens rapper. While I’ll not excuse Nas for his homophobic moment in “Halftime,” a song selected by one of many star mentors, MC Serch, to be highlighted on the Zebrahead soundtrack. At the very least, the offending part ends on a rather dexterous rhyme, even if “not bisexual, I’m an intellectual,” does not make particular sense. The offense is almost collateral bigotry in service of a rhyme and it’s almost forward that he’s tipping his cap to the idea of bisexuality. It’s also one line after he dropped the “f” word (that other one).
In any case, it’s something that happened and musical gay bashing should not be minimized. Like another early-’90s hip-hop gem sullied by anti-gay rhetoric, Brand Nubian’s “Punks Jump Up To Get Beat Down,” “Halftime” is otherwise a brilliant slice of NYC street life. It showcased the MC’s knack for unique flow structure. Nas would acrobatically flip mid-rhyme, spitting out lyrics that crackled with an almost Shakesperean precision. The young man was clearly influenced by The God MC himself, Rakim, and the comparison would ever be there. The connection applied mostly to their supreme and mystic lyrical skill, but Nas’ voice was strictly his. He possesses a flow delivered in an unpredictable cadence that was somehow always off-kilter, yet never off-beat — a rhythm redolent of post-punk or bop. The latter certainly had some influence what with Nas growing up the son of prominent jazz musician Olu Dara.
So in April 1994, when Illmatic dropped with The Source’s rarely-seen-to-the-point-of-mythical 5 mics rating locked down. In short, the bar was set insanely high. But for a man who claimed he’s “so many rhymes I don’t think I’m too sane,” that set the perfect tone. The “frustrated…hijacked delta” pauses only for a one-minute-plus intro — the only bit of filler on the album — before launching into the ferocious “NY State of Mind,” a song serious as the city’s 1980s-into-1990s demeanor. Whether Nas’ life was truly “parallel to hell” as he raps in the song is immaterial. His rapsheet is not exactly littered. Debating whether something is an artist’s memoir or their own creation gets boring. He may have culled from what he saw around him growing up in Queensbridge projects. Either way, he’s arguably rap’s greatest crime author, rap’s Richard Price or Walter Mosley, as he weaves intricate yet compelling and relatable stories, almost always in the first person. Nas’ stories are more about the mind of the hustler than the acts.
While there’s the obvious jazz background, one rarely thinks of Nas alongside, say, A Tribe Called Quest or Gang Starr with its late leader Guru. He may not find categorical harbor there, but it’s hardly coincidental that Gang Starr’s other half, DJ Premier, produced “NY State of Mind.” Premier’s a DJ nonpareil for matching unique beats to songs. This one gets a repeated dancing bassline with piano flourish. But most of the jazz elements of the song come from Nas himself as Premier is smart enough to let the highlight be the lyrics.
In fact, Nas is practically the reverse Kanye in how lyrics stand supreme and dictate his beats, but that’s not to say Illmatic’s beats are not captivating. “Halftime” benefits from an insistent pulse at the beginning and a horn flourish that announces the chorus. Closing track (and Nas’ first appearance on the pop charts), “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” features production from long-time Nas cheerleader Large Professor. The song is centered around a playful sample of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature.” But as memorable as the sample may be, it’s the lyrics that rule the track. The tactician in Nas knows exactly what he’s doing placing this song last, making these the last lyrics he left us with in 1994. It’s no more than an oddball collection of cosmic poetry about nothing — well, save maybe Nas’ skill as a rising MC. It’s how the lines are spit — in almost one continuous thread. Dexterous couplets like “they analyze me, surprise me, but don’t magnetize me/scanning me while you’re planning ways to sabotage me” flow past at deliberate yet disarming speed. As the track closes, the flow even tightens up, practically squeezing upon itself with its last few lines — “my poetry’s deep, I never fell/my raps should be locked in a cell.” It’s a worthy boast backed by what comes before. The music after Illmatic, that’s another story and is in the eye of the beholder.
As genius as Queensbridge’s finest is, he did fall prey to the common pitfall of beloved initial offerings from instant superstars. Illmatic was followed by the somewhat well-received It Was Written, then the less critically-popular I Am…, before he sunk to the downright hated Nastradamus. Nas rebounded with 2001’s Stillmatic, its very name signaling his desire to recapture the magic of his beloved debut. Its first (non-intro) track opened lyrical fire on his main rival in no unclear terms (“Fuck Jay-Z”) and it was no lazy diss track. For example, he pairs “Name a rapper that I ain’t influenced” with the semi-rhyme “Gave y’all chapters but now I keep my eyes on the Judas.” The “One Love”-esque confessional “One Mic” gave Nas his best showing on the Billboard pop charts, grazing the top ten. Or did he rebound? One could look at “Ether”‘s mental breakdown as brilliantly angry wordplay or petty nonsense and “One Mic” as a treacly pop grab — and many did.
And this is where the two (plus) lines of thought about Nas diverge. Many — like The Source, who controversially dusted off its 5 mics heralding Stillmatic as a return to form — say he came back and has been a force for 21st Century hip-hop. A select few will argue he never left (although one listen to the emetically silly post-Nastradamus monstrosity “Oochie Wally” should put an end to that train of thought). Some argue he would never scale the same heights again. Counted in that camp is Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen, who in his review of 2008’s Untitled. After eviscerating most of Nas’ post-Illmatic work and calling out The Source for tainting their rating system, he quips “Thanks to about a half-hour’s worth of music made nearly 15 years ago, Nas will never lack a following.” Cold.
The whole Untitled affair, when he lost his battle with his record company to name his 9th album, well, that word, can be read in so many ways. Was he a revolutionary in the spirit of Malcolm X or Prince, reclaiming toxically racist language while challenging the music industry’s corruption? Or was it all a publicity stunt in which he was complicit? Or was he just lamely screaming the word into the void, adding to its negative power? Whatever prism you see Nas through, his own words will always have his back and on its defiant lead single “Hero,” he argues “So ‘Untitled’ it is/I never change nothing, but people remember this/If Nas can’t say it, think about these talented kids/With new ideas being told what they can and can’t spit.” It’s powerful, and even if you believe Illmatic stands as his lone work of glory (I’d disagree), his later years have held some indisputably positive moves. He quashed his beef with Jay-Z before anyone started taking it too seriously. In 2013, he led a group that bought the long-running rap zine Mass Appeal, ironically named after a song by Gang Starr, and the entity has thrived under his watch. About six years after declaring “Hip Hop Is Dead” on his 8th album and its opening single, he reminded the world that it truly was not. The rapper added a recording imprint to Mass Appeal, releasing works by some of the best rap acts out there, including Run The Jewels, Mannie Fresh, and, inevitably, Nas himself. Mass Appeal remains a source of great rap journalism, including the best De La documentary out there.
My favorite latter day Nas moment, however, is a silly one — a brief and bizarre TV cameo where through either a chance wander down the wrong alley or a questionable decision by a publicist, the world’s surliest MC wound up getting quizzed by actor-comedian Billy Eichner as part of his bum rush interview program “Billy On The Street.” The sullen Nas was perfect counterpoint to Eichner’s usual eager psychopathy. For example, Nas refuses to indulge in a joke about Oprah (although he did sincerely admit to enjoying Anne Hathaway). When it came to Billy’s game “Media Mogul or Rabbi,” Nas bore down and hit 1.000. but he balked at his gag prize, a birdless birdcage. “Bring that home and my kid’s gonna expect a bird. I’m outta here.”
VIDEO: Nas plays “Media Mogul or Rabbi”
Rude to birds and screamy comedians or not — whether living off his debut or not — with Illmatic, Nas certainly altered the path of hip-hop. And his legacy is hardly confined to the genre. Nas had an early fan and kindred angry spirit in the Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli, who worked Nas’ lyrics into the interstitial mix at his concert along with his usual Prince, Supremes, and others. Dulli even interpolated and name-checked Nas on “Omerta,” the final track on 1995’s Black Love, languidly crooning “I never sleep cuz sleep is the cousin of death, at least that’s what Nas says.”
Few have ever slept (sorry!) on Illmatic’s place in history. A quarter-century after its release, it is a mainstay on any list of the top rap or hip-hop albums, and is often number one (Ambrosia For Heads and ThoughtCo thought so). The adulation is hardly limited to hip-hop lists either (see Spin, Blender, Rolling Stone, Mojo, NME). And unlike a large swath of the albums on these lists, Illmatic never shows a hint of age. With its effortlessly literary lyrics and unique flow, Nas’ triumph stands outside time — a permanent example of what makes hip-hop great. Even if Nas is as some will attest, a one-album wonder (again, he’s not), that album stands as one of the greatest of all time. As another legend put it — “it ain’t bragging if you can back it up.”
STREAMING: Unofficial Lost Tapes Vol. 2 mixtape