After the release of his most recent album “Life Is Good”, I did something groundbreaking: I played Nas’s discography from the end back to the start. And than a question came to me: how does an artist’s career unfold when his debut is regarded (almost) unanimously as the best album of all time in your genre?
It’s a question that after nearly 20 years is still hard to tackle, if only because it’s still hard for most to let go of the fact that Illmatic was an achievement that should be viewed isolated from the rest of Nas’s catalog, which is underrated if only because it is upheld against him as a benchmark to his debut.
It’s the cruel punishment of peaking too soon, or just simply for being the best.
This whole analysis of Nas’s career means a lot to me, if only because mid to late 1990s East Coast hip hop was my introduction into the genre — and it’s something I still hang onto today. I could care less about keeping up with new music, or knowing the lyrics to your favorite club song. It seems people just keep up with music now to be relevant in some ways. I don’t want to veer too far off and sound anti-establishment or what not — I already went through that phase when I thought swearing by Rawkus Records was some sort of declaration — I’m simply anti-poor quality.
That particular era is difficult to define, but whether it’s Pun’s “Capital Punishment”, all of Cappadonna’s guest verses on Ghostface’s debut album, those violins at the start of John Blaze, Nature spitting natural disaster rap at the start of “Banned From TV”, or that Made Men collaboration with The LOX from the Belly Soundtrack, that’s my daily rotation on the iPod.
You have to hold onto something I suppose.
The most fascinating rapper from that era for me has to be Nas.
I didn’t first hear about him from “Live At The BBQ”, I don’t think I was even in North America at that age. It was about the time when The Firm came out that I was exposed to him, and his Queensbridge counterparts whom he would later destroy and rebuild.
But seriously, I was more fascinating by “Five Minutes To Flush” than anything Nas did on that album.
I don’t have to hold onto that thought I suppose.
But once I got more familiar with Nas’s body of work, I realized that this genre of music, which was still a blank canvas to me, could be so much more. Listening to “New York State Of Mind” for the first time, I didn’t need no message board thread to tell me that I was listening to the apex of hip hop. He was going to work, painting all our canvas full, raising the bar for what music should be about.
Turns out he raised it a bit too high.
A year or so after, Nas was coming off “It Was Written” — heavily criticized because it wasn’t Illmatic (a recurring theme in Nas’s career, especially the first decade after his debut), and was planning a double album titled “I Am…Nastradamus”.
I still remember when a version of it leaked really early, the one with a handful of tracks that ended up on Lost Tapes.
If we thought “Street Dreams” and “If I Ruled The World” signaled a change in Nas’s music, this bootleg set off all alarms.
Eventually, the project was split into two albums, more profitably or what not. Think Kill Bill split into two. Same reasons.
“I Am…” was an uneven output from Nas, although when he decides to just dial it back and make a “Nas Is Like” (also, “New York State Of Mind Part. II is so underrated, especially that first verse, the end of that first verse), it makes him that much more polarizing.
Why doesn’t he just make 12 of those and call it a day? Why does he insist on working with Ginuwine, Timbaland and do songs like Dr. Knockboots (experimenting has never really served Nas right, remember “Who Killed It?”) ?
We projected all our expectations, however unrealistic and rigid onto Nas, all very unfairly I might add.
I only realize it now, but I fell into that crowd that concluded that Nas was going in the wrong direction with his music. But who as listeners are we to hold back someone from growing, from experimenting, from shifting their subject matter and persona? It was a crime for Nas to be a rapper in transition. The only crime I think he was guilty of was not being very good crossing over.
Or I just read one too many message board threads.
Of course, no discussion about Nas’s career is complete without the mention of Jay-Z, and Biggie to some extent (it’s a requirement I think).
If BIG was the street rapper who crossed over and became a huge star (Jay did the same over a larger platform subsequent), Jay came in the game, brought his own street edge and bravado with Reasonable Doubt and grew beyond just a rapper (see: businessman vs. business, man) into an entity, a brand so large that you forget he probably has as many flawed albums as Nas (Jay: I can divide too).
To summarize, BIG was what Nas could never be. Jay is who Nas wanted to be.
But Nas as himself is probably better than the two.
If so, than why does Nas’s career seems so underwhelming in retrospect. Why is he in so many ways considered a failure, a letdown?
He’s only been rapping for almost 20 years and still few rappers can stand next to him lyrically.
We might not have a fully formed view on this until he’s gone, it’s how things work. Appreciation comes after, criticism is all that exists in the present.
But we can make educated guesses.
His beef with Jay-Z was the perfect scenario in that it allowed Nas to regain his “street cred” from his fanbase. The rapper who outgrew the genre was getting took by the rapper who we always knew was the best.
Understatement: Ether was the most important record of Nas’s career.
And with his epic intro on Stillmatic, this was a sort of a Second Coming (great song by the way, one of his many from his “unreleased” catalog) for Nas. The album name (and cover) was a bold choice. Here was Nas, almost recognizing and mocking a desire to return to his Illmatic roots.
But in putting out such a competent, mostly street record in a completely different era separate from Illmatic, Nas changed the conversation and introduced this possibility: maybe there just won’t ever be another Illmatic.
It was as if this was a thought that we never ventured to entertain before this. That he must deliver a replication of his debut at least once more.
But with this change in mindset, I felt that Nas (and myself, and many fans) were finally able to or allow themselves to distance their assessment of Nas from just his debut. He was allowed to carve out another phase to his career that could work in conjunction.
His subsequent work were all above average to great. I felt both a return to his original sound and a realization of how to adapt and change as a rapper without going to extremes and making records that seemed downright uncomfortable or uninspiring (usually both).
And there’s this: trace a musician’s career through albums, and you’re bound to find criticism that overshadows their brilliance. Is this not why blogs exist? We function to point out what we don’t like, the opposite just seems to mean we’re falling in line with some mundane belief.
But in all fairness, you’re going to have to talk about Deja Vu, Silent Murder, The Foulness and all of Nas’s b-sides and unreleased records if you want to start matching discographys.
Only rappers recently brought back in hologram form can hold a candle to Nas when it comes to quantity.
Quality wise? You act like he ain’t got a belt in two classes.
All of this brings me to the release of “Life Is Good”. 20 years ago, he was a child. 10 years ago, he wore an orange valor suit with his hat cocked to the side. Today, he sits with his ex-wife’s wedding gown on his couch. If you want checkpoints, those three album cover images is a pretty simple way to get a synopsis.
This is a rapper that’s still rhyming with the same vigor and visceral precision like when he first entered.
You mean “Locomotive” isn’t a lost track from the Illmatic sessions?
At the end of the track, Nas dedicates the song to “my trapped in the 90s n*ggas”.
It’s a homage to the old days.
It’s something I still hang onto, and something that Nas is still well aware of.
And he’s still making music that reminds us of those times.
It’s not too late to appreciate him for that, and everything else he’s done for two decades.