The Firm Flop
Despite platinum sales, the phrase "The Firm Flop" is popular for more than the alliteration it offers.
Imagine it's April 1997. Big just past in March. Jay has yet to sample Annie. Pun and DMX won't drop their debuts until next year. You're Nas. Your last album brought about millions in sales and several successful singles. New York is yours. The whole game is yours. So you hook up with arguably the most well-known producer of the time, with no less than four classics to his name. Yeah, the track he just hit you with didn't go over too well, but you have faith. You also have comrades: a good-looking female MC easily ghostwritten for, a rapper still flying high off one verse and some Uncut Raw, and, initially, a respected street dude.
Now imagine it's November 1997. The album that you've been working on just dropped. What happened? That respected street dude got replaced in a bout of ugliness with someone further off the radar. The one-verse rapper didn't add another to his repertoire. And the ghostwriters apparently didn't show up. Furthermore, that legendary producer mostly vanished or only got co-producing credits, while, beat-wise, you left it to guys who pulled out pandering Puffy-sized jacks of past gone pop songs. And you, you Nas, you got lazy. For the most part, your flow lost all its style, and your raps proved largely one-dimensional, bland takes on the spoiled Mafioso genre. Posing like Casino and mirroring characters from Goodfellas literally epitomized the whole project: you all mustered just the amount of energy and creativity it took to take a trip to Blockbuster. People are calling it the "The Firm Flop", and rightly so.
Alright, but maybe it wasn't all bad. Phone Tap is an unconventional classic, a creative back-and-forth vocoder-lead take on an FBI pursuit. And then with old phonograph-era violin samples, Executive Decision at least stood out sonically. Plus, Canibus had a dope verse. Uh, yeah, I guess it was pretty bad. But did it have to be? Dr. Dre's hit-and-run appearances certainly didn't help. Maybe Nas Is Coming or the Group Therapy one-shot aren't all-time greats, but it has to be believed that prospects of further collaborations between Nas and Dre would have at least made for more interesting music than LES taking from a Teena Marie record. Then you have the Cormega situation. And while, against popular notion (see: message board mythology), substituting in Nature wasn't the worst thing ever--in fact, 96-98 Nature was hungry and the only one to actually come off as such on the album--it was rather indicative of the steady dissolution of the group's original intentions, the first sign that something Square Biz was amuck. (Affirmative Action, its subsequent remix, and La Familia, the songs accredited to the OG Firm, all tower over every track not named-Phone Tap from the LP.)
However, Dre ducking out and Mega getting left out aren't the only personnel plays that could have changed the course: Nas' then-fling Mary J. Blige, featured on the Cluemanati 2 Firm freestyle, met resistance from her label as she tried to come over; as mentioned in a Video Music Box interview, plans to work in Sadat X also fell through; and then Firm family like Noreaga or Half-A-Mil were to perhaps play a larger role than the single tracks they were kept to. Unfortunately, in terms of speculating, that's pretty much Weekly World News. Who knows how much change would have really come about. However, we can still mull over hypotheticals in this Hip-Hop Choose-Your-Own-Adventure with songs that we actually have multitrack proof of. Because, like most Nas releases post-IWW, some of the best work got left behind.
Featuring drums that sound like Dre's, Time finds Nature, Nas, and AZ in particularly pensive states, where the echo of time serves as both a taunt and a memory. Over a vivid beat that conjures up the same feeling of an early morning after a wild night, Nature begins by trying to figure the balance of street traditions and court sentences. Next, Nas paints the transition from adolescence to having age as marked with consequences we were never taught to prepare for. Finally, although his verse describing vision robbed by life's illusions might be familiar to many as the intro to his Pieces of Man album, over the rather somber tone of the production here, AZ's words take on an especially reflective quality. On an album full of posturing, Time would have played like a welcome breath of something real.
To all niggas that the lord seemed to gyp for their timeNature, Nas, AZ: Time
While we planned to live forev', he had a different design
Is it safe to say--we all perish on a sacred day
With my luck, soon as I reach the gate, they make me pay