Friday, February 24, 2006

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 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
Nature, Nas, AZ: Time


Anonymous tm0 said...

Now, this is a song I fuckin like to listen to. Shit is dope as hell, Nature has a good vers an AZ has a nice one as well. Plus, sumtin about these beat goes perfectly with the mood and verse. Plus, Foxy Brown didn't ruin it. ANyone who doesn't already havit you should download it before the link expires.

February 25, 2006 12:46 PM  
Blogger Turenne said...

I heard that track off of AZ's Decade and hearing AZ spit that Pieces of a Man intro verse practically ruins an incredible track.Real shame.

How exactly is/was AZ a 'one verse rapper'?He's one of the all time greats and regurly murdered Nas on his own shit.

February 25, 2006 3:20 PM  
Blogger Fletch said...

Perhaps that slander of AZ as a "one verse rapper" was a bit of a cheap shot. But you know how some rappers are forever linked to one album or one song? AZ, more than anyone else I can think of, is tied to a single verse.

He's cool with me, but he's not a favorite nor someone who I'd call an all-time great (but if you purchased the Decade comp., obviously you'd disagree). He's probably one of the least memorable, uninteresting "great" rappers, i.e. what he spits sounds dope but like there was some Tuff Shield, he just bounces off. As an example, his recent song, Animal, I had one repeat when I first heard it. But if you had asked me what line stuck out to me an hour afterwards, the hook would be all that was memorable. And then he's uninteresting in the sense that people talk about how the really great artists conjure curiosity, make the listener wanna know more who they are and how they came to be. AZ doesn't do that for me.

He's a good lyricist, I guess, but he's never made very good songs IMO. But AWOL is proof that even that former qualification is being tested. It was about as forgettable as anything he's done. And when he does try to bring something more than just riddlin', in a situation like a-Fan Mail, the idea usually aborts itself midstroke and it's left rather dull and feeling unfinished. (Bedtime Story, I think it was, was the same way.)

Perhaps him not standing out to me is the lisp, where slurs just seems to run together, I don't know. Even in a song like Time, looking about rhymes alone, he should be the strongest. But those rhymes fade into each other, individual lines don't stand out (except for the last one); he doesn't grab my attention. On the other hand Nature, who I think came the best, has a verse that stands out, where a clear point is concisely expressed, with double-rhymes, it seems more than just words meshed together.

I really don't mean to bash dude. Like I said, Life's a Bitch is as good as most anything, and Doe or Die is a very strong album, but people that put him up there with Jay or Nas or other greats of the 90s come off to me a just wanting to champion the underdog.

And as for him "murdering Nas", "the Corleone, fettuccini Capone" is not what's hot.

February 26, 2006 5:53 PM  
Anonymous tm0 said...

AZ murdered that Animal track, his flow was crazy at some points. Also it's funny you should mention the Doe Or Die album, I was downloadin that last night since I misplaced the original and it al got fucked up. I would take AZ over Jigga any day of the week,especially now. He at least holds his own with Nas on their collabs and I think that says a lot of him. I mean, I do have a higher opinion of him than most so I wont spend to much time fighting the same argument. 1

February 26, 2006 6:24 PM  
Blogger El Diablo Negro said...

WHat about that song "everyday thing" with Nas Dre and Nature. Its one of my alltime favorite firm tracks even though Nas verse is from "Escobar 97".

February 26, 2006 10:12 PM  
Blogger Turenne said...

The problem I had with the remark is that AZ has not only bettered that verse on various occasins,but also there is the point that AZ became well known for that verse because of the signifigance of the album itself as opposed to AZ failing to live up to that one feat.He clearly bettered his appearance on Doe or Die on tracks like Gimme Yours,I Feel For You and the frankly incredible Rather Unique,then did it again on Pieces of a Man and the insanely under rated Aziatic.

AZ's one huge flaw is his inability to change his subject matter like Nas constantly does(the same can be said to a degree with the likes of Cormega,Mobb Deep or Nature).AZ has never bothered writing raps with such creativity like Nas has done on I Gave You Power,Rewind etc and isn't one of the very best lyricists in the game.He makes up for this flaw,and imo betters Nas in his beat selection and his effortlessly natural flow that puts everybody else to shame when he is on the top of his game.

Finally,I can't remember Nas ever bettering AZ on a track.On the other hand AZ's verse on Affirmative Action is instantly memorable whereas Nas's is forgetable,Nas's flow on the Flyest sounds forced compared to AZ's and AZ marginally bettered Nas on Life's A Bitch.

But whatever I guess,there both legends.I'm not really doubting that Nas is the better all round MC or that AZ will never make an album as good as Illmatic or The Lost Tapes.I just think AZ is one of the all time greats.

Nice blog btw.

February 27, 2006 12:52 PM  
Blogger Fletch said...

"Life's a Bitch, but God-forbid the bitch divorce me"

That's all I'm gonna say on this for now. Agree to disagree I guess.

But you're right for the most part that AZ's flow and beat selection are often 1st tier (the latter quality is too often overlooked in an MC.)

I was planning to make a Nas/AZ comparison post, so maybe now I'll move those plans up.

February 27, 2006 1:16 PM  
Anonymous Colin said...

Turenne mentioned 'I Gave You Power', and while this is off topic, I thought I'd throw this in anyways. Nas gets too much praise for the song. The concept itself is amazing, but Nas didn't execute in the way he usually can. Here's a man who mastered being lyrical subtle, and everything in 'I Gave You Power' was so blatant. Rewind, One Love, Book of Rhymes, and Fetus are all much better. It's still a pretty good song. But the concept is far and away shouldering the load in carrying the song.

February 28, 2006 10:10 PM  

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