What's so wrong with a formula? Einstein had a famous one. The Bulls had a winning one. McDonald's had a secret one. Infants have a liquid one. So what's wrong with rocking over non-boom bap beats, featuring a female singer, and talking about her? The girl-record is a formula, sure, but it shouldn't be an instant death. And though fans want to front hard and act hard, if it's done well, why front at all?
Hey Nas follows the formula laid out above: the beat's a little light, the style's not Shook Ones, and not only does it guest one "famous bitch on the hook", but both City High's Claudette Ortiz and would-be-wife Kelis stop by. From that very outline alone, I'm sure the jump-to-conclusions crowd had the fatwa ready at speaker-side. And never mind what they thought once they heard actually heard it, the song's fate was already decided: "How can the same guy who did NY State of Mind do this formulaic, pandering, commercial, disposable, generic, radio-friendly nonsense?" With pitchforks in hand, there was no way the song was getting by. But now, having seen enough Law & Order and Matlock episodes to stand a respectable chance on the LSATs, I'm going to play the part of the defense on this one: Hey Nas is actually a good song.
Exhibit A. Salaam Remi's production. It's old-school without the Apache breaks. It's fun without being cliché, a laidback late Saturday afternoon feel that you can relax or get up to; it's got that good times vibe. The opening sounds start off like bird calls at a block party in the jungle, plants pushed away to the reveal sun-topped groves and exotic grooves. Then the bass line rides in like a nervous pulse, complimented with drums that aren't death but aren't Downy Soft either. And the flute, don't forget the flute. It's as well-played as any verse on the album: subtle yet constant, melodic.
Exhibit B. The hook. Before we get to Nas in particular, he has accomplices: Claudette Ortiz and Kelis. (I'm pretty sure Claudette Ortiz's defense speaks for itself.) But as for their singing, it's not screaming or American Idolesque. It's rather restrained, played in well with the beat, accenting the production not overpowering it. What's more, the contrasting vocal styles of the two female leads prove great choices and are well-transitioned throughout the song. Plus, even the occasionally-grating Kelis, who managed to out-horrible the worn-out Atomic Dog sample and dorm room politics on American Way, stays within her range here. It's not R&B, it's actually good.
Exhibit C. Nas' lyrics. It can easily be said that on songs not fitting the Street's Disciple profile, our QB rapper on trial has played his hand horribly before. However, Hey Nas comes off better than a You Owe Me, for example, because it's not club-sterilized or pop station-fodder really. Production-wise, as mentioned, it acquits itself well-enough . And lyrically, while the third verse drifts dangerously close to Bonnie and Clyde by-the-book sentiments, there is enough attention to detail, creativity, and focused rhymes throughout to put it outside the typecast realm of a Ladies Night or a Dedication Hour. It's not "deep" per se, but it's deep-enough.
Beginning with a brief story to tell, Nas patiently describes a phone call, even elaborating on the number of rings, as "another peaceful moment is lost." Pressing pause on the TV, he brings the weed to his lips in the same instant that he answers, "It's Tamika saying, 'Hi Nas." A simpler rapper might not even mention the set-up and instead just start from the point of the conversation. But here, you get the impression of something real, there's background, an idea of a setting, stage directions almost. It's not just a conversation with a girl, it's a phone call interrupting a smoke and the movie Set It Off, where the still of the scene is overturned by four or five rings--her name is Tamika. And that's really why this song succeeds. It could have been Bad Idea Jeans, a weak plea for spins, another carbon-copy record to entice female consumers. All the elements are potentially there for infamy: two R&B singers, sunshine sounds, and radio-ready subject matter. But Hey Nas is not like what's on the radio. It's fun while largely escaping being trite, standing well-written and well-produced, a formula that works.
Now the verdict is yours.
Nine push-ups . . .Nas: Hey Nas
Strength's gone at the tenth one, so why hook up?
The pimp's gone off the Patron--Tequila
Put on my Lee's and the original Fila's
Sedated from L's, .380 cocked, naked ladies laid up in tails