Escobar Season has returned . . .
Hip-Hop CEO and Proactiv advocate, Sean "Puffy" Combs, immortalized these words on Nas' 1999 hit Hate Me Now. However, while that I Am disc did feature hints of yesterday's gloss, it was really anti-Escobar, especially with the closing track ending in a gunshot to the head, after a final trip to the lights of Vegas. Escobar, an instant name check of cocaine and riches, was an alias Nas was much more comfortable sporting back in '96, with It Was Written, and on a handful of featured verses from the year 1995: AZ's Mo Money Mo Murder; Mobb Deep's Eye for an Eye; Raekwon's Verbal Intercourse. Although Illmatic had peppered itself with references to this lifestyle earlier (Dom P, Tony Montana, etc.), now the dreams grew much bigger, the weight moved much more, and the gloss was turned to ten. In the process, feeling like he had let excess sour his rhymes, some of the core crew of fans from '94 grew to resent the glam, coke, and platinum that become ever more prevalent in Nas' raps. They felt bored and soon parted ways with the man they had once heralded as "The Second Coming." On the other side, for listeners who stuck by, and for those who have revaluated the Escobar era of Nas' career in recent times, this period of his music, at the very least, rivals the legend that came before it.
The first time Escobar reached solo status served as a wakeup call to the game: "Escobar Season Begins", Nas named it, "repent your sins", he implored. Produced by The Trackmasters, as were many of the notable songs from this era, Escobar Season Begins features a familiar breakbeat sound that opens up to a throwback Eric B. & Rakimesque backdrop. From this position, Nas sets himself up in the tradition of Pablo Escobar, the notorious Colombian drug lord and the namesake of Nas' alter ego, "Que pasa? / Pablo's throne / Cabron / At the airport, the Mobb picked me up in the truck / Jewelry chunky like fuck / Never scared to get stuck / So what's the deal, papi? / Heard the Feds could of knocked me / Had the Cuban posse / All up in my room and lobby / Negotiating." As was the norm during this period, and really throughout much of rap music in a post-PSK environment, these scenes proved larger than life, the type of drive that buries the needle and leaves a blur in its path. Further epitomizing the bravado that often catapulted a careful swing to great levels of swagger, Nas' promise of "fuck a job, I'ma die scrambling" illustrates not only a fatalistic outlook, but demonstrates how he couldn't be satisfied simply eeking through a 9-5, lower-class lifestyle. If Illmatic captured the corner mentality, Escobar had his sights on the whole block.
As Nas' goals grew bigger in size, his vision, the way he described these targets, likewise took on an accelerated and cinematic approach, "The white numb on your tongue / I bought it from Dominicans / A suitcase of Benjamins / Swung tight in his fingers / Had The Firm gunslingers / Hit the lights / Grab the white / Murder every thing in sight / And jet in the Beamers." Scarface, the movie most usually linked with this coke and rhymes genre of rap, hardly has an edge on Nas' descriptions. His words themselves are like a director's tools: the close-up on the henchman's briefcase, swinging every so slightly; the mise-en-scene element of lighting jarring the look of the action; and then, like any good tracking shot, Nas surveys the setting to detail the origin of the coke and the brand of getaway car. However, as many often do in telling these Scarface tales, let's not forget the end, where a strung-out, delirious Tony Montana inches ever so closely to death, until, finally, total ruin sets in. Nas is just as mindful that however grand this world seems, everything has its price, "Praise the Lord / I've been scarred with hot water / Days are shorter / Next court date's around the corner / Money ain't the same / Shit is out of order / Since the days of Rich Porter." That final reference is to one of the most infamous Harlem crack cocaine kingpins, himself killed in the haze of the 1980s.
This is part one of a three part look at the Escobar era, beginning here with how that persona got its start. Next we'll look at Esco's rise and then inevitable fall.
Nas: Escobar Season Begins
*NOTE: For contributions to and the inspiration for this three-part series, much thanks to Ill E.--Fletch