Monday, February 27, 2006

Freestyle Reality

Hopefully, we've all moved past the "shiny suit-independent as fuck" divide that threatened to engulf rap music in a scene of wool over everyone's eyes. However, there is still at least one subject that often pits Hip-Hop head vs. Hip-Hop head in the traditional Hatfield-McCoy b-boy stance: freestyling.

If I can break down this very base debate into two very basic camps, there's the side that says a freestyle is always off-the-top, while the blue-staters believe it can be pre-written. That latter definition is often considered the original, opposite of new school fetishists who figure anything pre-mediated has to be criminal. While Justices Alito and Roberts have taken no official position on the matter, it seems that every person with an Internet connection and a sense of intellectual entitlement does have an opinion. But, to me, the whole issue is analogous to a question my dad used to ask when I was little: what weighs more, 100 pounds of bricks? or 100 pounds of feathers? In the end, dope is dope, they both weigh 100.

Regardless of what we're calling a rose today, I have a number of mp3s of rappers spitting obviously written verses labeled as "freestyles" and memories of high school lunch tables playing a rhyming I-spy that I'd give the same name to. Coincidentally, a couple of those aforementioned mp3s happen to fall in the infamous "Nas folder", most notably an Illmatic-era take from an appearance on the Stretch Armstrong & Bobbito show (89tec9). Over the buxom bassline beat from Large Professor's remix of Gang Starr's Gotta Get Over, Nas begins with the second verse of Represent, pauses for a couple ad-libs, and comes back with the first verse before a DJ malfunction sets in. Luckily, everyone regroups, breakbeats get split like the Red Sea, and Nas drops some otherwise unheard Gemstar grime. Perhaps the flow wouldn't fit One Time 4 For Your Mind, but this "lost verse" always was to me the response to that song's outro pleading for Nas to "kick that shit for the projects." All in all, it's a dope freestyle.

I leave your brain stuck, giving hoes a plain fuck
They call me Nasty, but I'm not with the strange stuff
When I'm drunk, I stagger, writing lyrics with a dagger
Next stab would catch him wreck badder than a tec would have him
Nas: WKCR Freestyle

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

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Hey Matlock

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 . . .
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
Nas: Hey Nas

Monday, February 20, 2006

Knowledge, Wisdom, Understanding

"I'm out for dead presidents to represent me."

The Q-Tip remix of The World Is Yours is significant for several reasons. First, sampled by Ski on Dead Presidents I & II, Nas was, at one time, reportedly requested to respit the hook especially for Jay-Z. However, refusing, this is when the more-than-decade-long curious relationship between the two rappers began to begin. And yes, it's Q-Tip's, not the Pete Rock original, that's sampled: check the slower cadence, the response of "get money", and the censoring of "fuckin'", as would appear on the remix.

Furthering its significance, in the midst of a comparison between the two tracks, even against the classic OG version, the Abstract managed to turn out arguably the better beat. Taking nothing away from Soul Brother #1, Tip's distinct drums, bugged-out horns, and moody keys fit Nas' blunted flow to perfection. It's atmospheric and hype all at once. But this song is still notable for more than its Serchlite Publishing or battle of bpm's. Lyrically, while the first and third verses appear relatively similar to how they graced Illmatic, the second verse introduces new rhymes with a cryptic meaning.

The subject of speculation, a particular stanza in that second verse has curiously produced different readings. Now, in part an analytical exercise and because it seems to be what Nas is most getting at, an interpretation grounded in the philosophy of the Nation of Gods and Earths aka Five Percenters will be examined:
My insight enlights vision
Words of wisdom
Niggas pay me intuition to listen
The murder paragraphs of mysticism
Man plant seeds that brings forth multiple breeds
So many cultures in one planet but one culture's freed
Interpreted so, Nas is saying he has the ability to observe a reality of his own that has been hidden from him, to "know the ledge" and not fall off and victim to the devil's trick. This observation, this Knowledge, this insight is, as the light of the sun, that which enhances all that is meant to be seen and known, all that is inside of him. But, as the Supreme Mathematics instructs, once you know, knowing is not enough, you must act and reflect upon it. That reflection of Knowledge manifests as Wisdom, just as the reflection of the light of the sun manifests as the moon's light. Having known and acted upon the mind's truth, Nas' vision is clear, he's reached Understanding. That Understanding is the enlightened perception of all that lays inside. So his initial Knowledge (120), graced with Wisdom (120) and then Understanding (120), completes the cipher, a 360 degrees circle in full.

Next, he writes, those who aim themselves towards intuition, an internal knowing, call on him for his own Knowledge. What they look and listen for are his raps, his insight on the ultimate reality of man, characterized as so-called murder paragraphs. It must be said that this Knowledge is not made possible by way of some scientific method; instead, it is the product of a precise consciousness of that ultimate reality, which is the process of mysticism. The mysticism of his speech is tied to the consciousness he has mastered in completing the cipher: it is from within.

Furthermore, Nas points out that living amongst us as plain as day, we see multiple breeds of man. These men introduce a number of ways of living, so many cultures in one planet. But overall, that aforementioned process of consciousness distinguishes him from these multiple breeds. Because, by completing the cipher, he has established himself within the tradition of the original man. It is the original man whose language, which is the expression of culture (wise-words), and whose tools, Knowledge, Wisdom, and Understanding, are moved through the culture of Islam ("I-Self-Lord-And-Master"). As the original, physically and mentally in tune, it this first culture that is only free.

Nas: The World Is Yours (Q-Tip remix)

NOTE: Though Nas' spiritual point of view has remained rather ambiguous throughout his career, and though Nas himself was never a "God" it seems, his growing up in the late 80s in New York and surrounded by Gods, seems to have influenced his early works to at least mirror or even at times espouse the Five Percenters' doctrine. Also, this interpretation is by no means the only one, nor is it meant to be an endorsement or perfect summary of NGE beliefs. Do the knowledge yourself.--Fletch

Saturday, February 18, 2006

The 11th Illmatic Track

Miles Davis weaved in and out of clearly defined styles throughout his storied career. Likewise, several unique periods of creative success preserve Picasso's legacy. Now maybe you don't put Illmatic up there with Kind of Blue or The Old Guitarist, but just as those achievements were indicative of artistic stages that would eventually give way to pursuits in other artistic directions, for many, the move from Nasty Nas to Nas Escobar was no minor event.

Perhaps more than any other rapper, Nas has traveled through multiple distinct and definable personal and musical stages. There's overlapping and certain similarities throughout, but major content and stylistic changes are evident. Nasty Nas was the pavement-perched poet with a stoop sensibility and dreams of being a gangster. Escobar was the realization of those dreams, a glitzy griot with a Fortune 500 flair. The I Am-period proved the hubris-driven backlash against critics who "dared" to question Nas' changing intonations, while Nastradamus was all balance thrown off, a schitzo dilemma arising, where identity was momentarily lost amongst gimmicks and complacency. Stillmatic then ushered in a simpler "Nas", with a clearer focus, but ultimately frustrated by what he wanted (everyone's praise), what he expected (everyone's hate), and what he ended up with (enemies). And if Stillmatic, Ether, and notoriously the Power 105 rant were Nas screaming at the world "fuck you, love me", then God's Son was his voice gone hoarse, left melancholy, equally fueled and distracted by grief. Finally, most recently, Street's Disciple read like the emergence of Nasir Jones, the thirty-something man, and the relative downplaying of the rapper side.

Now this is all mundane Beginner's Psychology talk to introduce One On One, or, what is for many, that last breath before Escobar came in, Nasty Nas exited stage left, and the Rotten Apple went from gutter-minded to Manhattan-bound. It's as close to an 11th Illmatic track as has ever been put out and, curiously enough, came to be thanks to Ryu, Chun-Li, and 'em. As part of the Hip-Hop-studded Street Fighter soundtrack and released during that magical year of 1994, One on One also saw Nas injecting a bit of the lighter side into his lyrics: "I brawl with Blanka, caught Bison in a thinker."

All in all, if you want to commemorate a moment before gloss replaced grit, before NY State of Mind went international, when the young city bandit still dedicated scrolls to rolling papers and wrote scenes on street corners, as vocabulary cut through the violence and the 'hood was dissected by its strongest voice, observed with its keenest eye, and phrased in its most poetic truth, One On One is that moment. (And pretend like you don't hear the new jack crooning--it's better that way.)

In the Rotten Apple, take a bite, taste the worm
Embrace the world of reality we're faced to learn:
Coke connects and drug busts, graveyards where thugs rest
I keep my mug blessed, the evil is illegal substance sold
Nas: One on One

Thursday, February 16, 2006


Post-game reaction from MTV's All Eyes on Nas and Jay-Z, Feb 16. (other airdates):

  • This is the first time I get to use the bulleted list option.
  • Let me just get the Project Runway people satisfied. It's good to see Jay setting aside Senior PGA Tour attire for a minute. Hip-Hop needs more hoodies. And Nas' Nike flight jacket should be no fashion surprise to anyone ("in my flight jacket, adrenaline heightened"), but its color scheme might remind some of another infamous wardrobe choice. And did you check the throwback part in the hair? Just as Samson went, maybe so too does Nas.
  • It's a shame I have to make this kind of notice in 2006, but as a preliminary caution, if you're going to resort to breaking down music and personal lives like some kind of sports record ("___ won" / "____ loss" ), step your vocabulary up, e.g. "Jay was vanquished quite stupendously, ergo Nas is evermore triumphant." Help make childishness more intellectually stimulating.
  • All you Nixon-Kennedy speculators that want to read into body language, though I think Jay's seat was positioned differently than Nas' to begin with, throughout the interview, Jay's back was turned at an angle away from Nas. I wonder what the kinesics crowd would say about that.
  • Sway gets minor props for not skating by the "tough subjects", condoms on the seat and all that, but after the first question, damn, man, you don't need to keep dwelling on 2001. He sounded less like a semi-credible interviewer there and more like someone you'd find with a username and a post count.
  • Nothing too suprising in the televised portion. Full-length text goes into what was edited out. But now that the two of them have talked, it's up to the music to do the rest.

  • Jay: "I didn't sign Nas, I partnered with Nas. You can't sign an artist of Nas' stature, you can only partner with him."
  • Jay: "This isn't like high school. You don't sit down with people and be like 'so, we friends now.'"
  • Nas: "It wasn't that he wanted to gun me down or I wanted to gun him down. It was never that. That's not how real bosses move or real men move."
  • Jay on Takeover: "That was like a figure-four leg-lock."
  • Nas on Ether: "Then I just lit a bomb!"
  • Nas: "I look at the state of the game. I'll always love rap, no matter what's going on. You look at it, and you say all of us are not putting our best foot forward. Not just the rappers, you look at the DJs and the stuff they playing — it's not necessarily that stuff that made you want to rap. It's a system now. Back in the day, Rap Attack, Mr. Magic, Marley Marl, Red Alert, Chuck Chillout — what Biggie was talking about in 'Juicy' — that's missing. When DJs were playing something like when I first heard UTFO — it wasn't because it was a hit. Those were joints; DJs was letting us hear the jams on the radio. It was like, 'Damn, I want to write today!' So it ain't just the rappers when I say I ain't feeling the game. I'm talking about all of us. Let's make it pop again."
  • "It's bigger than both of us."
LINKS: MTV Transcript (with unaired interview) / Youtube streaming

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Living Legend

I have never "copped a mixtape." And the closest I ever came to the corner bootlegger was getting a Best of the 80s cassette compilation from a neighborhood girl who lived in the cul-de-sac, but I don't think that counts.

Despite that novice-like background, I do own Soundbombing 2, am aware of Doo Wop 95 Live, and have downloaded enough Clue or Kay Slay mixes to make the average outsider suspect that the screaming DJ was Hip-Hop's version of the Fox News ticker. Of the genre, I also know that sometimes artists set their names off on mixtapes, sometimes artists supplement their LPs with mixtapes, and sometimes artists set expectations with their mixtapes that they disappoint with their LPs. All in all, I'm quite sure Shaheem Reid knows more than me.

Added to the growing number of rappers taking this route, and subsequently fueling the "Hip-Hop doesn't make good albums" argument, Nas and Dirty Harry teamed up this past year to produce Living Legends. As the answer to all the critics who were tired of hearing Nas rhyme over Dove Beauty Bar Sensitive Skin beats, Dirty Harry hooked up generally flawless blends and let Nas drop a few bars over more bounce than his last couple albums provided. Whereas Street's Disciple might have centered more on a Lifetime Channel feel and Chucky Thompson doing his best sonic representation of Midol, Living Legends satisfied the more conventional fan with interpretations of Mic Check, Soul Survivor, and You're Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You), for example. Cuts featuring new verses also came off quite well, such as Shootouts 2005.

Calling into name the classic storytelling number from It Was Written, Shootouts 2005 fittingly featured a mixtape-only artist of the moment, Maino, who even had previously invoked Nas and Mrs. Nas' names in a questionable fashion. (If you Xerox a gimmick, what are you left with?) But never the one to let past beef stand in the way of working relationships (more on that later), Nas came through with a story to tell. The tale this time was of an incident, in 1991, at a club on 54th Street called Red Zone. Oddly enough, the NY Daily News, in covering Puff Daddy and, in part, notorious parties he threw back in the early 90s, mentions a "W. 54th St. club called Red Zone that had drawn much neighborhood and police attention over the past year [1991]." As well does the verse bring to mind the club robbery scene from the opening minutes of Belly, which Nas of course co-wrote. However, although all fiction has at least traces of truth in it, and maybe even Doubleday could shop it as a memoir, the bottom line is Nas and Maino and Dirty Harry together make for a dope track. The rest, you decide.

Played the bar, saw my man Ron, already the plan's wrong
Ron supposed to be upstairs, second level
The club was jam packed, front entrance detect the metal
A bouncer let him in through the back, two Maks
35 shots a piece, true that
Nas f/ Maino: Shootouts 2005

Saturday, February 11, 2006

QB's Finest

According to recent certification by the RIAA, Street's Disciple has gone platinum. This means now that all of Nas' solo studio albums have reached that mark. What it also points out is that one million people, at one time or another, purchased Nastradamus. Yes, that same Nastradamus that bore a black hole into Nas' Achilles heel and made it seem for a second like legitimacy was gone for good. Subsequently, popular wisdom says that it wasn't until Jay-Z and Kanye and Jim Morrison all hooked up together that Nas snapped back to reality. However, if a million people had chosen instead to focus their attention and finances towards something other than nursery rhyme-led first singles, QB's Finest would have relaxed all worries 365 days before a moment named Ether.

Released approximately a year after Nastradamus and a year before Stillmatic, QB's Finest, one of the few records from the Ill Will imprint, was to present a compilation of Queensbridge legends. So, naturally, Nas, MC Shan, Marley Marl, Cormega, Nature, Tragedy, and Mobb Deep all showed up. And that was just the first song. However, most of the rest of the album then read like who's-who list of rappers who wouldn't get play outside a 5-block radius of Vernon Blvd. In fact, QB's Finest ended up mirroring the own story of many of the project resident rappers: there was a lot of talent to make an impact, but dissention and distractions ultimately corrupted potential. A look alone at the career number of weed carriers people like Nas and Mobb Deep had with them, and it makes you wonder just why two of QB's biggest names had to run to other dudes to get play within the past year.

However, when the QB'S Finest album was on point, great music was made. And that's precisely what Self Conscience is. Over a straightforward drum beat and a vocal sample best described as haunting, Prodigy trades verses back and forth, in a sobering flow, against his own state of mind. Nas then comes in, battling his self over years of regrets and the trust burned by a number of the usual trappings. In the end, both P and Nas determine that the crew can't absorb pain through osmosis and that the gun smoke and weed smoke only cloud the essence that was there in the first place:

I fuck until there's no feeling where I bust and I pee
I lusted cars, but I suffered and my scars run deep
I stay to myself one deep, pray to my God 'cause he
Say when it's hard, get on one knee--and ask thy for forgiveness
Nas, Prodigy: Self Conscience

Friday, February 10, 2006

Young, Gifted, and Black

What do you do when giving Medusa shotguns in Hell just isn't bringing in the kind of sales you had hoped for? You draw from The Eurythmics and Kurtis Blow and take on the surname of the most notorious cocaine kingpin ever, Pablo Escobar.

It Was Written seems to keep getting pushed closer and closer to classic status every year, though older heads still balk at the notion of Nas leaving army jackets behind for pink suits. But say what you will about that change in dress, changing managers, from MC Serch to Steve Stoute, changing beatmakers, from Large Professor to the Trackmasters, and even changing video shoot locations, from snowy ghetto scenes to flatbeds in the middle of Manhattan, lyrically, It Was Written was not a 180 flip from Illmatic. The only difference was that the world that Nas was having dreams of in '94, now, in '96, he was living. Otherwise, tracks like Shootouts or Suspect or The Message still offer 5-mic rhymes, a lively cadence not yet broken down by years of blunt abuse, and success for a guy who had clearly earned it on the LP before.

However, today's featured song isn't from It Was Written at all; it's just a loose track, unreleased, but a high point of that Escobar era, The Foulness. Differentiating between parts 3 & 4 of the Foulness series, both of which guest star a hungry Nature, episodes 1 & 2, never separated and sometimes called Livin' the Life, showcase Nas dropping gram-bag wisdom and storytelling gems, all while jackin' for beats. He flows over a combination of Big Daddy Kane's Young, Gifted and Black, Biz Markie's Nobody Beats The Biz, and EPMD's You Gots To Chill. It's the kind of stuff that would make Cube proud.

Your gats don't bust, them crabs you trust
Can fuck around and pass you dust
Have you on point, then blast you up
Leaking like Henny through plastic cups
A point that I feel obliged to make is this idea of Nas' "Street Dreamin'" ("Nigga never sold aspirin, how you Escobar?"). Now, of course, if rappers didn't have a great tendency to exaggerate or just plain lie, then the suburbs wouldn't get their fill of escapism. And if everything rappers said was 100% truth, then the FBI would get evidence real easy. But even Nas here has a curious take on his rap game /crack game balance: "If you ain't sellin' weight, motherfucker, then what the fuck is you doing? But fuck that drug shit, it's all about this Hip-Hop shit right here." What do you think?

Nas: The Foulness

Thursday, February 09, 2006

God's Son

People have different ways of dealing with death. Artists do it even differently still. And Nas did it how a rapper would: thoughtful, reflective, and still a little boastful.

As if there was ever reason to doubt Industry Rule 4080, Columbia Records continually made sure you didn't forget. While the label really didn't mess up It Was Written too much, they sabotaged I Am like it was a joyride in a '76 Pinto Wagon. Originally planned to be released as a double album, as confirmed by L.E.S. previously (though no official tracklisting was ever put out there--despite what bootleggers might tell you), I Am turned from showcasing Nas at his creative peak to instead sandwiching DJ Premier-laced miracles between mostly mediocrity and an abomination known only as Big Things. While many of the cut tracks would later make up
The Lost Tapes, songs such as Amongst Kings still remain unreleased.

Added on to some international versions of I Am, after the staged suicide on the closing Undying Love, Amongst Kings picks up with Nas falling through the afterlife, on his way to Heaven or Hell, caught between his indiscretions and his desire to do good. As a further note, this is one of Nas' firsts raps heavily steeped in faith-based and religious allusions. For many people, that transition from Nasty Nas to God's Son was an unfortunate one, but Amongst Kings stands as one of the highlights from along the way.

It's my day of judgment, eternal peace and fire
Before I past the stars, far past the Orion*
I ask that you forgive, father, I was trying
Many thrones in the light, but only one's truly shining
Nas: Amongst Kings

*NOTE: After several comments on the subject, the second line has been modified from "for Pastor O'Ryan" to read "far past the Orion." Come back tomorrow to see what new set of lyrics I can mess up.--Fletch

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

In The Beginning

Welcome to The Nasir Jones Experiment aka Rebel To America aka Escobar Theory aka I got a lot of mp3s and time on my hands. And as this is the inaugural posting, why not start at the start?

Live at the Barbeque, from Main Source's 1991
Breaking Atoms, was the first time the mass public had a chance to hear a young Queensbridge MC calling himself "Nasty Nas." He would later pop up on the Zebrahead soundtrack and come Back To The Grill alongside MC Serch, then storming into history with a little album called Illmatic. But Barbeque, that was the first.

In two words on Live at the Barbeque, Nas gave himself an identity, "Street's Disciple." In one line, he gave himself a calling card, "my raps are trifle." In a single verse, he introduced himself to the world, a combination of verbal spitter, stoop dweller, young prophet, and mystic presence.

In one of the rapper's earliest interviews, with Rap Pages Magazine, Nas spoke on his genesis:

"First, I think New Edition made me want to come out. I seen them and was like,
Fuck them niggas--I want to get on and be a star.' I heard Dr. Jeckyll and Mr.
Hyde talking about 'Magic Potion' and said, 'That shit is clever.' Run-DMC was
ill. Shan. Marley Marl used to do jams in the park. And Biz performed; Shante
too. We didn’t know who the fuck Biz was, and he came out doing the beatbox. It
was fat. Marley on the tables, right there. You didn’t pay nothing. At the end
of it, somebody’s ass was out. But that’s how it was. It was butter, cuz we all
had shows. If you was a little muthafucka who didn’t know shit about rap, but
they said there was a show in the park, you were there, so now you gonna know
something. The foundation was right there."

Main Source f/ Nas, Fatal, Akinyele: Live at the Barbeque

The Set List

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  • 001.In The Beginning
    Nas' first on-record appearance, Live at the Barbeque.
    002.God's Son
    Nas pleads with God: Amongst Kings.
    003.Young, Gifted, and Black
    Jacking For Beats Escobar style, The Foulness.
    004.QB's Finest
    The album that got lost between Nastradamus and Stillmatic.
    005.Living Legend
    The Nas and Dirty Harry Living Legends mixtape.
    Coverage of the first joint Jay-Z and Nas interview.
    007.The 11th Illmatic Track
    Brief sketch of Nas' varying personas and a last look at Illmatic Nas: One On One.
    008.Knowledge, Wisdom, Understanding
    The World Is Yours remix and 5% Percenter theology.
    009.Hey Matlock
    In defense of the girl-record Hey Nas.
    010.The Firm Flop
    What went wrong with The Firm? Leaving off Time for starters.
    011.Freestyle Reality
    Early WKCR Nas freestyle over Large Pro's Gotta Get Over remix.
    012.The Arms of Nicky Barnes
    Deciphering the references in Silent Murder, an IWW rare track.
    013.Level 7
    The debut of the Nashawn / Nas song Level 7.
    The importance of vocabulary, as seen in A Few Good Niggas.
    015.Cell Therapy
    Where Nastradamus failed, Last Words managed to salvage a little.
    016.3-Gun Tactical
    Comparison of Stray Bullet, I Gave You Power, Me and My Girlfriend.
    017.Worst Enemies
    Emotionally-charged raps and My Worst Enemy.
    018.Q & A
    Question and answer session concerning the unreleased Death Anniversary.
    019.Rhyme & Reason
    A look at the Hip-Hop documentary Rhyme & Reason.
    020.Triple-A Rap
    New York's next generation? Papoose and his Nas collaboration, Across The Tracks.
    021.The Ultimate Taboo
    The importance of James Brown in Nas' music and Hip-Hop altogether.
    022.Realty Rap
    Nas' albums, metaphorically speaking b/w Sinful Living.
    Collection of news stories b/w Nasdaq Season Begins '06
    Nas' second on-record appearance, Back To The Grill.
    025.Street's Debacle
    What went wrong with Street's Disciple? Leaving off Talk of New York for starters.
    026.We All Can Escape
    OHHLA has issues b/w Just A Moment.
    027.Yeah Well-Well-Well
    Nas' Good Morning and the presence of The Isley Brothers.
    Stillmatic's You're Da Man in four parts.
    029.Da BackWudz
    The Decatur rap duo and Nas on their You Gonna Luv Me remix.
    030.One Mic
    What is Hip-Hop?
    031.Nasir Jones
    Post-Illmatic / Pre-It Was Written Life is Like a Dice Game.
    Post-Illmatic / Pre-It Was Written Understanding.
    Hype Williams and the movie Belly.
    034.Roundup PT II
    Collection of news stories b/w Streets of New York
    The intro to It Was Written in ten parts.
    036.Time Is Illmatic
    What made Illmatic Illmatic?
    037.Time Is Illmatic PT II
    What made Illmatic Illmatic? Memory Lane.
    038.Time Is Illmatic PT III
    What made Illmatic Illmatic? One Love.
    Nas and DJ Clue.
    040.The Power Switch
    Nas gets on New York radio and goes off.
    041.Rough Around The Edges
    The debut of the Busta Rhymes / Nas song Rough Around The Edges.
    042.Boricua Guerrero
    Reggaeton, Nas, and The Profecy.
    043.Alternative Rap
    Alternate verses to Da Bridge 2001, Street Dreams, and Watch Dem Niggas.
    044.Don't Get Carried Away
    The debut of the Busta Rhymes / Nas song Don't Get Carried Away.
    045.The Curse
    The holy I Am snippet The Curse.
    046.Talk Like Sex
    Nas' penchant for the sexually explicit.
    047.Rappaz R N Danja
    KRS the teacher, Nas the pupil.
    048.Don Ferquan
    Quan: more than just a weedcarrier?
    049.For The Right Price
    Ghostwriting, Will Smith, and Nas b/w Escobar 97.
    050.Roundup PT III
    Collection of news stories b/w lost Barbeque rhyme.
    051.Escobar Season
    The birth of Escobar.
    052.Escobar Season PT II
    The rise of Escobar.
    053.Where Y'all At
    The debut of the solo Nas song Where Y'all At.
    054.Escobar Season PT III
    The fall of Escobar.
    055.1 Beat, 2 Songs
    The Hardest Thing To Do Is Stay Alive / You Don't Know Me.
    056.The Frank White Seat
    What's beef? Jay-Z and Nas.
    057.Ether Effects
    The entry that makes your soul burn slow.
    058.Three Free's
    Pre-Illmatic freestyle / Escobar freestyle / Street's Disciple freestyle.
    Hot weather months and The Cookout.
    060.Deep Covers
    The suggestive meanings behind Nas' album covers.
    061.Best of '05
    Bossed Up / Road To Zion.
    062.Roundup PT IV
    Collection of news stories b/w the MF Doom remix of One Love.
    063.Babies Being Born
    Birth songs: Belly Button Window / Fetus.
    064.Missing Features
    Unreleased Nas features: On The Real / Holler Back.
    065.Vinyl Reanimators
    Interview with DJ Shame about the VR remix of Fast Life.
    066.Buggin' Out
    Five R&B remixes featuring Nas.
    067.Summer Reading
    Early interview with Rap Pages and The Source's "Second Coming" article.
    068.Love In Love Out
    What's beef? Cormega and Nas.
    069.Flowerpots And Things
    A retrospective of Nas and Nore's working relationship.
    070.Five-Finger Discount
    Sampling debates b/w a collection of Nas samples.
    071.Blindfold Me
    The debut of the Kelis / Nas song Blindfold Me.
    072.Deja Vu
    Verbal Intercourse and its two unreleased verses.
    073.Street Scriptures
    Storytime: Tales From The Hood / Wanna Play (Rough).
    074.My List
    A top ten rappers list and the unreleased God's Son song My Will.
    075.Homemade Fishing Rods
    The music of Nas' father, Olu Dara.
    076.In The Vaults
    A list of unheard unreleased tracks.
    077.Washed Up or Boxed In?
    Long-time Nas collaborator DJ Premier: does he still have it?
    078.Race Matters
    The role of race in three unreleased songs, including Eat These Bullets.
    079.Project Windows
    Project Windows: Nastradamus and unreleased versions.
    080.Roundup PT V
    Collection of news stories b/w Two Seater.
    081.The Storm
    What's beef? 50 Cent and Nas.
    082.Hate Me Now
    Internet people: where did Nas go wrong?
    083.She Don't (remix)
    The debut of the LeToya / Nas remix to She Don't.
    084.Buggin' Out II
    Five R&B originals featuring Nas.
    085.Seeds of Heaven
    Nas and political rap b/w the unreleased Blackness.
    086.Born Day
    Nas' birthday and the Kanye-ghostproduced You Made Me.
    087.Wake Up Show
    The treasure that was the Wake Up Show and Nas' appearances.
    088.Guess What?
    Wild Gremlins? The linkage between three Nas tracks, including High.
    089.Reachin' A Ki
    Street Dreams and its many incarnations.
    090.Life in 1998
    Life in 1472: Jermaine Dupri and Nas.
    091.Music For Life
    The debut of the Hi-Tek / Nas song Music For Life.
    092.Everything I Love
    The debut of the Diddy / Nas song Everything I Love.
    093.Course of Nature
    The checkered working relationship of Nas and Nature.
    094.Kiss The Ring!
    Coverage of Nas' interview on the Tim Westwood show.
    095.Droppin' Medieval Science
    How Alchemist came to represent the sound of QB.
    096.Gangsta Tears
    Death of Escobar? The life of a bootleg.
    097.Posse Up
    Lil Jon's Grand Finale and ten other posse cuts.
    098.Keep Goin'
    How Suge Knight ruined a 1995 Nas / Dogg Pound collaboration.
    099.Roundup PT VI
    Early Hip Hop Is Dead reports.
    100.Another Yesterday
    Can Nas make another Illmatic? b/w Just Another Day in the Projects.
    101.Hip-Hop Honors
    Nas puts work in with vets: Run DMC, Scarface, and Slick Rick.
    102.Get Dis Money
    The Portrayal of money in Nas' collaborations with R. Kelly.
    The unreleased Serious in three parts.
    104.Thugz Mansion
    What's beef? 2Pac and Nas.
    105.Why You Hate The Game
    The debut of the Game / Nas song Why You Hate The Game
    106.New York Shit (remix)
    The debut of the Busta / Nas remix to New York Shit.
    107.Hip Hop Is Dead
    The debut of the solo Nas song Hip Hop Is Dead (HHID).
    108.The N
    The debut of the solo Nas song The N.
    109.One Plus One
    Long-time Nas collaborator Large Professor: the unreleased LP.
    110.Brolic with Knowledge
    The unreleased three-verse Stay Chisel.
    111.One Blood (remix)
    The debut of the Game / Nas remix to One Blood.
    112.Five Fingers of Miscellanea
    Five Nas songs: unreleased to remixed to live.
    113.Black Republican
    The debut of the Nas / Jay-Z song Black Republican (HHID).
    114.Blood Diamond
    The debut of the solo Nas song Shine On 'Em (Blood Diamond).
    115.Nas Will Prevail
    It Ain't Hard To Tell and its many incarnations.
    116.Villain State of Minds
    The pre-Illmatic song I'm A Villain.
    117.Where Are They Now?
    The debut of the solo Nas song Where Are They Now? (HHID).
    118.More Fingers
    Five Nas songs including the unreleased I Want It.
    119.Even More Fingers
    Five Nas songs including work with Wu-Tang and The Neptunes.
    The debut of the Blitz / Nas song Hush.
    121.Mixtape Tuesday
    A mix of post-Street's Disciple work leading up to Hip Hop Is Dead.
    122.QB Tru G
    The debut of the Nas / Game song Hustlers aka QB Tru G (HHID).
    123.Access Granted
    The debut of the video for Hip Hop Is Dead.
    124.I Already Know
    The debut of the solo Nas song I Already Know.
    125.Can't Forget About You
    The debut of the solo Nas song Can't Forget About You (HHID).
    126.Across The Tracks
    The debut of the Hip Hop Is Dead tracklisting and credits.
    The debut of the solo Nas song Hope (HHID).
    128.Play On Playa
    The debut of the Nas / Snoop Dogg song Play On Playa (HHID).
    129.Let There Be Light
    The debut of the solo Nas song Let There Be Light (HHID).
    130.Blunt Ashes
    The debut of the solo Nas song Blunt Ashes (HHID).
    131.Hold Down The Block
    The debut of the solo Nas song Hold Down The Block (HHID).
    132.Still Dreaming
    The debut of the Nas / Kanye West song Still Dreaming (HHID).
    133.Not Going Back
    The debut of the solo Nas song Not Going Back (HHID).
    134.Who Killed It?
    The debut of the solo Nas song Who Killed It? (HHID).
    135.Carry On Tradition
    The debut of the solo Nas song Carry On Tradition (HHID).
    136.You Can't Kill Me
    The debut of the solo Nas song You Can't Kill Me (HHID).
    137.Money Over Bullshit
    The debut of the solo Nas song Money Over Bullshit (HHID).
    138.The Séance Sessions
    Hip Hop Is Dead general album discussion.
    139.In Loving Memory
    A Hip Hop Is Dead sample collection.
    140.Hope Remix Contest
    Fourteen remixes of Nas' Hope.
    141.Stocking Stuffers
    A radio freestyle, a DJ Clue song, and two remixes (Snoop / Lloyd).
    142.In The End
    The final post on Rebel To America.