Saturday, April 29, 2006


Hype Williams used to be the man. Rising from the position of an intern at Video Music Box to influencing that particular medium and Hip-Hop as a whole in the mid to late 90's like no other, Hype now rarely sets himself apart from the flock of followers that took his style into the new century. Most recently, he's been working with a flanked letterbox gimmick that's going nowhere (Check On It, My Hood, Unpredictable). It may be a different look for MTV and BET, but it's no better. So what happened? Well, if you go over his entire videography, you'll see the gas from the gassed up start to run out at the end of the last decade. The fish-eyed lens and shiny scenes lost their spark, Hype lost his ability to stand out amongst a crowd of newcomers, and everybody could recognize a cliché a Bentley-length away. Then the death of Aaliyah, in August of 2001, after filming his treatment of Rock The Boat, seemed to have really pushed him back. Not only did Hype take a break from working, but, upon his return, his charismatic direction and the previous energy of his videos, especially in regards to color, gave way to four minute acts of the contrived and already-been-covered (Breathe, Only U, Wonderful). It didn't used to be like that though.

While Can It Be All So Simple will always be overlooked in favor of the Gatsby-like grandeur of Big Pimpin' or the melodrama of Hate Me Now, Hype's work here with Wu-Tang stands as the quintessential example of his art. So Simple is highly-stylized but there's balance, a control of the screen, so that the picture doesn't get washed away in the indulgent. It's self-conscious but not self-afflicting. Its numerous crane shots add a dynamic to the standard rap video performance piece, and the careful execution of slo-mo incorporates a hint of grace even. There's a lot going on, but, with this aforementioned control, it's never busy: notice the camera panning right as its subject walks left, treetop dolly shots with the background blurred in a haze; the 2:55 minute mark with the quick exposure of light; fade in fade out transitions, etc. And Hype can capture a still picture with just the same effectiveness, because really this video is as much a portrait of the stare of a young kid or a wheelie on a bike as it is mean-mugging and luxury sedans. (For another good example of his vignette-centric, bright color pulsing agenda, check out the Street Dreams video.)

However, though Hype Williams earned his stripes doing music videos, like most directors in the basic cable genre, the big screen was his goal. For him, 1998's Belly would be that vehicle. But let's take this "vehicle" idea quite literally: Belly was the slickest, sleekest looking car, made with all the chutzpah in the world, that unfortunately couldn't drive for spit, went a lot of places outside its performance capability, and crashed landed in Africa. It's a movie that I own, like, but admit is not all that well made. Oh, the high production values are there, but they don't ultimately align themselves with much overall cinematic quality. The performances? Distracting. The characters? Paper thin. The dialogue? "When it rains, niggas get wet." The plot? Actually not horrible, but loses its grip hard in the third act. So what do I like about it? The pretty pictures (shout out to Malik Sayeed). With photography as eye-catching as a child's kaleidoscope and all the requisite cock-driven audacity, Belly's visuals are clearly its strongest feature. Just look at the use of blues in the prison cell, an early morning alongside Shorty Doo Wop, DMX and the g-man playing hoops at a long and low angle, the black light club scene, or a trail of blunt smoke emerging as a car ride becomes drenched in red. Despite Belly may have satisfied the style-over-substance sense in all of us, even those now forming lines for a sequel have to cop to its entire number line worth of problems, where concerning Nas too.

If The Firm album was the first sign of Nas showing his Achilles' Heel on record, then Belly was it on full display for all the Roger Ebert's of the world. The Nas that so many people, and rightfully so, take pot shots at, the corny Nas, the "let's go to Africa" Nas, the sucker for love Nas, the terrycloth gangsta Nas, all seem to really be exemplified in a character named "Sincere." So while it was cool to see One Love get its Hollywood adaptation, Nas would have done better to stay away in the first place. Even his primary soundtrack contribution wasn't all that great.

Over Grand Finale's solid piano push, amongst the other MCs, Nas delivers a verse falling somewhere in the C+ range. The narrative description works, but the rhyme execution simply isn't up to par. Regardless, relaying scenes of addicts and shooters, vials and firearms, and the lives caught between, he uses the idea of Belly to tap into "the belly of the beast", where all this action finds its home.
It's irrelevant, the beast love to eat black meat
And got us niggas from the hood hanging off his teeth
We slanging to eat, bringing the heat
Bullet holes, razor scars is the pain in the street
DMX, Ja Rule, Method Man, Nas: Grand Finale
Belly: One Love scene (video)
BONUS: Nas: Street Dreams (video)
BONUS: Wu-Tang: Can It Be All So Simple (video)

Wednesday, April 26, 2006


Understanding is the A-Side to Life is Like a Dice Game's B-Side: both made around the same time, after Illmatic and before It Was Written, both unreleased, and both essential Nas. However, there is a difference between each song's production base. Whereas the Norman Connors sample on Dice Game is a bit obscure, the usage here of Grover Washington Jr's Mister Magic is a bit obtuse. Known in its own right, Mister Magic also put work in on old school staples, such as Salt-N-Pepa's My Mic Sounds Nice and Jazzy Jeff's A Touch of Jazz. For some purists, where an overused groove may make for a stale sound, the recycling of the already reinterpreted can lessen a track's potency. But, and enough respect to Cheryl James and Sandy Denton, between 94-96, Nas was so nice you could have had him flow over a dial tone and he still would have come off fresher than anyone who came first. Understanding proves that much.

Despite its title that references 5% Percenter theology, Understanding is primarily a brag song. What keeps it alive though is Nas' control over words, demonstrating once more the importance of a good vocabulary to a great rapper, and, most importantly, a flow where you can literally hear the bounce from the booth. His delivery approaches levels of effortlessness perfected by Snoop, malleable, syllables like dominoes, one setting the next off, itself just as head-nodding as the beat, and never stale.

Now I'm the average nigga in the street life, God
I try to beat trife odds, drive my elite through the night fog
And park--there's Buddha to be sparked this consistent
The beast smells the L because it travels long distance
Cruising in his Chrysler, pursuing niggas in my cipher
Start wilding like insane asylum on Riker's Island
Verbal assassin, I murder freestyle
1-2 for the gun crew, 3 drinking Cristal an'
I play the side 'cause the words of man kill
Proverbs buck out my grill, real as Ill Will, keep still
Nobody move, nobody die, why must I be high?
Busting at trife bitches, touching mic switches
It's like a hot spoon of heron, a Don like Peron
Females love the guns I be wearing, plant my seed to live infinite
Indeed in my sentences, I flow demanding, that's understanding

850 Tempo, but rugged like a Pinto
Chop shop Hip-Hop, burn the block intro
High priest release voodoo
Deja Vu on this taboo
Illmatic shit and what have you
Chef cocaine cook, no brain and got the proper diction
My composition bleeds words and weed blurs my vision
I'm freezing in time, stop the rhyme
I'm sober in the stolen Range Rover, much crime
I--stick up America, Nas in your area
Disrupt the sound barrier, clowns get rounds of terror
A 4-5th with more clips than Clint had in his era
Dirty Harry, cold black, the uncanny of Kojak
Or Beretta, sticking up trucks, carrying Amaretta
Clever to entice herbs and mice 'em and while I'm pricing
Niggas, like you're slaves, best behave, I'm the nice one
Nas, broke it down from Nasir, peace protection
Pop Duke's resurrection, international hoes I'm sexing
While you be fucking one section
Question, does a lonely mic give me an erection?
Yes an' on the float like the Jetson
Futuristic, rapping mystic
Bust it, try to diss it, while my finger's on the iron biscuit
I rhyme terrific, sparkling like the diamond district
It's understanding

Nas: Understanding
BONUS: Grover Washington Jr.: Mister Magic
BONUS: Jazzy Jeff: A Touch of Jazz
BONUS: Salt-N-Pepa: My Mic Sounds Nice

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Nasir Jones

I don't really know what to say about this one. For many people, Life is Like a Dice Game represents the Holy Grail of Nas' unreleased material: first, you have a beat that packs a Jaws of Life-sized dose of get-you-open, calm but with a bounce; then you have a hook that etches itself into your ears immediately, calm but with a bounce; and finally, there's Nas at that bridge between Illmatic and It Was Written, calm but with a bounce. Calm but with a bounce? See, Life is Like a Dice Game is similar to getting whiplash in slow motion, and wanting more. It's a head nodder, but there's also more than just hype. It has a reflective feel to it, but escapes the contrived lows of many trying-too-hard-to-say-something songs. This exact balance is what Nas found very often in his early days. (I place Dice Game from sometime in the late summer of 1994.) However, maybe the most frustrating thing here is that not only is it unreleased, but, as Nas trails off at the end into freestyle form, we're not even really blessed with a whole verse. This is what separates the Lost Tapes from the Lost Ark.

Yo . . .yeah . . .
It's that Queens shit, the real shit . . .
Illmatic . . .
It's the N-A-S, yes . . .yo . . .

I wake up every morning
Thinking what we gon' do today
(What we gon' do today)
There's got to be a better way
(Got to be a better way)
To maintain is the price of fame
Life is like a dice game
(Maintain is the price of fame)
Life is like a dice game

1,2 . . .
I never knock a brother
I'm anti-jail for real
Smooth criminal skill
Locked in a human flesh shield
Watching niggas get rich beside me
Pushing a 5 B-Y me
Up in the passenger seat
But I see me as Hallie Selassie in my kingdom
Sipping Asti Spumante
Dripped in, reality kicks in
I need the papes to start clicking
Got a connect out in Richmond
Every nigga in the fam will pitch it
It's on, word is bond
That's my name, big Nas
All wise to civilize
From the Northern Hemisphere of the earth
Peace to my seed and thanks for her birth
Destiny, that's her name
It's going on
You know my name
Big Nas in the house, y'all
On the freestyle tip
When I finish this shit
It's sure to be a hit
Peace . . .

Nas: Life is Like a Dice Game
Nas: Life is Like a Dice Game (instrumental)

Friday, April 21, 2006

One Mic

Guns and drugs. Life and death. Politics, women, and money. Throughout his career, Nas has touched on many of Hip-Hop's most hallowed topics. At his best, these subjects have been explored with creativity. At his worst, they poorly rehashed what the next man had already said. Nas has elevated the genre, while also succumbing to the industry. His rise and fall and rise again, times of relevance and irrelevance, often have mirrored the very state of Hip-Hop, at least from a New York side of things. Appropriately enough, if I had to recommend a single song that equally summarized his strengths and Hip-Hop's best, NY State of Mind would be that track. Going post-millennia, if I then had to pick a single song that represented Nas' version of Hip-Hop at its peak, One Mic would be the choice. It's both lyrical and conscious, all those staple terms critics keep in their breast pocket. It's emotive, full of energy, as Nas literally surges with the beat. Thematically, it's defiant, violent, just as quickly remorseful and then rebellious. It stretches from the prison yard to the street corner to home, the diamonds to the dying, the women to the war. It encompasses a total view of Hip-Hop, its traps and treasures, past and tomorrow, and gives the listener a sense of the spirit that birthed a culture. One Mic is a fitting ode to the voice that empowered a movement.

What you call a infinite brawl, eternal souls clashing
War gets deep, some beef is everlasting
Complete with thick scars, brothers knifing each other
Up in prison yards, drama, where does it start?
This brings up an interesting point though. In focusing here on Nas' music and what it represents, we talk about Hip-Hop a lot, but what the hell is it anyway? Textbook answers are only good for textbooks and always carry their own inadequacies. This whatever-it-is is too dynamic to be summed up with some cold, scientific language or demonstrated easily like a new gadget at a technology fair. "What is Hip-Hop?" is a question I've kicked around in my own head often, even once writing a kind of exposition piece to satisfy an answer. Two and half years ago, after a Freshman semester presentation of a program entitled "The African Roots of Hip-Hop", I came back to my dorm and just started thinking it over. While I've posted this online before, I now extend to you my little rumination of a very big question.

--Internet message boards would tell me it's dead.
--FOX News would tell me it's a disease.
--New York would tell me it's not the South.
--The radio would tell me it's not New York.
--The Bay would tell me it's MDMA.
--Dope boys would tell me it's coke.
--Bohos would tell me it's crocheted and reeks of Nag Champa.
--Russell Simmons would tell me at the release of the Spring line of Phat Farm.
--Puff Daddy would tell me at the release of the Fall line of Sean John.
--Rappers would tell me it's the streets.
--The streets would show me it's top 40.
--Record companies would tell me it's the mixtape.
--R&B would tell me it's verse-sing-verse-bridge-video shoot.
--Rawkus would tell me it's coming out next year.
--Pharrell would tell me it's smiling white girls and trucker hats.
--El-P would tell me it's depressed white girls and trucker hats.
--The backpackers would tell me offbeat and in metaphor.
--The vets would tell me it was only around when they were kids.
--Me? I couldn't tell you a damn thing.

My favorite band until I was twelve was The Smashing Pumpkins. I only knew rap music as a casual listener from one of those "original home of Hip-Hop and R&B" fodder radio stations. Hiding the Parental Advisory sticker from my dad, the first rap album I ever bought was E 1999 Eternal. Before I knew the Stevie Wonder sample or saw the movie it cross-promoted, the first rap song I ever memorized was Gangsta's Paradise. Then, at age thirteen, killing time in a St. Louis record store, almost by accident and surely dumb luck, I bought Black Star's debut and Do You Want More?!!!??!, by The Roots.

That's organic Hip-Hop jazz.

I thought I was good then. Like every teenager caught between know-it-allism and gym class, sophomore year of high school, I could have sworn I had it under control. Mos was telling me I was Hip-Hop. And laces out and pants sagging, I believed it. I knew about an Extinction Agenda and A Nation of Millions. I knew about De La, Tribe, Rakim, Kane, Wu-Tang, Slick Rick. I was really good then, right? Next came the first week of "Music Theory and Harmony" a.k.a. "Music Appreciation." The teacher, an older white man who played the tuba, asked us where we thought rap music came from. I was all ready to chime in with "Bronx, 1973, sir", before my thought process was interrupted--

*record scratches*

"Centuries ago in Africa . . ."


Oh, right, Acey and them told us that back in '93. That's Innercity Griots.

Regarding the proper dress for the night's performance, I had really been trying not to come off as the typical white dude trying to be "down." However, an afternoon nap and rainy weather forced the backwards baseball hat and Russell blue hoodie on me. And since I'm not one to do anything half-assed, I threw on a Jesus piece, wave cap, and "Thug Life" tat for good measure. As I walked into the Commons area, avoiding a Jansport by rocking an Ampac, in too strolled Northern California's own version of urban influence on the suburbs. EM, IN, and their other friend, EM, were all wearing the standard garb, overcompensating for a lack of melanin with identical Raider beanies.

That's keeping it real?

The night's entertainment was soon introduced. Henri-Pierre played the role of lead vocalist, joined on stage by an acoustic guitarist, a bass player, a hand-clapper / all around performer, several female dancers, and two percussionists. The percussionists were distinguished by Henri-Pierre as "the groove masters." Continuing, he proclaimed, "those familiar with rap have your MPC 3000, well, we don't need that, we have the real thing."

That's gangsta.

There were about 85 people at the show, aproximately:
60 white females
15 white males
03 Asian females
01 Asian male (who of course had to breakdance)
02 Hispanic females
02 Hispanic males
01 black female
01 black male (who of course brought his cool white friend)

That's the demographic.

Before the night even properly began, Henri-Pierre had instructed all the "lazy" people to take their chairs to the back, while the rest of the room danced in the front. On cue, seventy white kids made like The Mighty Mighty Bosstones on ecstasy and No Doz.

Consisting of upbeat, ballad, and call & response numbers, and with a repertoire featuring songs from Mali, Senegal, and Ghana, the band played a thrilling set for nearly ninety minutes. Throughout their performance, the group's musicianship and passion was so vivid that it made everything seem beyond fluid. Chills were instant and even the most stubborn of audience members was swept up. All the angles and stars and sounds lined up just right, and I swear I had this odd reaction, almost like a numbness, to the point where I was forced to check to see if my hat was still on. The air felt that light around me.

That's H.E.R.

WHAT IS HIP-HOP? (cont.)
At the end of it all, the question was still looming. I didn't quite get the lecture I might have been expecting. The breakdown of the social and musical diasporas, tied in amongst a reflection of current state of affairs, from the unique perspective of an African musician living in modern urban America, was lacking, but I couldn't be mad at the music.

Still, what the hell is it?

--KRS-One: "rap is something you do. Hip-Hop is something you live."
--DJ Premier: "what we're doing is Hip-Hop. They're doing rap."
--Saul Williams: "not until you've listened to Rakim on a rocky mountain top have you heard Hip-Hop."
--And some others dudes probably have said some other stuff--I don't know.

However, from what I picked up at the African Roots performance, one thing stuck out: at a certain point in the evening, the maestro of handclaps jumped down from the stage and started dancing in a frenzy, center of the room. All the energy around swelled in his presence. He then quickly stopped and pulled out a lighter. Next he reached for a nearby torch-like instrument. He lit the torch, and all but the steady, creeping pace of percussion ceased. The once-dancing crowd stood still, silent in anticipation. With all attention squarely in his direction, the man placed the flame in his mouth and swallowed it whole.


Nas: One Mic
Nas: One Mic live @ BET Presents (video)

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Da BackWudz

About a year ago I only associated "the backwoods" with some vague notion of a deep Southern rural setting. Then I heard the song You Gonna Luv Me, and the subsequent remix with Nas and Slim Thug, and now I can further associate "the backwoods" with Da BackWudz, a group whose name is seemingly inspired by a deep Southern rural setting. Aside from featuring Nas in the rare position of sounding comfortable in a quicker double time flow, because of the beat's interesting marriage of Kanye West and crunk, You Gonna Luv Me piqued my interest in the Decatur, Georgia duo. Well, like I said, about a year went by, and while doing casual message board browsing last week, I came upon a leak to Da BackWudz debut, Wood Work, which happens to come out today. Surprised that this album was not already in stores and shipping gold, nevertheless, I decided to check it out myself.

Read any of Da BackWudz' press and you'll be hit with this idea that their musical influences span genres. According to an MTV write-up, Wood Work is a "a down-home compilation of classic crunk, throwback funk and juke-joint soul . . . allowing them the ability to encompass all sounds and vibes without getting stuck in a one-dimensional groove." On one hand, this could make for a diverse and continually exciting sound. On the other hand, what it ultimately means is that the album is sabotaged by having too much going on. Wood Work is not an album that lives and dies by its lyrics. Rappers Sho-Nuff and Big Marc, Sho-Nuff especially, I think, more than acquit themselves, with only occasional lapses into the contrived. However, it's in the production side of things that the debut meets its death sentence.

If I had to generalize the Southern rap aesthetic in a single word, "soulful" would jump out admittedly. Listening to Devin the Dude, Goodie Mob, Outkast, Scarface, UGK, etc, lyrically and sonically these artists convey the energy and raw emotion which characterizes a lot of classic soul music. Instead of having any real soul though, Wood Work merely has busy soul samples. And as everything from Jennifer Holliday (You Gonna Luv Me) to Bob Marley (Making Money Count Hundreds), or even Willy Wonka (I Don't Like The Look Of It), is thrown on, these samples aren't filtered in any especially creative or meaningful way. They're simply piled up, drums on top of singing on top of synthesizers on top of sound effects on top of more singing on top of chants to the point where all these elements just topple over (Fantastic). To see this trouble, look no further than the revamped You Gonna Luv Me remix. The version on the downloaded release happens to be different than what I heard a year ago. While the 2005 effort was no simplistic creation, its sped-up sample was used with restraint, and its synth led industrial thump proved more than manageable. Now, in '06, the sample is used not only in the hook, but over the verses too, making itself quite distracting. The drums have been changed to have more going on but no more success. And when it comes time for Nas' verse, they isolate the percussion, in an awkward fashion, and add an annoying "hey hey hey" chant for extra measure. It must have been real crowded in Decatur that day. All of these fancy production ticks, tricks, and trinkets are indicative of a self-conscious style that waves its hands wildly instead of just keeping a solid beat.

However, it's not all bad. When the production is more focused and Sho-Nuff and Big Marc are allowed to lead the way, Wood Work gets its formula right. For instance, the intro, Welcome 2 Da Backwudz, starts with thick old school horns and handclaps, an instant adrenaline shot, which the MCs ride with ease. There's also some scratching and a background melody. But even if a lot still is going on, it's organized: "church music and oldies and R&B consoled me, but nothing sounded better than what the Hip-Hop told me." Later comes Feelin' Lonely, the group's high point. With guitar, keys, more natural sounding drums, and singing that's covered in this interesting studio murkiness, but still is able to move, the album finally finds its soul. Appropriately enough, the rappers share a trio of heartfelt stories over the song's mellowed-out vibes. While the first verse deals in the Brenda / Tisha genre, it's the second story that introduces the most creative and even daring episode. The tale of a gay football jock may, at first, seem like a mundane after-school special, but the sincerity with which this story is presented, and the subtle irony that its conclusion taps into, make Feelin' Lonely stand out. In this one song, with the production tempered, the lyrics made primary, and the rhymes and stories allowed to shine, Da BackWudz finds its sound, if a bit a late.

Lame nigga, I flame niggas
Whoever came withcha
I got retire-out-the-game figures
Da BackWudz f/ Slim Thug, Nas: You Gonna Luv Me (2005 remix)
BONUS: Da BackWudz: Feelin' Lonely
BONUS: Da BackWudz: Welcome 2 Da Backwudz

Saturday, April 15, 2006


Stillmatic's You're Da Man is significant for four reasons.

1.The first verse
While Ether will always get the most attention for its diss towards Jay-Z, and Destroy & Rebuild will always be seen as the principal piece in the Cormega beef, Nas' first verse on You're Da Man, though not as vicious as either, packs a strong punch just the same. From declaring that he doesn't "kill soloists, only kills squads", to taking on the Fuck Nas Coalition ("yesterday you begged for a deal, today you tough guys"), Nas then finishes with a succinct assault on Jay-Z. By painting the rapper homie once more as "a fan, a phony, a fake, a pussy, a Stan", he calls Jay on jacking his style, co-opting his friends, and even wanting to be with his girl. So though the dramatics of Ether are more memorable, You're Da Man was a quarry size dose of salt-into-wound itself.

2.The second verse
Staying on the Jay / Nas battle for another moment, in the Brooklynite's closing shot, Blueprint 2, he echoed a common complaint leveled against Nas, "'cause you don't understand him, it don't mean that he nice. It just means you don't understand all the bullshit that he write." If any verse could evidence that attack, it might be You're Da Man's second. With its surreal quality and highly poetic allusions, Nas' lyrics are image-laden and unique, "I saw a dead bird flying through a broken sky . . . Broads play with pentagrams in they vagina." But to simply pass this of as pseudo-philosophical garbledness does a disservice not only to Nas' lyricism but levels of lyricism within general rap music. The dead bird line is very Dali-like, admittedly an idea born out of some high, the relationship between Nas' own self-destruction and effort to escape the distress. Then a woman holding that 5-pointed figure of Satanism next to herself underscores Nas' portrayal of women as deceitful or even evil. These instances are merely figurative interpretations of the concepts of salvation and trust.

3.The unreleased stanza
If people had a problem with the construction of the second verse as appearing on Stillmatic, they didn't even hear it all. That verse begins there with "but wait a sec, give me time to explain." But what exactly is Nas asking you to let him clarify? Well, perhaps because its language was too bold and apt for misunderstanding, a stanza of six lines actually was meant to precede that point, but got taken off.

At church on my hand was a preacher's blood
Swallow dirt from a graveyard in need of love
I vomit blunt residue, I want revenue, dreaming
And pump lead at you devils trying to take my freedom
It drove me crazy the day I drank my own urine, my own seamen
With a .9 to my brain, but wait a sec, give me time to explain
As mentioned, apt for misunderstanding, overall, Nas seems to be illustrating a life of excess, the extremes gone to for self-satisfaction, and the poisons that come with this pursuit.

4.The hook
Large Professor's return to the world of the rapper Nas, after about a seven-year absence, stands as one of Stillmatic's highest accomplishments. His throwback beat for Rewind was the precursor to the sound Salaam Remi would experiment with on God's Son, but with You're Da Man, he hit his high point. The call of "you're the man" on the hook, and the ethereal quality of the string melody, plays in perfectly with the surreal quality of Nas' words. The hook also provides a catchiness and a great emotional moment, especially when performed live. However, sampling Sixto Rodriguez' Sugarman, a spacey folk number in its own right, it may surprise some that never on that original song does the phrase "you're the man" appear. Pay attention to Large Pro's chop, as "Sugarman . . . you're the answer" magically becomes "you're the man." It's a fitting creative touch to one of Nas' most imaginative tracks.

Nas: You're Da Man
Nas: You're Da Man (unreleased)
BONUS: Sixto Rodriguez: Sugarman
BONUS: You're Da Man sample exercise

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Yeah Well-Well-Well

For today's feat of a third Street's Disciple post in a row, I want to focus on what could possibly be my favorite of the lost tracks from this project, Good Morning. Unlike anything appearing throughout either disc, Good Morning comes at the world, in its music and lyrics, a bit different. With a studied breath and careful speech, Nas gives focus equally to the run of school children and the lurch of the homeless, all a part of the morning traffic. His early ad-libs serve literally as a dawn salutation, his "yeah" not hyped or downtrodden, reflective almost, framing thoughts the way waking up to the call of the sun only can. There's movement outside, but the chaos of the city is tucked away for now. People are still sleeping, the air casts a fog that slows everything down to an AM pace, and Nas is up early, without the anxiety of past years: "Can't ya tell I'm much happier nowadays? No more child play, living life the foul way." But then this textured feel that you get is not merely from Nas, but rather springs forth from the rich sample of the Isley Brother's For The Love Of You. While clearance problems with that sample might be what got Good Morning inevitably cut, I can't imagine it sounding any different than it does courtesy of the Isleys.

With a career that spans from the 1950's straight through today, hopefully 2005-2006 is not the first time you've heard of the Isley Brothers. (Ron Isley even popped on another Nas song before, Project Windows.) At the group's best, blending their church upbringing with the sounds of the popular music from the various decades they've traveled, the Isleys' sound reflects a depth of influences. Able to adapt to whatever was happening outside, these Cincinnati legends became masters of laying down their own takes on top of the established, always while expanding their own style. Seen from the contagious pulse of Fight the Power to the slow-burn sweat of Don't Say Goodnight, their catalog displays the rawness of funk just as easily as the refined air of a seductive slow jam. A keen sense of timing, a strong sense of melody, and a constant groove, all too have proven the Isley Brothers accomplished songwriters, soulful and straight to the point.

This aforementioned idea of the Isleys' six-decade run, while still maintaining a measure of relevance throughout, is no minor point. It speaks not only to the versatility of their sound, but to the diversity of their talent and a willingness to embrace change. Most recently, thanks to R. Kelly and the creation of the Mr. Biggs persona, a new spin, for a new audience, has the Isley name back on the radio dial, where it began before most of us were even us. Rap music has also put a new look on these timeless records, as the sampling of their music has scored hits for everyone from Naughty by Nature to Ice Cube. Simply off of Between the Sheets alone, Biggie, Da Brat, and Whitney Houston all jumped to a higher tax bracket. Through Hip-Hop, propelling other artists to success again and again, the Isleys continue to recreate a whole new era of what they are about. While For The Love Of You itself has been sampled more than a couple times before, had Good Morning ever made it to proper release, it would have pushed that influence even further.

For The Love Of You packs that particular breezy vibe that catapulted plenty of the Isley Brothers catalog into a classic realm, where slick becomes smooth and heartfelt becomes almost haunting. The song soars with the drum and the bass meeting at the hip, the guitar nearby, all the signature vamp that underscored the 3+3 era of the Isleys' reign. From the synth work of cousin Chris Jasper, the wailing guitar and drumming of Ernie Isley, bass from Marvin Isley, and the distinct vocal runs of Ron Isley, they laid out a sound that you always knew was their own, accentuated during slow jams especially. Such as the case here, where the groove used on Good Morning, in its familiar sweep, simply glides, effortless even, leaving Nas to compliment the tone of the track with his warm vocals. Nas then builds upon the thematics of the song and moves it down a whole different avenue. This is an example of a bridge of creativity that ties great artists together.
Good morning, yawning, dawn is now gone and
New day, toothpaste, brushing my screw face
Follow the light, it's such a great feeling
And I love life, every minute's pure healing
Nas: Good Morning
BONUS: The Isley Brothers: Don't Say Goodnight
BONUS: The Isley Brothers: Fight The Power
BONUS: The Isley Brothers: For The Love of You

*NOTE: Today's write-up is predominately the work of mistermaxxx. Thanks to dude for his contribution and time and for letting me bounce ideas off him more than once.--Fletch

Sunday, April 09, 2006

We All Can Escape

I respect Steve 'Flash' Juon. From his the-Internet-didn't-use-to-be-as-open-as-it-is-today work with to his helpful-though-gave-have-a-horrible-write-up-to-IWW Rap Reviews, he's certainly earned his stripes. With all this in mind, what most people probably know him through, even if they aren't aware, is the world famous I have a love-hate relationship with that site however. I love it because although they don't have all the songs for Ridin' Dirty up, hell, they have some songs for Ridin' Dirty up, which, as an example, if you think about the amount of credibility people give Hip-Hop music in a general sense, and especially its lyrical content, is a feat in itself. And I hate it because its transcription inaccuracies couldn't even pass the test in Kid's Court. (I should, at this point, mention that I messed up lyrics on the second entry ever made here, so . . . but who really knows about constellations?)

Part of the reason for OHHLA's troubles is because it follows a user-submitted process, which is beyond understandable, but even in songs transcribed by Flash himself mistakes are made. Often times proper nouns are confused and replaced with words that may sound similar but make no contextual sense, slang and spelling are errant or overly "ebonicized", and even whole verses are off. In today's particular spotlight, we'll focus on the Just A Moment single mix and how the version presented on OHHLA, and piggybacked elsewhere, not only gets the lyrics wrong but skews the song's entire meaning and negates Nas' intended message.

Appearing originally on Street's Disciple, where Quan held down hook duties and two verses, when it came time for the third and final single off the double LP, Quan's second verse was replaced by a new one from Nas. While the Chic-sampled LES-produced beat, albeit mirroring Freeway's recent Hear The Song, still provided the same contemplative touch, the minions argued about Nas jacking what had originally started out a song by Quan and threw rocks at the new verse. For them, the track took a downgrade. I'm not going to argue which version is better, but I will defend the single release. The reasons I can surmise people were disappointed with Nas' new verse on the remix is that it was too short, commonly edited on radio and TV so that gaps on the song were prevalent, and, based off evidence from OHHLA, listeners just didn't hear it right.

OHHLA.COM version:
Photographs of lost memories,
On the block with shit and Hennessey,
Pictures of us in mock neck shirts,
Valentine nail 'n brown bags
Brothers like to brag bout their cousins
That are locked in the system,
We all for victims, we all called Christians
The Islamic faith, restore all our faith
Barb wire torn, all brick wall but we all can't escape

Actual lyrics:
Photographs of lost memories
On the blocks with blunts and Hennessey
Pictures of niggas in mock neck shirts
Ballantine Ale in brown bags
Brothers like to brag 'bout their cousins
That's locked in the system
We all fall victim, we all call Christian
Or Islamic faith to restore all our faith
Barb wire and tall brick wall, but we all can escape

After Quan's interlude memorializing fallen rappers, everyone from Pac to Left Eye, Nas makes the perfect transition with his "photographs of lost memories" line. And he doesn't stop by merely mentioning these old Kodak moments, but, with an observant eye, he gives the pictures dimension. Describing the corner cuisine, Nas puts blunts in their hands and drink in their circle and fits them with the classic b-boy mock neck look. Next comes the first noticeable OHHLA error: what's a "Valentine nail"? Street soldiers rocking red hearts on their fingers like so many Japanese women? They're holding "Ballantine Ale", that old 40 oz. special, green brew and brown bag. Then Nas connects these lost memories with those similarly lost, i.e. incarcerated. The notion that "brothers like to brag 'bout their cousins that's locked in the system" hits at a couple ideas: prison life being family life; the glamorization of metal bars; and "locked in the system" suggesting a permanent clench. By playing into this type of thinking, whether deliberate or not, "we all fall victim."

The next set of lines appear the least understood. The majority reaction against "we all call Christian or Islamic faith to restore all our faith" was that the word "faith" had been used too often. But, in this case, "faith" and "faith" have different connotations, and Nas makes a rather smart connection between them. He's illustrating that people who've become victims, to a biased court, to the block, to whatever, often need their faith restored. You need to believe that what you're doing isn't futile, that there's an underlying reason for you being here. For many, renewing faith in life is satisfied by finding faith in God. God is said to show you a path and remind you of your purpose. So, by subscribing to a religious faith, here a Christian or Islamic system of values, you regain your overall faith in life. They're different concepts playing into the same reaffirmation.

Right after this we find the biggest error from OHHLA. Aside from mishearing "barb wire and tall brick wall", that site has Nas telling us that "we all can't escape." This completely misconstrues the intended message of the verse. We may be victims, but we can transcend victimization, it argues. Nas believes we can escape. Obstacles are present, physical and mental, but restore your faith, and there is a way out.

Nas f/ Quan: Just A Moment (album version)
Nas f/ Quan: Just A Moment (single version)
BONUS: Nas f/ Quan: Just A Moment (video)
BONUS: Chic: Will You Cry?

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Street's Debacle

Internet people are occasionally clever, and when it came time to mock Nas' 2004 album, those folks really put their thinking caps on. Perhaps the given name of "Street's Debacle" is in response to comparatively lackluster sales, general uneasiness with the double album size, discontent with Nas' changing direction, or just a steady and strong seed of hate. Most likely, it's a combination of all of these factors.

Street's Disciple is not Nas' best or his worst album. It doesn't justify a 2-disc length, but it's not driven apart either by this decision. There are woeful production choices (American Way, No One Else Is In The Room) and some rather fierce ones (Nazareth Savage, Sekou Story). And then Nas himself had his ups and downs. A common criticism aimed at the rapper struck against what he literally was rapping about. Personally, I don't think he handled the political subjects very well, but when people started getting mad over Getting Married, for instance, it came off as the result of a bitter rift spurred by a once-favorite rapper no longer rapping for or about them anymore. See, this wasn't Nas the stairwell rapper, or Nas the jiggy rapper, or Nas the vengeful rapper, or Nas the melancholy rapper, for the most part, Street's Disciple showcased Nas, the 30 something year-old man who happened to rap. This is not to say he was divorced from "the streets" or that he forgot all that made him what he is, but his focus shifted. The image-strong descriptions still played a role, but they were used to detail pre-wedding jitters and cufflinks. The storytelling ability was still there, but it told a cautionary tale that captured a bedside, as opposed to curbside, death. That unique stoop dweller voice still stood out, but it was speaking on his old life. Lyrically and thematically, this wasn't an album to appease Illmatic fans, Stillmatic coat-tailers, or other preformed flocks. This was something different. Nas made an album for himself. Street's Disciple is a rap record with growth and missteps, flaws and strengths, but it's not a debacle.

I've read an interesting theory as of late that spoke on another way the Internet, and especially the rise of peer-to-peer sharing, has been setting new albums up for failure. Not only do mp3s rarely translate into the best listening experience, and not only does the anonymity of the online message board make negativity more trendy, but when, for sample reasons or otherwise, a number of the pre-release songs get leaked, win fans, and don't make the final album, a chord of disappointment sets in more easily. "Why didn't Jay include Get My Shit Off?" "Why didn't Ghost include Charlie Brown?" "How could Nas not put Good Morning, Serious, or Talk of New York somewhere on those two discs?" While the point about pre-LP downloads killing post-LP buzz is valid, eff it, I got mp3s and a grudge that Sony couldn't have made Street's Disciple something better. The songs were there, another Lost Tapes should only be the last-ditch safety net, so why not? As to the Sinful Living entry house metaphor, these were the missing parts that failed the foundation once more.

Good Morning and Serious were leaked before Street's Disciple ever hit stores, and were reportedly both the victims of sample clearance slip-ups. As unfortunate as that is, it's at least understandable. However, what was the problem with Talk of New York? Online just scant months after the late-November album release, past inducing head-nodding, people took to head-scratching, wondering why such a strong song was left unreleased in the first place. In fact, listening to what it delivers, what Street's Disciple could have used more of, and what the fence-leaners and foes were after, Talk of New York would have been a standout and deciding album cut.

Propelled by a heavy and constant piano stab, Salaam Remi's beat, fitted down to the faux-Primo hook, reflects a kinetic Rotten Apple pulse, unrelenting and in your face. It's the ideal backdrop to a bootleg tourist trip around the city, back to the old ("yo baby yo baby yo t-shirts, gold teeth smirks") and then to the present day ("Ground Zero, no lost angels"). Rap music has always had this unique regional and geographic distinction to it, not only in differing production sounds, but in the sense that you could throw on a local tape, and it'd be the like the map in the center of the shopping mall: "you are here." I've never been to Brooklyn, but I know of Albee Square. Never been to Chicago, but I've heard of Cabrini Green. Never been to Texas, but I have some sense of Port Arthur. Better than Zagat's ever could, Hip-Hop's conversational style and territorial nature has repped for city blocks and outskirts, nightclubs and park benches, adresses and area codes; it's not where you're from, but how you're letting the listener know where you're at. That's exactly what Nas does. From referencing the George Washington Bridge down to Jamaica Avenue, you almost get this map, a precise sense of the context that not only inspired a song, a single rapper, but a genre and a culture itself. I won't say that Talk of New York has "instant classic" written all over it, but, despite average attempts by Ja Rule and Tru Life, as Hip-Hop's place of birth really hasn't had an anthem since the days of Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz, it does offer something needed. Talk of New York is all at once an ode to, a portrayal of, and a ever-growing part of that particular that NY life. And it's where Nas sounds most at home.

The trains of New York veins
The city's a psycho
People of the bloodstream
Mean and ice cold
Nas: Talk of New York

Sunday, April 02, 2006


Part the result of 5-mic gossip, messiah comparisons, and a greatest of the great production lineup, at the time of its release, Illmatic had heads clamoring just to hear what was going on. However, this '94 buzz had been in the works since three years prior. As discussed previously, that Nas only released one solo song and guested on just two featured tracks between the time he was introduced to the game and the time he would introduce the game to Illmatic is no minor point. From Barbeque to the Grill to Halftime, Nas' appearances all served the purpose of swelling anticipation. This momentum would then culminate over the span of a historical 40 minutes, and, more than ten years later, people still ride high off the initial kick of the Wild Style theme.

While Live at the Barbeque was appropriately the first RTA entry, Back to the Grill makes for the perfect b-side. Both of these songs are essential posse cuts. First, you have a combination of Large Professor, Nas, Fatal, and Akinyele, then you have MC Serch, Nas, Chubb Rock, and the so-called Red Hot Lover Tone. Blue pill, red pill, in either hand, Nas came off better than a temporary tattoo in a torrential downpour: "I knew what I had to do if I was gonna rhyme on a 'Symphony' jam. The only way to catch somebody’s attention is to say the right shit. That’s how you gotta get off on posse cuts." If it can be argued that Nas got the call to be on Barbeque because chance and the borough of Queens were on his side, then Back To The Grill came about off of props. MC Serch, whose album would serve as the song's home, heard about snuffin' Jesus and instantly knew where he had to look to for the future. So that explains Nas' presence, but what about Chubb Rock and this Red Hot Lover Tone?

Back to the Grill is actually the continuation of Kick 'Em in the Grill, off of 3rd Bass' second album, 1991's Derelicts of Dialect. On the original, the beat moves along a little faster and stars Serch and Pete Nice, alongside the mammoth-voiced Chubb Rock. While having previously gained acclaim for his solo work and even serious-minded topics, Chubb flexing his strong guest muscle, particularly notable for a clever string of alliteration, would inspire the sequel. And with him, this time, he brought along the aforementioned, dubiously named Red Hot Lover Tone. Now off the stench of corniness coming from that pseudonym alone, one might suspect that Red Hot Lover Tone was Back to The Grill's version of Live at the Barbeque's Fatal, i.e. the mound of salt in between pillars of greatness, the ugly chick who lucked into a circle of dimes. There's more to it than that though. Removing the fanfare from his name, you get Tone. Putting that in association with another four-letter title, you get Poke & Tone. Knowing your history, you get from them The Trackmasters, the producers behind the boards who would be behind the success of It Was Written. Yes, four years before every getting the bright idea to run with an established Eurythmics hit, Nas had already, perhaps even unknowingly, worked with one half of the team that would get him his first platinum plaque. Odd, huh? But at the time, Mr. Red Hot and The Trackmasters were not known as hitmakers, per se.

Producing most of It Was Written, and relying on generally obtuse and obvious pop samples, a la Puff Daddy, the Trackmasters have long faced the label as being a curse in mid 90's Hip-Hop for their jackin' of beats and radio-friendly hits. However, they were actually introduced through Chubb Rock's camp, in the very early 90's, in pretty much the opposite fashion. As the central production team for the heavyset Brooklyn MC, the Trackmasters also spread their music to his side projects, The Real Roxanne and The A-Team. Then, from doing beats for Chubb's camp, they branched out and did three for Kool G. Rap's Live and Let Die (Straight Jacket, Fuck U Man, and Ill Street Blues), and two, strangely enough, Pete Rock-reminiscent beats on Big Daddy Kane's Looks Like a Job For (the title track and the single How'd U Get a Record Deal?). Finally, before the Sting and Annie Lennox samples took over, the Trackmasters last hoorah into the world of hardcore beats was Chubb Rock's I Gotta Get Mine Yo, essentially an entire album of straight rare loops and strong drum programming.

Regardless, Tone's move from the boards to the mic, as the second in line on Back To The Grill, was not a fluke. Released under Chubb Rock's umbrella at Select Records, Red Hot Lover Tone actually put out a couple albums,the first, a humorous but more or less forgettable entry into the genre of gigolo rap, and the second, the more recognizable #1 Player, noteworthy for the similarly-classic posse cut 4 My Peeps, featuring Biggie, M.O.P., and Prince Po of Organized Konfusion. (4 My Peeps should also give you a sense of where Nas got the hook to Last Real Nigga Alive from.) All in all, it's interesting that Chubb Rock put the Trackmasters on, MC Serch brokered the deal for and executive produced Illmatic, the Trackmasters took over It Was Written when Illmatic didn't sell, and all of them, Tone, Chubb, Serch, and Nas, previously made a classic together in their own right.

This is Nas, kid, you know how it runs
I'm waving automatic guns at nuns
Sticking up the preachers in the church, I'm a stone crook
Serial killer, who works by the phone book
MC Serch f/ Chubb Rock, Nas, Red Hot Lover Tone: Back to the Grill
BONUS: MC Serch f/ Chubb Rock, Nas, Red Hot Lover Tone: Back to the Grill (video)
BONUS: 3rd Bass f/ Chubb Rock: Kick 'Em in the Grill
BONUS: Red Hot Lover Tone f/ Notorious B.I.G., Prince Poetry, & M.O.P.: 4 My Peeps

*NOTE: This entry is, in part, the product of sizeable contributions from the homie MANHOODLUM, so thanks to him.--Fletch