Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Race Matters

The following four verses by Nas are all a part of unreleased songs. They also, in varying ways and to different degrees of depth, approach the subject that Cornell West told you mattered and that Hip-Hop has been influenced by, one way or another, since the South Bronx: race.

Eat These Bullets
Not that the Bravehearts album was one song away from classic status, but, with its old-school beat, above-decent turns by Jungle and Wiz, and Nas' ultra-comfy flow, Eat These Bullets would have surely helped the cause. However, it just might have been what Nas is saying on the track that ultimately got it cut. His declaration that he's turned from sniping the like-skinned, "niggas", to the light-skinned, "crackers", probably got the label's attention. It's a sad kind of funny if this was indeed the case, because, for as many songs as Nas has made where "niggas" are his intended targets, to call out the opposite side once and finally catch heat from the record company, let's you know where their priorities lie.

I don't kill niggas no more, now I kill crackers / Strong as Warren Sapp is, long as a giraffe is / F-150's and F-250's / Governor, order me about two Bentleys / From Rip Kaplan, I don't fuck with Aspens / Too black for that, too tough for Hamptons / Rock Hermes, turn heads / Puff with Rasta hoes and skeet sperm in their dreads / Body whoever leak words to the Feds / My camaraderie from the streets will murder you dead / Flee NYC when it's freezing / To MIA, get this shit / My diamonds come with GIA certificates / Y'all stones is clones, I'm full grown / Hoes call my name on bullhorns / In the middle of a NBA playoff / Whatever nigga, we can face off / Wet a nigga with the AK or-- / Oops, I mean kill a cracker / The truth, I'm the realest rapper / Bravehearts running this shit / Godson, Governor, LES, Jungle and Wiz

Enemy Tomorrow
Most have never heard of Money Ray, Sharp, or the movie the magazine Felon, but somehow Nas got involved with 'em all for the song Enemy Tomorrow. With the mic booth as his pulpit, Nas begins a sermon that quickly becomes shrouded in post 9/11 anxiety. Although he does point out President Bush's particular treatment of Arabs (read: US-Middle Eastern politics), his verse is less race-specific elsewhere. It's the entire world, Nas says, that's frustrated, not necessarily contrasting white versus black, for example. However, given the line about "devils" and the characterization of anthrax as almost a ploy of the executive branch, as well as the fact that the name "Nasir Bin Olu Dara Jones" has probably come up on an airport checklist or two, there is, at least, some racial subtext.

The greatest lesson ever learnt is burnt in my skin / Every man is God's child, so God's Son'll begin / The sermon's concerning life, love, misery, death / Death's the freedom, life's the test, God bless / Gripping my cig, dusting my chrome / Thinking that they use this anthrax air to bust in my home / Fucking devils, see, your power's temporary / The last shall be first, the first shall be last / Cops wanna murder me fast / They burning your flag / The world is frustrated, 'fuck waiting's the motto / Niggas tryna be caking in Pradas / When you cake it, then you leave the hood, just feed the wolves / The bigger the man the bigger his mistake, it's all good / Learn and grow, nothing is promised up in the projects / Snakes, snitches hoping you fall / It takes will to progress and open the door / Too many wakes and bodies, hope it's no more / See, everybody got a sad song / Bush did them A-rabs wrong / Look what it's come to / The Art of War by Sun Tzu's needed / I dream about actresses, singers, and models / Waterbed fantasies, nipples and lips then the scene flips / Demonic pictures of niggas with Sigmas, infrared beams and shit / There you have it: life, love, misery, death / In rhyme, 'cause in reality, I ain't finished yet / My enemy's make me swifter / There's more ways to kill than guns / And those ways, yo, I can't reveal / That's top secret, who the fuck got beef, you ain't my size / Forever I'm a Braveheart felon, you touched by Nas

Compared to the relatively aggressive points of view on the previous two tracks, Imagine finds Nas in a "we are the world" type mood. In fact, generally reflecting the message of the John Lennon original, Nas asks for "humans of all colors [to] stand up as one race." Though a bit more developed, it's similar to his take on the All-Star Tribute version of What's Going On. Also, with Imagine being recorded post 9/11, there's an anthrax reference once again. The second verse is then delivered by Pitbull.

Imagine we could all get along / Won't be long till that day comes / Mothers stop cooking, take off your aprons / Fathers stop looking at every sports station / Take a second and think of every poor nation / Making weapons, they can't afford a plate, no proper healthcare / Over here it's Section 8, a lot on welfare / Yo, the wealthy laugh, the market crash, economy's bad / How do we change it? Newsflash about a powder that's dangerous / How do we escape these brainless acts of terror? / I'll tell you how, if Jesus ever comes, I'm not no better / Put our hearts in the right place, humans of all colors will stand up as one race / I promise you one day . . . Imagine that

Never Too Late
Because of its point about the Amadou Diallo verdict, where NYC police officers were found not guilty for the killing of an unarmed Guinean immigrant, Never Too Late was most likely recorded mid-to-late 2000. The Diallo case, the "racist white judge" Nas describes, and an apparent conspiracy "to kill black boys" are especially interesting next to Nas' final lines. Although he's talking specifically about skyscrapers and how everything that's come to be was sparked by a mere thought in someone's head, in describing a system where the odds are so seemingly stacked against blacks, in a way, he's illustrating that white supremacy itself began as just a crude idea centuries ago. An earlier mention of slavery further solidifies this point.

I sip the blood of Christ from a gold cup / I love this life / My soldiers smoke you, no price / Dead men in graves roll over / I'm part Apache slave master African, who asked me / Fans tear my clothes, bitches try to trap me / 30,000 seats rise to their feet to hear me flow / Got two mansions on the East Coast / Models deep throat / I heard about them kidnap dudes, had dinner with some / Shake hands with killers just to see who really was one / Study his moves, how he look fake - but that's the trick to it / Now we turn you to bait / The street shit I stick to it / Rappers hate me, bitches saying, "how did he start?" / They go to psychics asking 'em for my astrology chart / I'm the righteous thug, fight for Mumia / Racist white judge - made Diallo's murderers free / See, they don't like us / And what about conspiracies to kill black boys / But y'all ain't hearing me, worship the planet like asteroids / Look around and everything you see was once an idea / From somebody's thoughts who turned into reality clear / Look at the tallest sky scrapers, it just didn't appear / Somebody thought it up and built it up and put it right there

Nas, Pitbull: Imagine
Nas f/ The Bravehearts: Eat These Bullets
Nas f/ The Bravehearts: Never Too Late
Nas f/ Money Ray, Sharp: Enemy Tomorrow
Bonus: All-Star Tribute: What's Going On

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Washed Up or Boxed In?

Last November's Scratch Magazine cover, featuring Nas and DJ Premier together again, raised the pulse and hopes of a nation full of Hip-Hop heads. Although the duo hasn't worked since 2001's Stillmatic, a mere photo shoot and hint of collaborative plans was enough to gather momentum once more. But then you still have your cynics who would say, "stop trying to recreate Illmatic, Nas needs to work with new producers, that Primo sound is stale in 2006." To those trying out that argument, I give you the following piece written by Dr. Claw (of M.A.D.).

The here-today-gone-tomorrow, fad-driven world of rap music is often unkind to artists whose careers span decades, so for DJ Premier to still be recognized for quality Hip-Hop music, seventeen years after his first recordings with Gang Starr and Lord Finesse, is quite a feat. However, lately it looks to many, even his long time-fans, that the Grim Reaper of Hip-Hop is looming large over the super-producer / DJ and priming Premier to give up the ghost.

Compared to Premier's most prolific, yet sonically static period (1999-2001), recently, the amount of work he's put out has been rather minimal, reduced to familial jobs and underground singles, with some of his once-recurrent clients (Jay-Z, Nas) passing him over entirely on their latest projects. To top it all off, the last album he cut as one-half of Gang Starr, The Ownerz, went ignored in the midst of 50-Mania and received mixed reviews, many of which derailed Premier's production as uninspired. People said his sound was too throwback, too stagnant, that he hadn't changed for the times. Well, yes, DJ Premier has a standard, a sonic imprint that has appeared in his production going back to the times when he was first learning the art of studio engineering from Schlomo Sonnenfeld and beatmaking from Lord Finesse at Wild Pitch. Yet, while that Primo sound may hearken back to the age when a Jeru The Damaja could actually get some play, it is still in tune with some of the trends of the 00's. In this way, we can find evidence that DJ Premier's music has evolved.

To start, Premier's more conventional drum patterns seem to be inspired by the likes of Jeff Porcaro, Danny Seraphine, Bernard Purdie, and a number of other session drummers that played on the records he's gone to for samples. In fact, Premier's swing, and habit to go from a bass drum immediately into a snare, seem directly lifted from their grooves. This is especially evident on a song like Conscience Be Free, where Primo uses the triplet hi-hat Porcaro (and sometimes Steve Gadd) used as a fill-in between measures. Over time, Premier's drum grooves have become rather "hip hoppy", doubling up on the bass drum rather quickly. Now, in the '00s, he's eschewed hi-hats almost all together, completely silencing them, except at key points in the track to maintain a groove. This trend, largely popularized by the Neptunes from '98-'00 (actually, the Neptunes don't even use hi-hats at all) is one of the best signs of Premier updating his formula.

Additionally, although he is almost entirely a sample-based producer, as of late, Premier has taken to layering his own keyboard work, for texture, over the groove. (This is perhaps best exemplified on Nice Girl, Wrong Place from The Ownerz.) Then, regarding basslines, whereas they have been key in the recent sound of Hip-Hop, for Pemier, prior to 1996, they were rather non-existent (he largely relied on the source material for the "bass", rarely did you hear him apply one); however, since that point, they've become more prevalent. He doesn't play his bass across the whole measure because that's someone else's style. He doesn't do bass-stabs ala Dilla because that's someone else's style as well. Premier's own style is to place a bass tone (or tones) where it is sorely needed to drive the tempo of the song, e.g. O.C.'s Win The G.

Overall, what really has happened in Hip-Hop is that tastes are in the process of changing all over again. The rise of the South has moved toward a sound that has more in common with the 808-era, though with an even more dissonant, unfunky tinge to it than its '80s progenitors. Hi-hats are high in the mix, and often played in the sixteenths rather than the quarters. Premier doesn't make that sound and isn't looking to compromise his own standard for a buck, as many artists with a pedigree often refuse to do. And since he's being passed over because of this, people haven't had a chance to hear what he really has in store. This makes it all the more surprising that pop star Christina Aguilera took the risk and called him up not only to produce her lead single, but four other tracks on her big-leap double album. There, on Back To Basics, the sound is vintage Premier, but with a twist. He seems to be inching toward something more melodic, more upbeat than most of what he has done in recent years. Still, that aforementioned Primo sonic imprint remains: his drum pattern style and tailor-made scratch montages. Unfortunately, Hip-Hop fans may not get the chance to hear most of it.

Maybe now that DJ Premier has little to prove, he can use his time out of the limelight to show that he isn't all about the same old-same old. Because for every so-called cookie-cutter, "mercenary" piece, he'll come out with a 2nd Childhood (Nas), a Guilty (Heather B), a Skillz (Gang Starr), an Evening News (Cee-Lo), or a Doobie Ashtray (Devin The Dude) to throw his detractors off track and show you where he's really coming from. So the question isn't whether Premier has fallen off, but when he will eventually convince listeners that he really has progressed his sound while still maintaining that classic Primo feel?

Christina Auguilera: Still Dirrty
Cee-Lo: Evening News
Devin the Dude: Doobie Ashtray
Gang Starr: Conscience Be Free
Gang Starr: Nice Girl, Wrong Place
Gang Starr: Skillz
Heather B: Guilty
Nas: 2nd Childhood
O.C. f/ Freddie Foxx: Win The G

Thursday, August 24, 2006

In The Vaults

As this blog has attempted to demonstrate, rivaled only by Mobb Deep and Ghostface, in terms of quantity and quality of unreleased songs, Nas has enough Lost Tapes for more than just one album. Everything from pre-Illmatic to post-Street's Disciple could probably even fill a respectable box set. And this is simply going off of what mixtapes have leaked and what file folders now hold. Who can imagine what's still locked behind closed doors? Today's entry reflects an attempt to gather a list of vaulted Nas tracks, more rumored than radio-rotated but hopefully on the horizon.
  • According to Nas' long-time producer, LES, he and Nas, during the It Was Written sessions, were working on a song which utilized the same drum sample (Brethren's Inside Love) immortalized by A Tribe Called Quest on Electric Relaxation. And it seems this one could have been similarly classic, based on its title alone, "It Was A Lady Cop Sucking A Thug’s Dick, It Was Some Thug Shit, Some Bug Shit." That should be rather self-explanatory.
  • During a 2005 interview with DJ Low Key, the legendary Large Professor, patron saint of all things Illmatic, disclosed that, over the years, he has done about a dozen songs with Nas that never have left the studio, almost enough for an album, he said. One track named in particular was Fahrenheit.
  • Discussed in the XXL Making of Cuban Linx special, Nas went through several verses before finally deciding on Verbal Intercourse's instant-quotable rhyme. However, he was not the only person in the studio that night with more than one option, "RZA had a couple of beats ready. He played them for me. I got on both of them. The other one never came out." Who knows if Nas delivered the same rap over each beat, but, either way, since Wu-Tang is known for their own lengthy unreleased collection, that a collaboration between the two resulted in another addition to that collection shouldn't be much of a surprise.
  • XXL was also the birthplace of another Nas rumored track. In their issue listing the most anticipated albums of 2006, Nas revealed, "I'm almost done [working] on a Queens anthem with another big Queens dude." Because Queens has had such a prolific run in rap music, there's more than a couple possibilities to mull over. Rev Run? G Rap? Q-Tip? Marley Marl? LL?
  • Around the time of Stillmatic, Nas was asked about his process for writing Ether. Out of these questions came the revelation that reportedly Nas had penned an even more extreme version of the already out-there diss track. Maybe that's just Nas trying to be like, "I killed him, even when I scaled it back", y'know, some good hype. But, from another source, I have read that one of the axed-lines might have dealt with the beef Jay-Z once had with Big Pun, concerning the rumor of a certain bottle to Hov's head. However, if such a version of Ether ever did exist, there's a decent chance it stayed strictly on paper.
  • The Curse remains one of the most infamous unreleased Nas songs. As it was distributed in snippet form on an I Am sampler, we at least have audio of the first verse and hook; however, ever since then, people have been looking for the full length. That Nas respit the leaked verse on a recent Killah Priest mixtape suggests that the current condition of The Curse will not be upgraded, but we can still be dreamers. (Nas actually has another song with KP that's still in the chamber. Because, for as long as The Offering has been on hold, so has Rivers of Blood. People have been talking about the album, and the song specifically, since last summer, but neither have yet to materialize.)
  • Another time Nas teased with promo tapes didn't even have a snippet to offer. To announce the coming of It Was Written, the rapper recorded Escobar Season Begins and distributed it to media outlets and mixtapes. Then, on that same sampler, advertisements also announced that IWW would feature appearances from Method Man and D'Angelo. At that point, with D'Angelo yet to run from the spotlight, Meth not needing to remind people he was still around, and Nas trying to bolster sales, the collaborations made sense, but we don't even know if they all actually made it to the studio.
  • I'm sure everyone loved the Get Down opening on God's Son, but, on alternate tracklistings for the 2002 LP, it's nowhere to be found. In its place, and in the place of several other songs, we find Crabs In The Barrel, My Will, Fuck Hot, Grimey Ways, and Ridin' Broke. To show that this is not simply some bogus Internet creation, we do know that at least the first verse of My Will has since leaked. Ridin' Broke is also a real song, a mixtape joint with The Bravehearts. Additionally, in an interview with Nas, Murder Dog confirmed Crabs In The Barrel. Then Fuck Hot may never come out at all, because its rumored subject matter, Nas pulling the entire industry's card, would likely burn more bridges than just QB. Finally, Grimey Ways was to feature Nashawn.
  • From the same website with the God's Son alternate listing linked above, several featured producers are also named. Two of the four, Salaam Remi and The Alchemist, did make it to the official copy, but the site goes on to list Large Professor and "Psycho L.E.S." To tackle the latter issue, that's Psycho Les of the severely overlooked Beatnuts crew. However, especially because of the capitalization of "L.E.S.", it's most likely some kind of editorial error, confusing the Beatnuts dude with the Life's A Bitch dude. As for Large Professor, although we can't say with any certainty which song(s) of his got cut, his name in the mix once more should remind fans of Star Wars, which was released in 2004, on the Illmatic 10th Anniversary album, but, because of its continued Jay-Z taunts and the fact that it featured the same beat from Hip-Hop, off Ex-P's 2002 1st Class, was most likely recorded during the time of God's Son as well.
  • Street's Disciple didn't escape unscathed either. Anybody Test, Good Morning, Talk of New York, Serious, and the Stiletto-take of Disciple all failed to make the final call, for a number of reasons, but others not made available for public consumption too were left behind. According to 2004 reports from MTV, Puffy and Nas were to link back up again, for the retro I Am Somebody. (Over at Youtube, Bounce managed to track down a video clip of some of the I Am Somebody session.) That MTV report also details the hustler's song, Play on Playa, which Blender magazine even quoted, "throw carnations at my tombstone." Moreover, alternate tracklistings go on to mention a Get Up and a Titillating, both of which have failed to appear anywhere else.
  • Lastly, back before Def Jam became a reality and when NASDAQ Dow Jones was the questionable album title of the moment, Nas talked about doing several follow-ups to tracks from Street's Disciple, including These Are Our Heroes PT II and an Unauthorized Biography of KRS-One. The originals of both songs were examples of an idea being better than its execution, so, if these ones ever did or do get finished, hopefully Nas will practice a bit more finesse, and then, of course, have them released.
Nas: Disciple (original)
Nas: Star Wars
Nas f/ The Bravehearts: Riding Broke
BONUS: Large Professor: Hip Hop

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Homemade Fishing Rods

Imagine this scenario for a second:

You're one of the most famous rappers of your generation. Your debut garners god-like praise and incredible comparisons. Your sophomore album then draws in the millions of fans that had slept past the first one. At this point, basically every opportunity you could want you're able to secure. You do a movie, start a super group, work all-star collaborations, and stand next to legends of the game and Billboard's most touted. Then, after doing the rounds, you decide to scale it back, switch up the profile, and lend your voice to an album that only few from your fanbase will ever even hear of. The album probably won't go gold or get MTV rotation, but, for you, it's not even a second thought. After all, you've been Nas, the rapper, since '91, but you've been Nasir Jones, the son of Olu Dara, since '73; you're side-by-side with your dad now.

When Olu Dara released his 1998 LP In The World: From Natchez To New York, though most only knew his son, as an accomplished jazz musician for thirty years, Dara ensured that his music would be recognized for more than just a guest appearance. Nas might have been a selling point, but the strong blues and soul that In The World also featured would be its most convincing.

Before Mrs. Butterworth became a kitchen staple, and back when legend told that molasses could double as a medical cure, you would have been likely to find a container full of Alaga Syrup around. It was tradition: thick, rich, and flavorful. This is important to note, because that texture, that tradition, is the perfect way to describe the very shape and sound of blues, the music you'll often hear from Olu Dara. (Only difference is that too much of this won't turn your kidneys to raisins.) At its best, blues is the rough soundin', guitar-pluckin', backporch-wailin' styled music that, in an instant, can transport you to a time when your grandfather told stories, the two of you lake-side, fishing, poles all made out of a branch and some spare line. You know, that kind of heart and soul that comes only so often but stays with you for forever. And that's percisely the world of In The World, rich like syrup and as soul satisfying as a childhood fishing trip.

Starting at the dinner table, with vegetables fresh from the corn man's yard, Olu Dara then journeys through a rain shower, straight to a shopping trip in Natchez, Mississippi. Providing an appropriate backdrop to his cornet, trumpet, and vocal explorations, Dara is joined along the way by some of the best musicians in the industry. Even his eldest son, Nas, comes along for the spoken-word, steady-nod Jungle Jay:

The world's so big yet so small, it's one block
Many die mentally before they reach what they wanted
I choose to get blunted / and cruise to One Hundred
Twenty-Fifth street / music loud as hell in my jeep
However, perhaps ITW's true peak comes in more ballad form, such as on Harlem Country Girl. The slow, vintage roll of cymbals and a snare, the horn that expresses as much longing as it does melody, the guitar picking that seems to just pull memories off the shelf, and Dara's rough but warming vocals all prove the power of song to reach into your soul and massage away whatever pains you're facing. This is the type of music that's just waiting for you to reel in.

Olu Dara: Harlem Country Girl
Olu Dara: Natchez Shopping Blues
Olu Dara f/ Nas: Jungle Jay

*NOTE: This entry was primarily written by one Rakeem Cedric Twatt.--Fletch

Friday, August 18, 2006

My List

When My Will came out in 2005, there was hope that a Lost Tapes II would soon follow. The song, although leaked last year and with ad-libs from Nas regarding his marriage and honeymoon, is really an unreleased track from the time of God's Son. To note this, just look at the nod to Ja Rule and them and remember that, for a moment back in 2002, Nas was rumored to be in the business with the Gotti brothers, "how could Murder Inc. not wanna fuck with the top hustler, Roc crusher." Also, as further proof, some media outlets were shipped early versions of that aforementioned '02 LP, and, accordingly, within these publications, there was indeed reference to My Will. Concerning the line where Nas demands, "never put me in the top 10", one such publication, Murder Dog, even asked Nas specifically about it. Clarifying himself, Nas responded, "A lot of people get caught up in being the best nigga, the best rapper nigga. You know, everybody's the best at what they do. I'm the best at what I do. And I'm happy about that." Despite how, at that particular moment, Nas might have argued himself on a top ten list, many would still insist otherwise.

It's almost become cliché, especially on the Internet, to construct a top ten list of the greatest rappers of all-time. And the arguments that follow are usually just as typical. However, I'm a fan of a good cliché, but we will switch it up a little for today. The following is a list of ten rappers who are, and have been over a significant stretch of years, my favorite ten. This is not an attempt to come up with a universal all-time roster, something that everyone can agree upon. It reflects my biases, my age, my location, what I've heard, when I heard it, personal connections with the music, and is no way meant as a proposal to say, "point blank period, these are the ten greatest, no others accepted." Also, just as another copout, I've decided to list them alphabetically. And, sorry, Nas, you made it. (If you all have similar lists of your own, g'head.)


The Rebel To America Oh-So-Subjective Ten Favorite Rappers Of All-Time List

Boots Riley (Fat Cats, Bigga Fish)
If you first recognize the name, Boots Riley, of The Coup, you're likely to picture a political rapper. And while it's true that Boots is activist-minded, don't think of him as shallow as some guy yelling at CNN or yelling simply because it's trendy. There's a real depth to his lyrics, a challenge, a militancy even, to the mission he's been on for over a decade now. What's more, with a distinct voice he can mold any number of ways, from downtrodden to funky, Boots draws the listener in on both a substance and style tip. As a writer, he's known to inject humor into his politics, intricate details into his stories, and, more so recently, some grown man steez into his growl.

"The street light reflects off the piss on the ground / Which reflects off the hamburger sign that turns round / Which reflects off the chrome of the BMW / Which reflects off the fact that I'm broke / Now what the fuck is new?"

Devin the Dude (Do What You Wanna Do)
For a guy whose material often revolves around weed and girls, Devin the Dude's music is some of the most level-headed Hip-Hop out there. And although his long-term relationship with Rap-A-Lot has stifled his popularity and he came up before Houston really achieved its mainstream exposure, Devin's everyman persona, almost conversational voice and delivery, and open, often self-effacing lyrics have won him lifelong fans over the years. Then, because what he says is often rooted in a Just Tryin' Ta Live, honest, blue collar reality, every line becomes even more identifiable, especially memorable.

"The dollar you earn is the dollar you spend / Go get something for ya kids or buy a bottle of gin / Is it a sin? I don't know / We're X and O's in this game / Tryin' ta survive"

Ghostface Killah (Cobra Clutch)
Though his opening verse on Bring Da Ruckus was impressive, if you had told people back in '93 that, in 2006, Ghostface would be the one member of Wu-Tang to have maintained a consistent catalog and fan base, you would have been looked at strangely. However, with his patented surreal style now holding it down over a span of five solo albums, that's the case. Ghost's world is a frenetic cross between blaxploitation and comic adventure, where a hype verse or a heartfelt number both resonate just as well. He has the creativity for not only abstract imagery, but also enough to put him arguably amongst the top five storytellers of all-time.

"We dazzle off this, bloody version of Glaciers / Slang shot threw a gem in his mouth, swallowed his razor / Say no more, my back be parked against the wall / Trooper square holding, 'Face don't give a fuck about the law"

Ice Cube (We Had to Tear This Motherfucka Up)
With his mic replacing the sickle, for a time, Ice Cube was almost like Hip-Hop's own version of the grim reaper, plucking off anyone who marginalized his brand of blackness or rap music in general. Political and often brash, Cube articulated the anger of an entire city that grew to symbolize a generation. Responsible for at least three non-argument classic LPs, a flow that could switch between casual or intense with nothing lost, one of the most infamous diss records (No Vaseline), and one of the great guest verses of all-time (Grand Finale), Ice Cube changed the way people rapped, in a way only rivaled by Rakim.

"I told you it would happen and you heard it, read it / But all you can call me was anti-Semitic / Regret it? Nope, said it? Yep / Listen to my big black boots as I step"

Jay-Z (This Life Forever)
Jay-Z's greatest strength is his ability to sound at home in multiple arenas. Whether in a straightforward flow or doing double time, on stage or in the corporate board room, on a club-friendly track or bubbling over some dark Primo keys, he's found success again and again. As the modern archetype for a rap career, unfortunately those who have followed in Jay's path most often don't possess half his energy, an ounce of his wordplay, or a hint of the smarts that took him to hall of fame status. He's slayed MCs in a single line, elevated the status of producers, and maintained a work ethic that ensured that a deep catalog would be the best kind of self-promotion.

"I blind with the bezel / I'm in line with the ghetto /What y'all niggas afraid of: my mind or the metal?"

Kool G Rap (Men at Work)
Sometimes with older MCs you may get caught up on what they used to be able to do, but Kool G Rap is perhaps the one old school rapper who can still do it today just as yesterday and put fear into any up-and-comer with a new mixtape. And while back in the day he did set standards for thug stories and sex raps, literally etching out the blueprint of a dozen important 90's rappers, that he's been able to outlast any number of trends is truly evidence of his gift. G Rap's rapid delivery, unique voice, dark belly of the beast scenes, and unapologetic and unrelentless approach to lyrics have seen him brutalize tracks for two decades now, and he's not done yet.

"I'm alone but my tone is a sharp tune / Developing pictures in your brain like a darkroom / Rappers are captured and tortured with rapture / In 3-D, it's a G coming at'cha"

Kurupt (New York, New York)
An important piece of both The Chronic and Doggystyle, although it took Kurupt until 1998 to officially release his solo debut, the ballsy, bi-costal double album Kuruption! proved to be one of the few 2xLP to really justify its extra-long length. As the consummate gangster scholar, behind Kurupt's eye glasses and skinny frame lurk a glaring charisma and a flow that was even neighboring Snoop's for a second. The Philadelphia-born MC combines an East Coast style with a West Coast sensibility, equally able to attack a song and do it laid back just as easily. Moreover, his work on the first Dogg Pound album best showcases the smooth, sniper-like lyrical focus he brings to the mic.

"I'm all ready to put work in / Take ten steps then turn to shoot the first nigga smirkin' / Give a fuck what's your name, what you claim / Or why you came, motherfucker, don't explain"

Nas (My Will)
While Illmatic is religion to some, that Nas flipped the script and flow with two classics out the gate served notice that he was not a one-album rapper. In the mid-90's, he advanced the use of polysyllabic rhymes and added a very visual sense to lyrics that captured details with clarity. As Nas' career progressed, although his ability to produce cohesive albums became less certain, his unreleased material became especially noteworthy. Additionally, distinct periods of musical growth have demonstrated a maturation in sound, showing that Hip-Hop can grow successfully into its third decade. Overall, Nas' catalog remains one of the most extensive in terms of range of subject matter.

"Similar to anybody you know / Oh, I created, cremated, bodied that flow / Anyone you thinks fucking with me better be vets"

Pharoahe Monch (Thirteen)
As one half of the severely slept-on Organized Konfusion duo, though his partner was no slouch by any means, that Pharoahe Monch routinely overshadowed Prince Poetry is testament to Pharoahe's otherworldly ability. His soulful, pulpit-authoritative voice seems to simply bend over tracks, finding not only new rhymes but inventing new rhythms along the way. Monch can make a club song with verbal flips, a love song a tongue-twister, and his delivery come off like it's possessed. In this way, he's one of the most conceptually challenging MCs, not only regarding what he says but how he makes it sound.

"You can't steer it / Face the bass; crumb you run when you hear it / It's the most incredible rap individual style / Piles up - like drug cases in Queens Country Criminal Court"

Rakim (In The Ghetto)
To trace Rakim's influence is really to look at all of Hip-Hop after he first came on the scene. With a great four-album stretch, from the 80's until the early 90's, primarily, Ra was the blueprint of flow, responsible for the most important lyrical shift in rap music, literally making legends go back to the lab. Bringing an almost scientific complexity to his rhymes, he became the quintessential poetic rapper, forcing listeners to get involved with lyrics. Next, his aggressive, I Ain't No Joke persona established a new mold for the game. A strong vocal presence, effortless delivery, and verses that are as long as they are quotable give further reason why many refer to Rakim simply as The God MC.

"I learn to relax in my room and escape from New York / And return through the womb of the world as a thought / Thinking how hard it was to be born / Me being cream with no physical form"

Nas: My Will
Rebel To America: Two Through Ten

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Street Scriptures

Ask your average literary type who the greatest storyteller of all-time is, and you might hear responses ranging from William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, and the like. But ask your average Hip-Hop head who the greatest storyteller of all-time is, and you're likely to hear just one response: Slick Rick. Constructing his narratives with convincing attention to detail and a cartoon-like swagger, MC Ricky D's Great Adventures essentially pioneered, innovated, and set the standard for how a story on wax would go. Then, as far as the harder-edged episodes, Kool G Rap chronicled a gritty, often violent, drug and crime-based reality. With these influences from his youth, when Nas, who's more than worthy to be in anyone's top three, came on the scene, his story style proved the perfect mix of G Rap, Uncle Ricky, and something all his own.

As a keen observer and a naturally gifted narrator, ensuring that his stories are always effectively laid out, Nas maintains a level of clarity, interest, and even suspense throughout his rhymes. Then his use of imagery often succeeds in illustrating the story's details, both emotional and action-based. Finally, his vocabulary and poetic approach to words allows what he's seen and thought to connect with the audience in full. Never one to shy away from these gifts, whether in brief episodes, like the sagas on 2nd Childhood, Get Down, The Message, NY State of Mind, or in a more epic shape, such as with Blaze a 50, Fetus, Rewind, One Love, Shootouts, Undying Love, Nas has surely cemented his place in the all-time annals of the Hip-Hop storyteller. And while the songs above have all received their fair share of acclaim, Nas' catalog is so deep that you may overlook others, e.g., Hardest Thing To Do Is Stay Alive, Pussy Killz, Sekou Story, The Set-Up, Small World, etc.). Even then, you still haven't covered them all.

Wanna Play Rough is a fast-paced, multiple-point-of-view tale originally intended to be a part of the I Am 2LP but ultimately relegated to a Dame Grease compilation. While most story raps are relayed from the first-person or a third-person omniscient perspective, Wanna Play Rough plays with the formula some. All three verses are told from the first-person, however, there are two different "I's" to focus on. For example, the first verse is relayed from the eyes of a set of killers waiting for their mark, "I heard he call himself Esco, drive a Lexo, rocks his hat sideways, showing off his waves with a chipped tooth." After this, the second verse introduces that aforementioned chipped-tooth one, Nas, but this time the story is told from his point of view, as he sneaks up on those very same killers, "I carefully creep / take off my shoes, barefoot, nigga, popping my heat." Wanna Play's third act is relayed once more from Nas' POV, but offers a couple plot twists and a bit of the gruesome for good measure. Beyond the story's innovation, Nas' way with words elevates his characters' dialogue from the obvious and mundane to the creative and even alluring, "the Lord is my shepherd, the sword is my weapon / reward is a blessing - that comes from the struggle." In this way, like Jules from Pulp Fiction, if you will, or some great Shakespearean figure, Nas gives his assassins not only a killer's touch but also a poet's tongue.

The ill-fated Death of Escobar album, circa 2001, was to, after the Nastradamus disaster, once more solidify Nas' position in the game, much in the same way Stillmatic eventually did. Obviously, it never came to be. Moreover, whatever tracklisting has been distributed online is fake. However, we can peg a couple unreleased songs recorded from the time as having been meant for that lost album; Tales from the Hood being one. From its suspenseful beat to its menacing hook, and three verses of pure macabre, Tales from the Hood is essential Nas. Having been broken into different chapters, each its own separate story, chapter one first showcases Nas' attention to detail, as everything from haircuts to the dress of the hood's canines are effectively described. Chapter two then demonstrates Nas gift for an intricate rhyme structure, as he weaves the story's plot along a series of double and internal rhymes:

I'm gonna help you nigga, 'cause I see evil's calling you
Sick thoughts make you wanna take ki's from other balling crews
Top of the world's all he views
A puff of weed, nothing but greed
Don't live by the rules
Saving the best for last, the song's third verse epitomizes Nas ability to tap into the dark recesses of his imagination. Experimenting with a kind of expressionism, the ominous moral story Nas unfolds concerns a man haunted by his own fatal actions, "[he] escapes the scene, but he couldn't escape the dreams of how the kid fell when bullets made it too late to scream." Not only can we picture the physical death detailed here, but, as Nas continues, we see, like some ghost stalking in the woods, or a spirit looming overhead, the emotional mind state of the character, so gripped by his past, put on vivid display. Nas then ends this scene on the edge of sanity as only he can.

Nas: Tales From The Hood
Nas: Wanna Play (Rough)

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Deja Vu

Plans for a Cuban Linx 2 have been on the table for some time now. Subsequently, that people have again taken interest in a new Raekwon album, after Immobilarity and The Lex Diamond Story both sunk like the heaviest stones in a sea of indifference, is really proof of the power of the name Cuban Linx. In many ways, it seems like whatever attention has grown out of talks of a sequel really stem from the 90's New York Hip-Hop crowd wanting a return to the RZA-led, sample-heavy coke lyricism that inspired heads over a decade ago, back when Wu was in their prime, the city was still winning, and Ghost, Nas, and Rae had the best product on the block. While all three MC's are still around, that line from Verbal Intercourse especially represents a time when they were each a reputable force, more than just a mere presence in the game. Appropriately enough, with all the talks of a CL 2, question / hopes of a Verbal Intercourse 2 have followed close by. Beyond RZA turning The Emotions If You Think into a genius moment of "how the hell did he . . ." and the chemistry shared between the trio, a return to his Escobar style would give many a reminder of the vintage Nas that propelled "through the lights, cameras, and action, glamour, glitters, and gold" to all-time quotable territory.

Receiving specific honor in The Source and establishing itself as one of the greatest verses ever put down on record, Nas' go on Verbal Intercourse remains a high mark in Hip-Hop lyricism. The verse, in a scant forty-five seconds, manages to encapsulate a lifetime of observation. It's Nas back in stoop philosopher form, capturing the mind state of the street soldier, these prisoners of a multi-faceted war, and the beast right behind them all. Nas' reference to this character of "the beast" harkens back to Memory Lane and Illmatic's Rotten Apple depictions of the city, once more shrouding the scene in a mythic-like cover. But beyond the keen narration or structure of his rhymes, Nas shines simply in the unique way he's able to phrase his thoughts, "the beast'll rise like yeast . . . trick my Wisdom with the system that imprisoned my son . . . things I do is real, it never haunts me . . . props is a true thug's wife . . . from the womb to the tomb, presume the unpredictable -- guns salute life, rapidly, that's the ritual." Fitted with a highly poeticized speech, Verbal Intercourse exemplifies Nas' gift as a storyteller with a maturation to his words often reaching beyond his years.

However, as timeless as this verse has become, according to Raekwon, in XXL's Making of Cuban Linx special, it was not the only one Nas tried out in the studio, "he had already went through three or four rhymes, and he couldn't really see which one he wanted it to be. But I heard it. Once it came out his mouth, I was like, 'that's it.'" While it has never been specifically confirmed, we can safely assume that those other rhymes Nas was going through would show up on the unreleased Deja Vu. Deja Vu, a lost tape fans have replayed over and over despite poor quality or J-Love drops, begins, with only slight modifications, just as Verbal Intercourse did, "through the lights, cameras, and action." However, it's all uncharted land after that first verse. (On the similarly-lost Goodfellas, Nas again reused a portion of this unreleased rap.) From its depressed piano-led beat to its simple but memorable hook, Deja Vu has established itself as arguably the greatest unreleased Nas song. Two verses of near or equal stature to Verbal Intercourse don't hurt either.

Blunts, thugs, and alcohol, what a mixture
Just picture your life as a whole, judged in court they convict ya
They telling you your state of mind like you worthless
So he curses, his mom saying Bible verses
That's all she works with
But miracles never leave the churches
Instead it hits the pockets of the preacher just to purchase
A house with a swimming pool, labels me a sinning fool
I'm just a nigga who inherited a winning jewel
To be a trendsetter when ever subject to
Respect this is and all respect due is the essential
The street life hustle in the struggle broke ghettos
Boiling coke settles slow inside a glass kettle
Darren Levy on my TV, lifestyles of living easy
Got my crew tense plotting the gyps to get whips with BB's
Pushing cakes, new NRX's with temp. plates
Celebrating elevation in the seeds that we make

Escobar life, gems and raw Tims
Gators for pretty boy haters in Vegas
With chicks tricking fortunes
I'm glistening, housing cops whistling
Still I'm drifting in the high, blunts is like insulin
'95-I, I drive, high, zoning
Stash box zone in my trunk, I flash knots, teeth golden
Look at me now, ma, blowing
But how far? Cars, cash and bitches got me out
Wanting things you never dreamed I could have vouch for
Snake niggas slither on their A-Alikes
I ain't a Christian but I find that we're praying like
Never the one to ask all the time to a saint
A mask and a nine I think will make my problems sink
Down a canal similar to how we drink
Distinct diamond-flooded Sphinx shines on my linx
Drug money, snorting bitches in the end of time
Got my mind till I flat line nigga gimme mine

Nas: Deja Vu
Raekwon f/ Ghostface Killah, Nas: Verbal Intercourse
BONUS: Cormega f/ Nas: Goodfellas

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Blindfold Me

Mr. & Mrs. Jones cordially invite you to a mistake . . . Blindfold Me.

Kelis is doing her yelling type quasi-singing thing again that seems to have recently been picked up by the likes of Beyonce, Gwen Stefani, a 2006 Nelly Furtado, and London Bridge's Fergie.

The beat is a cheap Timbaland rip-off. You could argue it will sound good enough in a club setting to be sweat-inducing, but that's a plea copped at any decibel level.

Subject-wise, with its sexual fetishism, Blindfold Me is a bastard child of N.E.R.D.'s Truth Or Dare, featuring Kelis, and a twin to the last Nas and Kelis collaboration, In Public.

Nas, on key, is back with an assured delivery and some freaky tales. He spits a decent double, a few internal rhymes, and a couple good pieces of verbal imagery, but pay attention to his last lines, "gonna surprise you like Hugh Grant in 8 1/2 Weeks." Uh, Hugh Grant was in a movie called Nine Months, and one called Two Weeks Notice. Mickey Rourke was in a movie called 9 1/2 Weeks, and I think that's the intended reference. However, neither actor, to my knowledge nor to imdb.com's, have ever been in a movie known as 8 1/2 weeks. Maybe the blindfold was still on at Blockbuster.

The last thing you get
Is a blindfold and a cigarette
You willing to bet
Like an ocean cruise, mommy
I'm so addictive
How long I've been stroking you
Gives you motion sickness
Grant your wishes
I leave you four senses:
Smelling, feeling, tasting, and hearing
One minute I'm gone - next, I'm reappearing
The bed is the Bentley, I'm doing the steering
I got your eyes in a veil
Let your hands fall over my tattoos
Like you're reading in Braille
Like my wine with a spicy aftertaste
Though you're fine, I like to cover up half your face
And you're blind and can't see, what I'm 'bout to do
Suspense so intense, won't allow you to move
Gonna surprise you like Hugh Grant in 8 1/2 Weeks
Kelis and Nasty

Kelis f/ Nas: Blindfold Me

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Five-Finger Discount

The world of sampling is like a pentagon.

Side 1 - The Outside
The combatants over here believe it belittling to call sampling a skill or an art, let alone music. They'll primarily deride rap for being based off of someone else's notes and say it's reducing another's passion and musicianship to a few simplistic, unoriginal loops. It's riding a real artist's craft, requires essentially no talent but to pick records off a shelf, and relies on stealing in minutes a sound that might have taken years to perfect.

Side 2 - The Inside
The pro-sampling squad would call that previous group myopic and even ignorant. To take what otherwise might have been confined to dusty crates and dilapidated basements and reanimate those records is the greatest favor a modern genre can do to yesterday's flavors. Furthermore, to manipulate, through the use of digital instruments, and reinterpret those sounds into a contemporary context is to satisfy fundamental requisites for musical expression.

Side 3 - The Judicial Side
The reason Ready To Die cannot be purchased from official retailers anymore, the reason The Turtles and De La Soul will be forever linked, and the reason Biz Markie had to insist All Samples Cleared are the same: copyright laws. For a culture that came from siphoning street electricity to fuel the night, for a genre based on the break, with judges stepping in and proving briefcases will always dominate over beatsmiths, Hip-Hop has been crippled, but also strengthened, by the courtroom. In many ways, The Judicial Side reinforces The Outsider's thievery argument, while also making The Insiders push their art, through varying techniques, to another, more creative level.

Side 4 - The Dre Side
Does Daz supplying the melody for Ain't No Fun make you rethink the "Produced by Dr. Dre" Doggystyle credits? Does Warren G bringing in Donny Hathaway's Little Ghetto Boy make you question a legend's legacy? In debating the specific practice of sampling for a record, this is basically the Outside v. Inside debate but amongst Hip-Hop heads: can you separately define a producer, a beatmaker, and a digger? Can you create lasting music simply by finding a song to sample? Is Dre a bully or a genius? As I see it, Hip-Hop has always been based on the how more so than the what, i.e., it's not merely what records you're holding, but how you flip the sample that makes the song. Would Ain't No Fun have ended up as an anthem, would The Chronic have ended up a classic without Dre's touch, without him creating the how? As Snoop astutely put its, "if you brought in the beat, that's all you did, was brought in the beat. You didn't produce this record. This song says 'produced by' not 'brought in the beat by'." Others would disagree still.

Side 5 - The Primo Side
To many heads, "stop snitching" may have more to do with sampling than the streets. Ask DJ Premier, and you'll hear that revealing sample sources is near treasonous. Primo, and his ilk, have tended to come to this conclusion based on two factors: 1) The Judicial Side; with sampling laws enforced more and more, and producers already having to buck their original blueprints, if a record is scrambled to get past the lawyers, revealing it may jeopardize that song's future and that producer's livelihood. 2) It used to be tradition for diggers to make a flee market trek and end up scouring through bins to discover scant seconds of gold. Nowadays, you can just google a sample, right click a song, and, in a matter of minutes, have ended with the same sound a digger might have searched forever for. As in all these examples, the digital age has influenced, for good and bad, the nature of sampling in Hip-Hop music, and where you stand is simply a matter of what side you choose to take.

With all that being said, each point is relevant to today's entry. I have collected, through various sources, twenty-five samples that have all been used on Nas songs. In going over this package, Side 1 will ask if taking the opening notes from a popular Bette Midler song is really to exercise skill. Side 2 will argue that sampling a section of an out-of-print Persuaders album brings attention to a group that could easily be forgotten otherwise. Side 3 will show that with copyrights and royalties now built into the process of getting a record out, a George Michael sample might have ultimately sabotaged a great song from ever being released. Side 4 will have you evaluate a sample used by Dr. Dre and gauge what, if anything, a song is beyond its mere source material. Side 5 will simply scream that disclosing these sources, especially in such an open way as online, is wrong from the start. But that's all for you to decide.

This collection is a combination of samples that either appeared on I Am, Nastradamus, God's Son or Street's Disciple. Because a number of other collections have already been committed to Nas' first two LPs, and then Stillmatic, I wanted to avoid too much redundancy. Also, Firm and QB's Finest-related tracks, along with several songs Nas guested on, have been included. And then unreleased ones are here too. Additionally, I have provided a text file within the rar package which reveals what sample was used for what song, but I want to avoid posting that list here just yet.

Bette Midler - Superstar
Brian Bennet - Solstice
Chris Barber's Jazz Band - Petite Fleur
Donna Summer - Once Upon A Time
Earth, Wind, & Fire - Fantasy
Eddie Holman - I Love You
Eddie Kendricks - The Newness Is Gone
Edna Wright - Spend The Night With Me
Ella Fitzgerald - Russian Lullaby
The Emotions - If You Think
Francis Lai - Stronger Than Us
Fred Wesley & The Horny Horns - Peace Fugue
George Michael - Careless Whisper
Jimmy Smith - I'm Gonna Love You Just a Little More, Baby
Kenny Loggins - This Is It
Larry Page Orchestra - Just A Little Bit
Lightin' Rod - Sport
Lyn Collins - Take Me Just As I Am
Mandrill - Love Song
Mary Jane Girls - Musical Love
Norman Connors - Valentine Love
The Persuaders - We're Just Trying To Make It
Southside Movement - I've Been Watching You
Tommy Tate - For The Dollar Bill
Wasis Diop - Dune

Rebel To America: Sample Collection

*NOTE: Very much thanks to the good people at the-breaks.com and my favorite Frenchman, Bounce, for their help in making this compilation.--Fletch

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Flowerpots and Things

I don't get how one man hits another man with a flowerpot. I mean, I understand the physical act of raising your hand holding said flowerpot and bringing it down to break against another--the mechanics of the premise make sense--but as to how the flowerpot even appears in the scene in the first place is a little curious. However, that's the story surrounding Nas and Noreaga, when, reportedly, in 2005, the latter rapper struck the former rapper with that aforementioned weapon of choice. Still, unless the rumble broke out in the middle of a Home & Garden section, I think I'm missing something. Either way, it's not like that was the first time the two had ever feuded. In 2002, on New York's Power 105 radio station, Nore was told, rather randomly, by Nas, to step his rap game up. Soon after, a similar on-air response was made by Mr. Melvin Flynt. Then a couple years came and went, and, all of a sudden, flowerpots started flying. Beyond the ridiculous nature of the incident, the inflamed differences between both rappers highlight the end of what had been, for some time, an intriguing collaborative relationship. With a handful of released winners and a couple left in the vaults, during the mid-90's to just before that '02 rant, Nas and Noreaga had shared more than mere hostility.

Released in late 2000, B EZ is one of Nas' finest pre-Ether etherous moments. Like the Stillmatic Freestyle or the Eye for an Eye Freestyle, its attack against those who would seek to treat a legend as if he could be written out for good would later also materialize in the almost-morbid defiance of Ether's second verse. Full of distrust and anger, this is a look of careful revenge, "I heard you fags wanna catch me off guard / put techs in my heart / the death of Escobar / under your breath, whispers in the dark." Beyond that, here Nas also manages to break down his life (girls, glamour, drugs, raps, and fights) using an inspired 5-fingered metaphor. For their part, Capone and Noreaga, reunited on the album, do their best to stay along.

Blood Money PT 2
As a sequel to the War Report classic, Blood Money PT 2 appeared on the soundtrack to the 1998 movie, Ride. (Ride's soundtrack, more memorable than the actual movie, also boasted the Wu-Tang / Onyx track The Worst.) With a AAA-endorsed rap, Nore starts the song down an I-95 trek, most likely attempting to tie his verse in with the plot of the film itself. Fellow Queensite Nature, who no longer is friendly with the Esco'd one either, goes next with a NBA-studded verse, leaving Nas to finish out the song. Nas' turn ends up a kind of different third-person bit of braggadocio. It's decent, but, ultimately, Blood Money PT 2 is perhaps the most forgettable of all the Nore-Nas collaborations. Verdict: shouldn't have made the movie, didn't need the sequel.

Body In The Trunk
Noreaga's solo 1998 debut N.O.R.E. has its place in the Hip-Hop pantheon for several reasons. For starters, it features one of the last, great NY-centric posse cuts, Banned From TV, and also served as the first major breakthrough for the since-then-ubiquitous Neptunes production team. In addition, N.O.R.E. is the home of the back-and-forth storytelling saga, Body in the Trunk, guest starring Nas. Beginning with an argument and then ending up with, well, a body in the trunk, Nas and Nore trace the crime from confrontation to cover-up. In doing this, both rappers successfully capture the frantic feeling of the scene, with Nore tapping into a "I had to" mind state, contrasted by Nas' apprehensive but committed passenger, "yo, you hiding it, let a nigga know what he riding wit'." A follow-up, Body In The Trunk PT 2, was in the works at one time, but plans have since been deaded themselves.

Calm Down
The story goes that Columbia wouldn't give clearance for Nas to appear on Capone-N-Noreaga's War Report, and thus Calm Down was recorded, leaked, but never officially released on that 1997 album. Because the song would have only bolstered the reputation of the LP and all MC's involved, it remains another unfortunate lost tape. For the middle verse, flanked on either side by Tragedy and Noreaga, Nas provides a focused story rap, while his offbeat yet effective singing also manages to push the hook to memorable status. Moreover, the song's very lineup is notable itself. Trag, in the leadoff position, was, at one time, poised to have a career that could have mirrored Nas' own--the beginning at least. A Queensbridge resident and rapper starting in the late 80's, the "Intelligent Hoodlum" design that Tragedy carved out was a worthy precursor to the mold Nas would later create on Illmatic. However, collaborations between the two, no matter how obvious they might seem to the outside, have been quite rare. And although jealousy has been speculated in the past as the cause of this apparent rift, whatever the reason, that two came together, when QB was still in its prime, and the song didn't get released, makes Calm Down even more of a let down.

Queenstyle / Triple Threat
Queenstyle and Triple Threat are the same but different. Both are moved by an identical mildly dark, piano-laden beat, and both feature four of the same verses, two of them by Nas ("sex and money go together like techs and nine shells" / "death followed him, before it swallowed him whole") and two of them by Nore ("since a young sibling, had every flavor Timb'land" / "we still in Queens, same place where we used to be"). However, whereas Nature made his way onto Triple Threat, Queenstyle is merely a duet; seizing the moment, in Nate's place, Nas and Nore do entirely new verses each. But guess what? Both versions have never been released. Overall, if I had to pick between the two, since it's more rare to get a track where three MCs, who all share good chemistry with each other, switch off like this, Triple Threat sets itself apart.

Queens Freestyle
Some of the so-called Queens Freestyle may sound familiar. For instance, Nore spits his bit from I'm Leaving, the overlooked Firm track, and also a portion from his self-self-titled N.O.R.E. Likewise, Nas' redoes his part from the Firm Biz remix. However, it's his first verse on the freestyle that proves to be an otherwise-unheard-of double-rhyme winner, "real things happen for a reason / you flashing or squeezing / could tell when you stashing and cheesing / could tell when you--yo, you bleeding / could feel when you scheming / could kill you / you chill with the demons / but hustling and beef shouldn't cross together / 'cause we could go to war and beef last forever / have you ever felt a slug pass through your leather? / many thugs know / drug wars reduce your cheddar / some real jewels to follow / you choose not to swallow / understand, no man is promised tomorrow / bullets made of Teflon, some made of hollow / yo, yo, what's the deal? what's the saga?"

Nas, Nature, Noreaga: Triple Threat
Nas, Noreaga: Queenstyle
Nas, Nore: Queens Freestyle
Noreaga f/ Nas, Tragedy: Calm Down
BONUS: Capone-N-Noreaga f/ Nas: B EZ
BONUS: Noreaga f/ Nas: Body in the Trunk
BONUS: Noreaga f/ Nas, Nature: Blood Money PT 2

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Love In Love Out

The departure of the Cormega is commonly cited as one of the principal reasons for 1997's Firm Flop. And while it can be argued if anything truly was lost with Mega gone and Nature in his place, the move ultimately epitomized a project full of curious decisions, destined to be watered-down. Previously, Cormega had been Nas' comrade from the pre-fame QB block. And when Cormega did a behind-bars stint in the early 90's, Nas made sure to keep his name out there, immortalizing him on Illmatic's One Love. Then when Mega came back to civilian life, Nas welcomed him home with a recording contract and eventually a spot on an album that would coast to platinum status in seemingly no time. That album, It Was Written, and that spot, Affirmative Action, introduced The Firm to millions and set anticipation in motion for a full-blown LP. Plus, a Dr. Dre cosign didn't help. However, The Firm's cliché mafiaso scenes grew more and more contrived, and any anticipation quickly wore away. Then the Dre cosign fell back into the shadows, and soon Mega was removed for good. That particular story, as relayed on the song Love In Love Out, goes that the once-prison circuit champion boxer was given the ultimatum of signing to an exclusive production deal with The Trackmasters / Steve Stoute or be gone. Gone he was. From magazine covers to verses, the fix was in: Cormega was out. Nature would later take his place, and the rest happened as it did, for better or for worse. To trace the change in lineup and in music, there are three songs which serve as a suitable guide for this fracturing of The Firm.

Affirmative Action remix
With the original four in tact, the Affirmative Action remix is essentially the last "untainted" Firm track. The beat, although credited to The Trackmasters, simply involves pressing record on Marley Marl's The Symphony, but the connection to that classic posse cut does set the remix up in good company. Foxy begins with a verse thankfully not nearly as long as her go on the OG, then AZ does his "neck-a-lace" thing, with the two embittered MC's left to close the song out. Coincidentally enough, Cormega ends his verse, which then transitions immediately to Nas', with the line, "fake thugs could either take slugs or bury me." Later, the idea of "fake thugs" would be the centerpiece of Mega's attacks against Nas. However, since the AA remix was recorded some time before the beef actually became locked in place, it's more than likely just a general threat on Mega's part. Nas, for himself, gets in his own subliminals, though directed not so much at his borough-mate, but rather at Brooklyn's Finest, Mr. Frank White, Biggie Smalls, "I take the crown off the so-called king of the town and lock it down."

La Familia
The Foxy Brown B-Side La Familia is when trouble really started to jump off. Two versions of the track exist: 1) the unreleased original with the lineup of Cormega-Nas-Foxy Brown-AZ 2) the official, second take with the order of Foxy Brown-Nature-Nas-AZ. Theis difference in the lineups marks the split in The Firm. On the original, Cormega once more comes with a read-between-the-lines verse, "snakes plan up ways to set they own man up . . .you just a hand-to-hand soldier, I'm a general." Nas, on the other hand, unfazed, preaches loyalty, "I die for my niggas, stick you for pies, and lie for my niggas / plead guilty, get the chair, then fry for my niggas." However, what's maybe most curious is that on the second take, with Nature in place already, Foxy Brown's specific reference to Cormega remains unchanged.

World Famous (Firm Biz remix)
By the time the Firm Biz remix rolled around, Nature's spot had been more than solidified. Here he's joined by the rest of his Firm Family, with Mary J. Blige (once rumored to be a regular fixture in the group herself) and Half-A-Mill (RIP) alongside. As mentioned above, the popular argument is that as soon as Nate subbed in for Corey a lot was lost. However, if you compare the two, at the time, line for line, while Mega certainly has the harder-edge, grimey element over his counterpart all day, Nature, with a clearer voice and delivery, is no slouch either. Adept at laying down memorable punchlines and solid double rhymes, Nature proved himself the one member of the four-headed Firm to really be putting any consistent effort into the group, "keep the shows packed and the money close, kid / niggas on my nuts like they honey-roasted." Interestingly enough, closing out the remix, as opposed to with La Familia, Nas comes off less trusting of loyalty:

Never stress small things, what's promised to come
If you rich, then expect all drama to come
Broke niggas don't see it yet
When you get a ki, I bet
Friends ain't friends
Girls wanna see you wet - up
Hoping that you self-destruct
Got my balls and my word and I just don't give a fuck
The Firm: Affirmative Action remix
The Firm: La Familia (w/ Nature)
The Firm f/ Half-A-Mill, Mary J. Blige: World Famous
BONUS: Cormega: Love In Love Out
BONUS: The Firm: La Familia (w/ Cormega)