Friday, September 29, 2006

Course of Nature

There was news going around, a couple weeks back, at least on the rumor level, that the rapper Nature was shot several times in Paterson, New Jersey. While it was also reported that any injuries he suffered were not life-threatening, not much else was said, anywhere. Although Nature is not the first person ever to get shot in Paterson, that the story basically went bottoms up has to make one at least question the smoke and mirrors of fame. It's not that Nate was ever super-famous or anything, but if I was a known rapper, who did get shot, and, for example, a 50 Cent mixtape cover received ten times the amount of publicity, I'd likely to be bitter about a bit more than just bullet wounds.

Nature's been on platinum albums, was once partnered with one of the most legendary rappers, then squared off against that same rapper, and next caught some bad luck in New Jersey. Phrased this way, that's a rather disappointing bio. However, let's go back a minute, back to the mid 90's, when Nate was known for being on the right side of a mic and not the wrong side of something else entirely.

Although he was not featured on It Was Written or in the original Firm set-up, it was from the seat of this so-called super group that Nature would eventually make his name. Leading up to that point, he contributed to a series of Nas / DJ Clue freestyles, The Foulness parts 3 and 4, respectively. (Part 3 uses the Shootouts beats, while 4 opts for Watch Dem Niggas.) As both episodes demonstrate, and what often gets forgotten during this Escobar period of Nas' career, while the production might have been dressed up and the music videos might have been all gloss, lyrically, very often the mood was down, at times even as destitute as before the glitz came on the scene. For instance, on Part 3, you find Nature exposing the lose-lose layout of the streets, "This game's a death trap / I strive for deficits, bitches, and setbacks / Triple-6, camouflage and niggas rocking 'X' hats / Emotionally scarred from being left back." Likewise, Nas' verse captures a sense of claustrophobia, "Trapped in a cold world, naked and ashamed / Blunts flame, my niggas locked up under alias names." Unfortunately, this balance between bleak and boisterous, as was seen throughout It Was Written, would soon fall apart with Nas and Nature's next step, The Firm.

While IWW was full of bravado, it was also at times hesitant, untrusting, even paranoid. On the other hand, The Firm project proved bloated most of all. Lyrically, it became short-sighted and lazy, with the production often failing worse. And although Nas, Foxy, Dre, and even AZ were going to be cool no matter if the album flopped or not, Nature, acting as a replacement for Cormega, had a lot more riding on its success. Without an album yet to his credit, this was Nature's shot to steal some shine from the headliners. Unfortunately, while it does sound like Nature did most of the work and actually put some focus into his performance, because the overall group carried with them a very disarming stench, it'd be hard to say that performance was ever properly appreciated. And even in the group's big exposure moments, Nature was relegated to the work of an extra: not included on Firm Biz, in a walk-on role for Phone Tap, left to do a cheesy remake of a Whodini classic (Five Minutes to Flush). Even his picture on The Firm album cover is essentially only thumbnail size.

The following year, in 1998, according to Nature himself, his solo LP, For All Seasons, was supposed to drop. Unfortunately, a fracturing with The Trackmasters, a loss of control of the music, and general bad luck stalled the album.

Despite these problems, Nas kept Nature around, with the duo collaborating on nearly a dozen tracks. Two of the most notable from this set came in the form of a soundtrack contribution, In Too Deep, and one of the many unreleased relics of the lost I Am double album, Sometimes I Wonder. The latter was perhaps I Am's biggest loss, at least from Nature's perspective, because had it been released, it would have surely stood out. Here Nas' sobering flow meets the somber tone of the production appropriately, as he delivers two cautious verses, the second of which serves as an obituary column for his deceased friends, "Blessings be to the ones who left us / To transcend into spiritual essence / In Allah's arms, you resting." Yet, Nature's presence on the track cannot be ignored. As he recites a great series of double rhymes, he manages also to impress off of more than just his lyrical scheme. The how is satisfied with the pattern in his rhymes, complex over a series of lines, while the what is catered to in his explanation of the paper thin loyalty of street life, put so simply but effectively:

Crews advance - nothing new, just the rules of the land
You can't tell if they wolves or lamb
You could fight like a few, there's a few that ran
Or you could feed them and lose your hand
From this point however, with the audience for Sometimes I Wonder being limited to the bootleg crowd, Nature met up with a bad streak. In spite of whatever anticipation might have been there once, For All Seasons, two years past its intended target, received little notice. Even the top-billing collaborations that it might have once promised were undercut: Columbia didn't want to put up the proper coinage to secure Dr. Dre's Fist Full Of Dollars (a watered-down version was released entitled Talking That Shit), while Nas dropped by for just twenty-seconds, and not even for the video. As far as Nature's career was concerned, that was it, almost.

Maybe it's a bit of a cruel coincidence, but as Nas partnered with Nature and made him known, just as easily, when the pair's working relationship dissolved, Nature became the fallen tree in that forest no one ever visited. And then again, Nate' final flirtation with the mainstream came from Nas' exposure once more, this time on the receiving end of the Destroy & Rebuild diss. Nature responded with Nas Is Not, but as he was neither Jay-Z, Prodigy, nor Cormega, it amounted to not much more than a tangent of a battle that was already the undercard. Nature later put out 2002's Wild Gremliz, and has since worked mostly the hood circuit, guesting, for example, on a Ron Artest single and Welcome To 6 Blocks 96 Buildings, a recent Queensbridge mixtape. Although there's absolutely nothing wrong with a rapper who once had a couple worldwide years now being just a local cat, but you have to wonder if Nature wonders, "what if?"

Nas, Nature: Foulness 3
Nas, Nature: Foulness 4
Nas, Nature: In Too Deep
Nas f/ Nature: Sometimes I Wonder
Nature f/ Nas: The Ultimate High
BONUS: Nature: Nas Is Not
BONUS: Nature f/ Dr. Dre: Fist Full of Dollars
BONUS: Tragedy, Nature & Blaq Poet: Kings Of QB

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Everything I Love

When it leaks, it pours.

Tonight's new Nas comes in the form of a collaboration with Puff Daddy (see: Diddy), while Cee-Lo (see: Gnarls Barkley) does the hook, and Kanye West (see: George Bush Doesn't Care About Black People) supplies the horn-heavy production. Puff's verse carries a God complex and a mention of "ether", so we can safely assume Nas had something to do with it. As for what he says himself, Nas' go is an old-fashioned bragging turn, mostly built around two or three word long phrases. This one will probably have its fans and detractors equally, and while it does go on long, you have to at least chuckle at the Liz Taylor line. Swaggerific!

The Queens crypt keeper
Mets hat-rocker
Pretty bitch-slobber
Ex-robber, heister
My own life biographer
Summer Jam-stopper
Timb, Chuck-wearing
Cranapple vodka
Then I spray choppers
A doctor
In the jungles
Of Haiti made me
Draped in Paisley
Bandana, suits
With Adams, Stacey
Cigar like Dick Tracy
It's dark, I get spacey
Alcohol and laced weed
That was part of my 80's
Them Cartier consiglieres
Beware of me
Canary amber cuts in my pinky yearly
Liz Taylor tried to jux me
'Cause I keep it green
Like the other side of Bill Bixby
When he gets mean
Think fast before I blast holes
Like Grassy Knoll
Went from scraggly ol' clothes
To the illest fashion and realest rapping
Pablo, back on the scene
Won't roll 'bacco with green
Strictly paper
Cruising through The Strip in Vegas
Two of New York's biggest
Niggas, y'all used to hate us
But now you love us
Nas and Diddy, power hustlers

Diddy f/ Cee-Lo, Nas: Everything I Love

Monday, September 25, 2006

Music For Life

The feel good track of the year? Well, maybe . . .

From Hi-Tek's forthcoming Hi-Teknology 2, the Cincinnati producer and Nas celebrate the sounds they've each been a part of since early on. Doing his job both in front of the mic and behind the boards, Hi-Tek's trance-like, flute-laced beat offers a nostalgic nod factor, an appropriate setting for this trip back to past days.

It started with rhythms I heard listening to the wall
The bouncing of basketballs on playgrounds and all
The empty bottles that's hollow, wind blowing inside 'em
The flow and the rhyming got my alignment to a science
Mixing with my moms in the kitchen, them spoons rattling
Pots and pans, faucet water pouring, tunes managing
To come from all the fussing and rambling
What I noticed was -- pure music, untampered with
By things show biz does; older thugs showed us stuff
Like how to hold a plug, juice from the street light
It almost could have blowed us up
Crates of records, great sessions had the whole hood jamming
Large speakers, fresh made, smell the wood sanding
Father did his blues smooth, legendary jazz man
Saw his wife secondary to his true passion
Started with my crew rapping, new jacks in '82
Never looked back, now look what it changed me to . . . music

Hi-Tek f/ Nas: Music For Life

Life in 1998

By the latter half of the 1990's, Hip-Hop had turned. In 1996, the FCC deregulated the media, allowing for the consolidation of radio outlets and virtual monopolies to flourish. At the end of '97, following the passage of this Telecommunications Act, as an example, Clear Channel more than tripled their ownership of radio stations, increasing from 43, in 1995, to 173. With the presence of any independent voice now significantly silenced, the idea of "programming" had really taken on this Huxleian design.

It should be no surprise then that in this climate, come 1997, with the Clear Channel empire on its steady march, and with Hip-Hop fracturing between what got play and what got ignored, two of the year's biggest LPs, one for the bread-winners, Biggie's Life After Death, and one for the underdogs, Company Flow's Funcrusher Plus, appeared almost at odds with each other: first, there was this multi, mammoth Frank White figure, on speed boats, flanked by girls singing nursery rhyme numbers versus the "independent as fuck" crowd, with production almost jarringly anti-pop, stoking the fire in which you burn. Lines were drawn, boundaries, however arbitrary, were established between "underground" and "mainstream", and Hip-Hop's identity crisis was well under way. As the radio dial grew more and more one-sided, programmers and rap stars alike attempted to mix and match whatever formulas would hit platinum quickest.

Because they bear a "late 90's" sticker so clearly, looking back now, with this context in mind, it becomes an adventure almost to listen to certain rap albums from the period. Take Jermaine Dupri for example. Previously known for boosting some backwards-clothes wearing kids to prominence, he brought his So So Def label to fame during the 1990's and, by 1998, had decided to test his hand in the solo market. The result was Life in 1472, in part, a disposable mix of whoever was winning at the time: California was catered to with Snoop and Warren G; R&B fans were feed their Mariah, Usher, and Keith Sweat; Nas and Jay-Z, along with the anthem-hot DMX, came for New York; the Midwest received their representation in the form of Bone Thugs (similar to LAD's Notorious Thugs); Trina, Lil Kim', and Mase were ready fodder for pop outlets; and JD of course called on his southern So So Def base. The thinking proved two-fold: 1) If you're not a very prolific rapper yourself, bring along some friends; 2) Hope that your friends bring along their fans. And as 1472 reached platinum inside of a minute, the thinking was quickly validated.

Elsewhere on the album, where borderline Miami Vice beats served up heavy doses of corn, the production too seemed inspired by shallow-thinking, e.g. the rather flaccid horns on Money Ain't A Thang or the club reject feel of All That's Got To Go. What's more, the subject matter didn't steer very far from the stereotypical, and the trite hooks (Get Your Shit Right) were rivaled only by JD's incessant background ad-libs. However, Life in 1472 stands as one of those artifacts of the jiggy era that can been too quickly pushed to the side simply because of its outward indulgences. In a weird way, even though it spawned multiple hits, because the LP's been so heavily ignored in recent years, shrugged off as just boring bling music, it's become almost slept-on.

First, JD understood how to put tracks together, taking the emphasis off himself and placing it on to his readied lineup of posse cut players -- regardless of how pandering the guest list might have been. Next you have a historical angle, where Kanye was given his first behind-the-boards break (Turn It Out), and Jay-Z's rep was further solidified. Beyond all these new jacks, old school legends, like Too Short and Slick Rick, were as well allowed to shine, each playing into their respective strengths. Meanwhile, DJ's Premier and Quik were also forwarded some deserving paychecks. Then, listening to the project itself, you'll even find one of Nas' best guest appearances, on the aforementioned Turn It Out. Here Nas utilizes repetition wonderfully, as the word "spit" is effectively recited nine times in just about as many seconds. Following this, the Wild Style nod of a hook, and a manageable JD verse, the track moves into story time, another Nas specialty:

Too much Thug Passion and smoking
Made it outside, mouth wide, vomiting, gagging and choking
From behind, niggas plotting and scoping
Everything was blurry at first, now shit is moving in slow motion
Furthermore, 1472 remains notable for the pre-Neptunes grown and sexy style of Jazzy Hoes, the double-time Krazie Bone bout on Don't Hate On Me, and the energetic Primo rush of Protectors of 1472, where JD demonstrates a comfort over any producer's beats. All in all, while we shouldn't begin to revise history and call the album a classic, just because something was part of a much-maligned and rather plastic time in rap music, we also shouldn't be so quick to shrug it off. Yes, Hip-Hop grew more and more one-sided after 1996, but narrow-mindedness isn't supposed to be a trait any side supports.

Jermaine Dupri f/ Nas: Turn It Out
BONUS: Jermaine Dupri f/ Da Brat & Krayzie Bone: Don't Hate Me
BONUS: Jermaine Dupri f/ Eightball, Too $hort & Mister Black: Jazzy Hoes
BONUS: Jermaine Dupri f/ Snoop Dogg, ROC & Warren G: Protectors of 1472

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Reachin' A Ki

Beyond whatever differences in lyrical style exist between Illmatic and It Was Written, perhaps the biggest change came from the production. In '96, beat heroes Pete Rock and Large Professor were both gone, replaced by the radio-friendly likes of The Trackmasters. Pop samples took over jazz loops, and old-school classics were jacked at large. Overall, this meant two things:

1) Illmatic-only fans confused the glossy or shallow production with Nas losing his stride as well;

2) When the acapellas hit stores, people rushed to remix 'em like it was an distress call from sea.

It Was Written's second single, Street Dreams, epitomized this scene:

1) With its pop melody, and a dance sample already used in 1996 (2Pac's All Eyez On Me), listeners might have lost sight of a classic Nas turn in the song's third verse:

Young, early 80's, throwing rocks at the crazy lady
Worshipping every word them rope-rocking niggas gave me
The street raised me up, giving a fuck
I thought Jordan's and a gold chain was living it up;
2) When the acapella did hit stores, you ended up with something like the K-Def remix, which brought in drums that actually moved, moody keys, and horn stabs; the final result proved much more "head friendly."

But the K-Def concoction wasn't to be the only notable refashioning of Street Dreams, because while the official remix, produced still by The Trackmasters, was more buttery than bubbling--matter fact downright R&B, with an Isley Brothers sample and R. Kelly on the hook, Nas' One Love narrator was center stage once more, "Black clouds over the hood, I'm on the corner with the thugs / Late night, under the moon, as they assume I'm slanging drugs." Back on the block, Vegas nightlife pushed aside for a minute, here the apple was rotten again, the tales more haunting than heroic, hubris supplanted by vulnerability. In one particular section, Nas' Street Dreams became literal nightmares:

I saw my life flash in front of my eyes, he wore a disguise
Put a gun to me, hungry, he went on to chastise . . .
Nas: Street Dreams
Nas: Street Dreams (K-Def remix)
Nas f/ R. Kelly: Street Dreams (Trackmasters remix)

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Guess What?

Usually when I post multiple songs, I try and connect them all with a theme: a shared producer, rapper, subject matter, etc. Well, for today's entry, the following three songs likewise are all connected, though not so obviously. But in order to try and inspire replies, and mostly because it's the middle of the week and I'm just about braindead, I'll let you figure out what they all share.

First we'll look at How Ya Livin', released on AZ's 1998 sophomore album, Pieces of a Man. As the track reunites the nearly flawless duo of Anthony Cruz and Nasir Jones, LES's production finds just the right match for their debonair but gangsta tone. Better than pretty much anything the two had quite recently done with The Firm, save for Phone Tap, their chemistry is even noticeable in the closing ad-libs. All in all, with its R&B-ish beat and complimentary rhyming, How Ya Livin' is a respectable precursor to the later Grammy-nominated The Essence.

Next, Real Niggas, from the again-I'll-repeat-it overlooked QB's Finest LP, finds Nas joining up this time with a rapper further off the map, Ruc. (No, not the Heltah Skeltah MC.) While Blitz's duet with Nas on the same album, coupled with his Stillmatic appearance, did make him more of a name, in the years since Real Niggas, Ruc has remained a relative one-shot, though not due to lack of effort. For Nas' part, his verse is a salute to a New York lifetime ranging from Bumpy Johnson's style to Malcolm X's speeches. Then he ends with a well-executed extra-long list of shoutouts.

Finally, there's High. And although High is unreleased going back some years, it really would make sense coming from Nas' pen now. He begins by commenting, "it's good to be back", and later notes a new position of stature, "I elevated up, since snakes in my circumference." Then, in the face of other rappers clamoring to get their name in a lead story position, Nas retains his calm routine, "Niggas rushing to the top not knowing what it takes to be / King of the industry, the wise move patiently." Yet, because his every move garners attention and often anticipation, he knows scrutiny too is only step away:

Y'all niggas hating me, won't be happy till I'm back witcha
Selling crack witcha, half and half on a pack witcha
My pen and pad paint a black picture
That's three tracks, different styles, times, and tempos, but with a connection.

Here's a hint: "____ ________"
Here's the answer: "Wild Gremlins"

Nas: High
AZ f/ Nas: How Ya Livin'
Nas & Ruc: Real Niggas

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Wake Up Show

Chances are you've been frustrated by your local radio programming more than once. From the fact that outlets are owned in monopoly-like fashion by large-scale conglomerates to the playlists that insist on repeating the same five songs every six-song set, "turn off the radio" has become even more of an anthemic call since the days when O'Shea first did his best Howard Beale impersonation. On the other hand, if you're lucky, maybe you have a good college station nearby, KDAY on your dial, a satellite subscription, or just a really high tolerance for crap.

Speaking of KDAY, as L.A.'s original all Hip-Hop home, while it was Southern California's saving grace, for other Golden Staters, KMEL then would be the similar-minded, though very fallible, brethren up north. In fact, KMEL was even the launching ground for one of the longest-running and most consistent Hip-Hop programs, Sway and King Tech's Wake Up Show.

As The Bay's own haven for heads, the Wake Up Show afforded fans the opportunity to not only hear what other stations might not touch, but also to expose these artists often in a unique way, live and on air. Beginning Friday nights at 10PM (June 1991, where Live at the Barbeque was the opener), the WUS's popularity eventually expanded across the state, the country, and then the globe, truly earning the title of "world famous." Part of this popularity was due to the ever exclusive-like access listeners had to their favorite underground acts, especially highlighted by the show's many "anthems." These anthems, where some of the game's best MC's combined together in posse cut form, featured rappers ranging from Planet Asia to Masta Ace, all paying their lyrical respect to the Wake Up Show and its idea that beats and rhymes could exist on the radio dial and remain undiluted. But perhaps the most famous of these tracks grouped Nas and Organized Konfusion with the likes of Saafir and Ras Kass, with Lauryn Hill on the hook for good measure. Aside from its all-time great lineup, Nas, in the leadoff spot, showcased the early stages of his ultra-dexterous Escobar flow:

Tune it up, it's the corrupt novelist, Nas
Involved in this liveness radio waves
Slaves thrive inside of this
Wake Up Show flow, Hip-Hop's alarm clock, the bomb spot
Mellow with ganja, that makes my eyes turn yellow
However, Sway and Tech were equally known for putting MC's on the spot in studio to flex their freestyle muscle, or "feel the wrath" of the Wake Up Show. Because of this, in a small attempt to capture the program's place in Hip-Hop history, I've collected a series of some of most notable freestyle appearances. Many of these tracks accommodate the original definition of the word, where "freestyle" can be pre-written, although Black Thought and Common, for example, also cater to new-schoolers who'd argue "off the top" is the only way. Highlights include: a Crooked I verse that once put the fear of God into Chino XL; Ghostface doing Nutmeg live and talking about his inspiration for writing; Juice and Supernatural, just one day removed their hotly-contested battle, going back and forth still; Masta Ace reciting, "a gangsta wears black 'cause the shit he talks is dead"; Eminem, after inking his Interscope deal, returning to the spot that first broke his name; Biggie eerily spitting Long Kiss Goodnight after saying how he felt Pac's death especially; Nas blessing the beat to Large Pro's Gotta Get Over remix once more; Xzibit bogarting the mic from Ras Kass; and some vintage Reasonable Doubt Jay-Z.

Rebel To America: Wake Up Show collection
Includes: Big L, Chino XL, Doug E. Fresh, AZ, Masta Ace - The Anthem; Black Spooks, Planet Asia, Ras Kass, & Crooked I - The Anthem; Canibus freestyle; Common freestyle; Crooked I freestyle; Eminem freestyle; Ghostface freestyle; Jay-Z freestyle; Juice & Supernatural freestyle; Kurupt & Ahmad freestyle; Lauryn Hill, Nas, O.K., Ras Kass, Dred Scott, Shyheim, Jock, & Saafir: Wake Up Show 94; Masta Ace freestyle; Nas freestyle; Notorious BIG freestyle; Ras Kass & Xzibit freestyle; The Roots freestyle

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Born Day

Stormy night, September '73
Would you believe what my mom received from heaven was me?

Harlem World f/ Nas: You Made Me

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Seeds of Heaven

Nas as a political rapper is sketchy at times. Well, first you have to go back and define "political rap", which can be trouble of course, but, for the sake of right now, let's say that Nas' forays into the sub-genre include such songs as I Want to Talk to You, Rule, and American Way. These are attempts at activist anthems, often explicitly, aimed at the ears of elected officials. However, said attempts have also fallen flat, for Nas seems to lack the substantive qualifications to address many of these subjects with the acuteness they require, nor does he quite have the wherewithal, in this arena at least, to precisely articulate the position of those he's set himself up to represent. Conversely, a rapper like Boots Riley, of The Coup, has shown to not only have the ability to see the faults of the government but to address them on more than just a surface level. Then you take an Ice Cube, who, for a period in the late 80's and early 90's, spoke for a portion of society with all the intensity and brutal sincerity their story called for. In the process, both rappers demonstrated focus and poignancy, their raps resonating more efficiently. Now this is not to say that Nas' entire career is based on broad accusations and ambiguity, but it's when his sight moves from the QB block to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that his commentary can become taxing.

For an example of this difficulty, look at Blackness, recorded back in 1999, and known as well as Seeds of Heaven. (It also was redone last year as We March As Millions.) Here Nas, again, begins by urging "senators, government officials" to "sit at the conference and listen." He then proceeds to travel to the steps of Capitol Hill, referencing Hitler, and mentioning the man who first invented the gun. However, the manner in which Capitol Hill is brought up says, "this rap is concerned with national politics, but only so far only so far as naming an obvious landmark goes", the Hitler reference then is just as shallow as any jiggy rap that scrolls through a laundry list of designer wears, and of, "the cat that invented the gun", that line is left as vague as possible. Ultimately, Nas' message proves more convoluted than cunning, more impotent than all else.

Fortunately, elsewhere in Blackness, the song as well plays into Nas strengths: his knack for often haunting lyrics, his narrator perch, his poetic language, his vocabulary, and his signature complex rhyme schemes. Because of this, what we're left with lyrically is a song that treads in murky waters but still maintains a heartbeat. When the specific C-SPAN agenda is pushed aside, and the track is allowed to evolve without political pretenses, honest and unassuming, Nas' words win.

The rejection of what's right could mean you're in denial
It either breaks you or makes you become hostile
I swallowed many lies before tasting the truth
In the beginning, there was darkness, beautiful you
Nas: Blackness
Nas: We March As Millions

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Buggin' Out II

You've already heard my rant on R&B rap remixes, so no need to ramble again.

Here are five of the best non-remix singer-rapper collaborations featuring Nas.

Allure f/ Nas: Head Over Heels
Produced by his buddies The Trackmasters, Nas guested on Allure's gold-selling Head Over Heels as a favor for a favor. But then, if you remember what the women from Allure looked like at the time, Nas probably appeared for more than just that one reason. His two verses, his specialty on this brand of song, travel from brag to baby love, with even a chuckle-worthy description in there, "the scent of weed getting all in your weave / I put out the trees / And crack the moon roof, only for you to breathe." (Nas' über-cowboy hat in the video is the real laugh though.)

Jon B f/ Nas: Finer Things
Although he apparently hates the label of "white boy soulster", it's a title that often comes up in any discussion of Jon B. However, to Jon B's credit, his music is less likely to be found on TRL than it is on a Sunday night "Between The Sheets" mix. What's more, as least in the case of his duet with Nas, 2001's Finer Things, he ensured that the song wouldn't meet the same formulaic fate as others in the genre. It's dynamic, organic, more than just studio tricks, and soulful. That organic feeling is especially essential, because while Nas' verses and Jon B's vocals make the song worthwhile, the interplay between the two performers, particularly with ad-libs, adds another element.

Jully Black f/ Nas: Material Things
God's Son's Heaven showcased some music business cynicism, "put a famous bitch on the hook, there you go with a platinum CD." Interestingly enough, on that track's hook there actually was a female singer, but her involvement came off as more artistically-inclined than for publicity's sake. Jully Black was the singer, and, for blessing him with her vocals, Nas reciprocated on Material Things. As one might expect from the song's title, Material Things deals with attraction in the midst of materialism; however, because of how both artists manage to avoid being overly trite, the cliché is, at worst, listenable, "was you every truly attracted? / Shaking your gluteus maximus - after / Any rapper with the flashiest chain."

Mary J. Blige f/ DMX, Nas: Sincerity
On certain editions of Mary J. Blige's Mary, the two-headed rapper saga Sincerity, featuring both DMX and Nas, found a home. Greatly contrasting the smooth sound of something like Finer Things, Sincerity is much more boom-bap, even being based around the all-time great Bob James Nautilus break. Lyrically, though Nas and Blige were once a couple, there's really nothing on Sincerity to suggest an extra special bond between rapper and singer. However, you do get a vintage Esco turn, with his dark rhymes matching the dank feel of the beat.

Ms. Dynamite f/ Nas: Afraid 2 Fly
The version of Afraid 2 Fly that appeared 2003's A Little Deeper featured a solo Ms. Dynamite over the track's aggressive string-laced production. While Nas had previously laid down his vocals, there was a problem working out clearance issues, and he was ultimately left out. Nevertheless, the original persists. Here the UK singer reflects on the hurt that death immediately stirs, but also how she's grown to see the process more as a release. On cue, taking some from his Eye For An Eye Freestyle, Nas raps, "I'm never gonna die, I've never heard of death / Energy can never be destroyed, only the flesh."

Allure f/ Nas: Head Over Heels
Jon B f/ Nas: Finer Things
Jully Black f/ Nas: Material Things
Mary J. Blige f/ DMX, Nas: Sincerity
Ms. Dynamite f/ Nas: Afraid 2 Fly

Saturday, September 09, 2006

She Don't (remix)

Nas is on his R&B sh*t again, this time with LeToya.

Here's what I know about LeToya:

1. She used to be in Destiny's Child.
2. She once had legal beef with Beyonce and them.
3. Nas is on the remix to her second single She Don't.

Here's what I know about the song:

1. The production at least has strings and horns, which gives it a "classic" feel compared to most contemporary R&B.
2. LeToya is talking about getting a man from another woman. Nas is talking about females needing to be wary of their own girlfriends.
3. Except for two lines that sound awkward, Nas' verse is an above-decent one-verse R&B turn. Starts off a little cliché, but the latter half is more evolved.

Some girls lie a lot
They could be fly or not
Actresses cry a lot
Their girlfriends spy a lot
They could shake your hand, girl
Then they take your man, girl
The hood not knowing
We had something good going
Now these shorties after me
'Cause they saw us happy
And that you bagged me
Now they wishing that they had me
So watch who you hang with
And who you clang with
You know these bitches ain't shit
They hoping to bank chips
With a baller - and after she done laid in his bed
He never call her - he gamed her, then he left her for dead
Birds of a feather flock together
But chickens don't fly, they eat their own shit and die
Don't be affiliated, the relationship we had, I tried to imitate it
With somebody new, 'cause our love just disintegrated
I paid for ice to spoil
So I know best it's gonna take a good man to wife LeToya

LeToya f/ Nas: She Don't (remix)

Friday, September 08, 2006

Hate Me Now

If you troll around enough online, message boards to blogs, discussion tends to take on this awful Groundhog Day quality: the same bait posts, the same threads headed with "less than" and "greater than" signs, the same gossip, links, bad information, and bad spelling. Ultimately, the impetus for most of this activity appears to be simple attention-seeking, like it's a room full of rambunctious tots trying to see who can yell, "fire", the loudest. A generation masking their own identity crisis one dial-up connection at a time, the Nelson Muntz's of the game. Am I being cynical? Okay, but if you hang around Punxsutawney for a while, you're sure to find my cynicism validated. It's a world ward where arguing over the purported curvature of a pop singer's ass is a pastime, calling "The Game" "The Ghey" is worthy of a National Merit Scholarship, and street cred apparently comes with a username and a post count. However, particularly on the more Hip-Hop based sites, the subject on every instigator's keyboard seems to be Nas: Nas is broke, old, married to a whore, washed up, and, least importantly, his music sucks. Really, their summation of Nas' career is quite entertaining.

In 1973, Nas was born to a coward. Over his youth, he spent time developing his own cowardice and knack for hiding indoors while all the real street dudes were outside. In 1994, he got jerked by a record company and dropped an overrated album full of lies and big words that put together didn't mean anything. He remained broke until he pretended to be a heavy drug dealer and sold his soul for some Street Dreams. Then The Firm flopped, his girl ran to another rapper, he made a bunch of uncomfortable club songs, was about to have his career read its last rites, until Jay-Z resurrected his relevance and pen. Jay-Z still killed him anyway. Nas' kufi got smacked off, he wifed industry leftovers, dropped a double album no one bought, became an employee of his enemy, and is going to release an album, if Def Jam / Jay ever let him, that will be another commercial disaster full of contradictions, corn, and lies. Plus, he's uneducated, a snake, and his own crew doesn't even respect him.

Add in a couple catchphrases, some tough guy talk about Nas' daughter, and you've basically been caught up on the last half a decade of message board postings. The reason I bring this all up is to say it's easy to tell when someone's hating for hating's sake and when bias runs deep. However, if I had to pick one period in that span of Nas' career where the description above most closely mirrors popular opinion, it'd be the moment where Nas was making awkward club songs and suddenly was saved by battling the rapper Jay-Z. This seems to be a pretty common conception, and an errant one as well. As I have written previously, if people were only to give the QB's Finest album the time and credit it was due, they would see that, an entire year before beef ever hit airwaves, Nas had mostly left the You Owe Me mind state aside in favor of a return to the stoop poetry of Illmatic.

Released after Nastradamus and before Stillmatic, QB's Finest features one of Nas' most fierce verses (Da Bridge 2001), one of his most honest (Self Conscience), and then a detailed episode of childhood, one of his most winningly reminiscent, Kids In Da PJ's. Over a beat that has this slight Godfather-Nino Rota tinge, like where a young Vito Corleone returns to his native Italy, and with a somewhat sped up delivery, as if memories are charging to the surface, Nas takes it back to elementary age. At once, you see a kid eating Bon Ton Cheese Popcorn and earning gold stars in grade school juxtaposed with, "hearing shots rang out." So you get the All-American portrait contrasted by a side of things only a part of America really knows. But Nas' point isn't to be melodramatic or preachy necessarily, because, from the music on the dial to the activity on the court, it's all just a very clear picture of adolescence he's describing, the innocence and inspiration, third grade in forty-five seconds. (Kids In Da PJ's may also be familiar to some as the opening verse on the mix song, The Second Coming, itself a compilation of three QB's Finest verses over a French Hip-Hop instrumental.)

Another one of the QB's Finest highlights is Find Ya Wealth, a solo Nas outing. Nas begins by tracing his career path, "shit did change course since ripping it with Main Source." The song then repeatedly hits on the theme that even in a situation where you're coming from a lot of grime, there's a way and a reason to persevere. Perhaps the best example of this is found in the second verse, as a young Nas browses a jewelry store and is laughed aside by the owner and a customer, "I said, 'I'll be just like you soon, motherfucker what?!'" As opposed to other raps Nas spit at the time where diamonds and chains are a central figure, with that excess occasionally weighing down the lyrics, here Nas represents something truthful and expresses it with all the intention and determination of the out-to-hustle kid we knew from '94. All in all, Find Ya Wealth and Kids In Da PJ's both underscore the point that even during Nas' most maligned artistic periods, there's enough good material out there, but only if you focus on the music and not just the rhetoric.

Nas: Find Ya Wealth
Nas f/ The Bravehearts: Kids In the PJ's
BONUS: Nas: The Second Coming

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Storm

Although the current climate of Hip-Hop has been described as resembling the theatrics of professional wrestling, where battles are mere stunts to drum up publicity, there remain a couple unresolved confrontations in the world of rap that don't have their origins necessarily based in a marketing scheme, 50 Cent versus Nas, for example. Yes, more recently there has been an exchange of rather questionable taunts between the two, mixtape skits to mixtape covers, but whatever feud is there has a history at least, more than what the Kevin Nash's and Goldberg's of the game can claim.

Back before any friction started, these fellow Queens residents were actually friendly. In fact, Nas brought 50 Cent, and Tony Yayo, along for his 1999 Nastradamus tour. Part of the reason then for Nas' encouragement stemmed from the buzz over the now-infamous How To Rob, 50's slash and burn classic. There, while just about every name in the industry is called out and strung up, Nas isn't mentioned, further proof of the respect shared between the two artists at the time. (On the song Life's On The Line, the Southside Queens rapper also says, "now here's a list of MC's that can kill you in eight bars: / 50, umm, Jay-Z and Nas.") The duo even collaborated twice, once on the murky Who U Rep With and again with the nod-ready Projects Too Hot. However, as we all know, a thug changes, and love changes, and best friends become rivals. And that rivalry, to some degree, seems to have started with a rather worthless Jennifer Lopez remix.

Landing in the ten spot on the Billboard Top 100 charts, Lopez's I'm Gonna Be Alright remix equaled another smash for the faux R&B singer and some crossover, though questionable, success for Nas. However, the 50 Cent fallout would take place off the dial . Apparently pushed out by behind-the-scenes maneuverings from Irv Gotti, 50, who had put down his vocals to the remix before Nas was ever greenlit, felt obviously slighted. Add that to the fact that Irv Gotti / Murder Inc had been involved and that Nas would soon partner with the label, and it becomes clear why the friendship began to fracture.

In hindsight, maybe blowing up on a Jennifer Lopez remix wouldn't have quite been the blessing 50 initially took it to be. He still dropped Wanksta, still hit platinum pay dirt with Get Rich Or Die Tryin, and still has remained more commercially viable than most other dudes out there now. He's faced criticism from heads and housewives, dealt with the labels of sellout and snitch, and persevered past it all. (Jungle, Nas' younger brother, even called out "CJ" for working with the cops, on the track Bravehearted.) But, in part, this growing 50 Cent backlash springs from him having beef with more rappers than most Christian groups do. So as the likes of Jadakiss, Ja Rule, Fat Joe, The Game, Nas, Joe Budden, Dipset, AZ, Shyne, Puff Daddy, Lil' Kim . . . get added to the tally, the once underdog MC turns into the bully rapper and loses support. However, again, unlike all those, Nas and 50's tension appears more long-running and might have really taken off from something Nas actually said.

In the summer of 2004, with Curtis Jackson mania just about at its peak, Nas took to New York's Central Park for a free concert. The rapper, all trumped up from the crowd's strong reception and his return to Hip-Hop after a two year absence, decided to give the frenzy of fans a bit extra, "this is that real New York shit, not that fake 50 Cent shit!" While Nas claims that snipes were exchanged on the low previously, this was ultimately the grenade pin dropping that took the feud public. In turn, 50 Cent responded with a mixtape jab, Y'All Niggas Starvin', and, finally, Piggy Bank, off of 2005's The Massacre. Piggy Bank's main tactic was to attack Nas' relationship with Kelis, "you a sucka for love", and, over time, the shots have continued; 50 has further lampooned everything from Nas' baby mother to his business with Jay-Z and recent poor album sales. For his part, on record at least, Nas has maintained a consistent no-comment approach. However, that approach did open up a little in the middle of 2005.

Don't Body Yaself, also known as MC Burial, was a return of fire, an open letter to the "'Fuck Nas' Coalition." In the song's first verse, though unnamed, Cormega and Lake, former QB partners of Nas', are the focus, "when y'all was trying to rap, y'all was making me proud, man / now you fucked up, down on your luck, running your mouth, man." The second verse then proves to be more an intermission of sorts, essentially a lead up to the main event, "they say Jada defeated him / Joe too street for him / what's next? I guess it's for Nas to Ether him." Overall though, Don't Body Yaself warrants its "warning shot" reputation, because, while Nas does check the "sucka for love" depiction ("you a sucka for death"), 50 Cent is never explicitly mentioned, and, curiously, half the third verse is concerned with giving a definition of "ethereal." Yet, in a very sly manner, at the end, Nas does manage to sneak in a cold shot to make the diss worthwhile, "will it be Gilmore or Crowes? / nigga, act like you know." This final line is a reference to two funeral homes, Gilmore and Crowe's, in 50 Cent's native Jamaica, Queens.

50 Cent f/ Nas, Nature: Projects Too Hot
50 Cent f/ Nas, The Bravehearts: Who U Rep With
Nas: Don't Body Yaself
Bonus: 50 Cent: Piggy Bank
Bonus: The Bravehearts f/ Nas: Bravehearted

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Roundup PT V

Nas-related news:

  • It's September, finally, and there's a chance, a couple months ago, you would have been anticipating a new Nas album to drop in just a couple weeks from now. Well, with no radio single or video to speak of, you've probably guessed that the release date has been reset. It has, and the latest word from Def Jam says that Hip-Hop Is Dead will most likely find its way to stores in November. November 7th? (Props to Suspect for the picture.)
  • Kelis, in doing rounds of promotion for her own album, Kelis Was Here, also left a couple words on the subject, during a recent interview with Wendy Williams, "[Nas] is not done with his album. He's working. And him being the artist that he is, he takes the time that he needs to take, and he doesn't really care about deadlines. And when time for him comes to do it, he will do it. . . . Def Jam is actually doing really good for Nas right now."
  • Becoming more official with each new update, MTV is reporting that Will.I.Am. has contributed four songs to Nas' new album. Speculating, if those numbers stay consistent, that means that the punctuated-one probably will be responsible for at least a quarter of the project's entire production. Okay.
  • Another producer, Swizz Beatz, told MTV he submitted four tracks himself to the LP, "I didn't even try to get no singles, I just went hard-body." While most will shriek at the possibility of a Braveheat Party II, recall that Swizz is also responsible for one of Nas' catchiest unreleased songs, the up-tempo and unorthodox Two Seater.
  • From the mixed up files of Calvin C. Broadus, Snoop Dogg and Nas have apparently exchanged plans to make a movie together. Yes, a movie. Good money says that some illegal substance was also present during this meeting.
  • A collaboration that's more imminent than intoxicated, singer Joe has on a couple rap dudes, including Nas, for his upcoming album, Joe Who. The Nas song, Get To Know Me, actually was leaked last October. It's basically an R&B send-up of You're The Man and is as just as negligible as you would imagine. Trust me.
  • UK DJ Semtex posted on a BBC Radio 1 message board--so believe what you will--a recap of several Game songs he previewed from the Doctor's Advocate release. According to him, the Nas-Game track also features Marsha from Floetry and is produced by Just Blaze. However, if you'll remember the news from last time's Roundup, Cool and Dre were supposed to be behind the duet. Then, if you add in Nas' comments to MTV, it gets more curious.
  • Friend to RTA, Bounce has added a 1999 Chris Rock show performance of Come Get Me to his growing Youtube collection. It's worth a look if only to validate the point that, in a live setting, Nas' breath control hasn't always been suspect. Then again, maybe his coat gives him superpowers.
  • Because of last week's MTV Video Music Awards, the industry's biggest names convened on New York for a chance to party and pat backs. Beyond hosting his own little get together for Complex Magazine, Nas also joined Ludacris on stage elsewhere in the city. The two now-labelmates performed the unfortunate Virgo and the memorable Made You Look remix. (Additionally, in anticipation of the show's return to the Rotten Apple, Nas spoke a bit about his hometown, "I used to write rhymes on the train.")
  • Another labelmate of Nas', Fabolous, put out the song Monkey Business a couple months back. As the song begins its fade out, you can hear the BK rapper run down a list of soon-to-be Def Jam releases, "Luda in September, my nigga Jeezy in October, Hov and Nas in November", and then his own Loso's Way in December. Monkey Business was on the mixtape circuit before official word on Nas' November move ever came down from the powers that be, so maybe Fab is in charge of scheduling or something. Also, if you're wondering what a song between the two might sound like, 2004's Breathe Freestyle is your best bet.
  • Finally, thanks to for the strictly platonic plug last week.

Nas: Breathe Freestyle
Nas: Two Seater
Nas: Where Y'All At (Dirty Harry mix)
Nas f/ Jadakiss, Ludacris: Made you Look (remix)
BONUS: Fabolous: Monkey Business
BONUS: Kelis: Wendy Williams Interview

Friday, September 01, 2006

Project Windows

In telling the story of Nas, to start at the Queensbridge Projects is obvious. That's the spot which birthed the hopelessness of Illmatic, police raids and pushers, gunshots to gravesites. But it was also coming from such a desperate place, the largest housing development in the U.S., as Nas would say on Da Bridge 2001, that inspired the drive to stretch past these traps and tell the tale of the otherwise ignored. From seeing his best friend killed to fiends lined up like it was free lunch a vial a serving, Queensbridge is the center of the Illmatic narrative and the heartbeat of Nas' words. More specifically though, the actual window in the bedroom of his QB apartment, which Nas has documented as his front row seat for all the drama outside, is most important in understanding how the music of Nas came to be what it's now famous for; his observations, the stark details applied to his rhymes, and the imagery in his writing all were born out of the vision he adapted looking out of project windows. It is therefore fitting that one of Nas' most personal songs took on this very title, Project Windows.

Released on the almost-otherwise-horrible Nastradamus album, however awkward or sloppy the rest of the LP sounds, Project Windows, for five minutes at least, manages to remind audiences of the poetry that catapulted Nas to 5 Mics. Capturing grime from the gutter up, Nas' initial verse witnesses the human wreckage first hand, "crippled dope fiends in wheelchairs stare, vision blurry, 'cause buried deep in their minds are hidden stories." Here he constructs their physical profile and then takes you inside their very condition, life bled dry by addiction. Next, by preaching personal efficacy and education, the following verse is more a plea to change up from this cycle of self-destruction. Finally, finishing up the track, Nas combines the approach of the previous two verses: where the first described project life, and the second tried to school on ways to escape its limitations, the concluding chapter brings us inside Nas' home, inside those projects windows, to describe his own upbringing and the model passed down to him from his mother and father. At times, the story is bleak, detailing not only the darkness out there but how alluring that path can appear. Yet, Nas attempts to balance the degradation with his own success as a guide.

The production on Project Windows also manages to convey a distinct emotional texture: nostalgic but melancholy. The sad strike of piano notes and the singing of Ron Isley particularly succeed in accomplishing this mood. However, the original version of the song, entitled The Game Lives On and attended for the I Am double album, offers a different take. There Ron Isley is completely absent and the backdrop is much more bare bones. Because of this difference, fans of Nas have debated back and forth over which edition of Project Windows is the most successful. Criticisms of the remake primarily stem from it being over-produced, with the singing being a significant offense. The OG song, they argue, more accurately captures the raw feeling of Nas' rap. While it is a little unfair to do a direct side-by-side comparison, because The Game Lives On is missing about half a verse and isn't studio mastered, in its defense, the Nastradamus cut at least utilizes Ron Isley well, weaving him in throughout the entire song and not just on the hook. Moreover, its polished sound shouldn't be confused with a mundane one, for it is full of feeling just as well. Ultimately, the production sounds more complete, rich, and, in this way, it resonates with the quality of Nas' voice and words especially.

He's finished for the rest of his life, till he fades out
The liquor store workers miss him, but then it plays out
So many ways out the hood, but no signs say out
Nas: Project Windows
Nas: The Game Lives On