Throughout his career, Miles Davis continually changed the shape and sound of jazz. The rapper Nas has made his career bringing that same level of artistic innovation, transformation, and liberation to the world of hip-hop. Critically lauded for intricate poetic verses detailing street dynamics and ghetto travails, 25-year-old Nasir Jones restored an intricate lyricism to hip-hop in 1994 with his instant-classic debut, Illmatic. Two years later, his Nas Escobar persona trailblazed the Mafioso trend in hip-hop culture, balancing material excess with knowledge of self on It Was Written. Now, with twelve tracks blending the various styles of the global hip-hop nation with his own prophetic poetics, Nas presents I Am…, another creative milestone in the history of hip-hop and the artist himself.
Nas receives the kind of respect that true rap wordsmiths continually target for themselves, and it all boils down to his lyrics. As a hip-hop Nietzsche, Nas’s insights and observations concerning his generation can be read from his lyrics sheet as pure prose. When backed by the sonic collages of master production virtuosos like Timbaland, DJ Premier and the Track Masters, the signature combustion is inimitably Nas’s own.
The tragic deaths of hip-hop martyrs Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. has affected the perceptions of the rap world as well as Nas, its premier philosopher. “We Will Survive” is a poignant Track Masters-produced tribute to the fallen MCs, and I Am…, on the whole, jibes with the coast-to-coast aesthetic that’s emerged in the wake of their senseless deaths. Houston’s own Scarface trades verses with Nas on the pioneering collaboration “Favor for a Favor.” Nas’s surprising “Hate Me Now” duet with Puff Daddy, the father of flossing, also speaks volumes for the unity and solidarity in the current climate of hip-hop; no more “east coast vs. west coast” or “underground vs. commercial rap” divisions. “One love,” as Nas himself phrased it on his 1994 track of the same name. In the tradition of affecting street tales, “Undying Love” carries the story of an emotionally crushed lover to a ghastly, haunting conclusion with Nas’s signature storytelling dexterity. Harking back to the old-school hardcore arrangements of Illmatic, a master of the microphone meets a master of the control boards when Nas and DJ Premier reprise “N.Y. State of Mind,” and father the future classic breakthrough single, “Nas Is Like…”
Nas has enjoyed abundant shares of both fame and success ever since he began rhyming at the age of 18, on “Live at the Barbecue” by Main Source. When asked to differentiate between fame and success, Nas is characteristically diplomatic. “Fame is like the girl with the biggest tits, the homeless man who saved a girl from a fire. You could be famous and go down in history,” he observes. “Success is everything you ever wanted in life, everything you ever worked hard for. If you had a certain goal in life and you met that goal, and when you met it, it was just so crazy extreme. It’s everything you wanted, but 10 times, that’s your success.” And does Nas consider himself successful? “Definitely,” he answers emphatically, without a doubt. “I feel I got a lot to do with how the rap game is now. I know I’m a major part of this shit, but everybody’s a major part.”
Hailing from the Queensbridge Projects in New York City, Nas infamously got his start rhyming with emceeing neighbors Main Source, with the jaw-dropping verse that ravaged rewind buttons on cassette players nationwide: “Street’s disciple/My rhymes are trifle/I shoot slugs from my brain just like a rifle…. When I lift and rhyme/Rappin’ sniper, speaking real words/My thoughts react like Steven Spielberg’s/Poetry attacks, paragraphs punch hard/My brain is insane/I’m out to lunch, god/Science is dropped/My raps are toxic/My voice pops, locks and excels like a rocket.”
The hip-hop world was Nas’s oyster after spitting the preceding rhyme, and the young MC settled a bidding war by signing with Columbia through the consulting assistance of 3rd Bass rapper MC Serch. Their association resulted in “Halftime,” Nas’s first solo track from the “Zebrahead” soundtrack of 1992. “Back to the Grill Again,” Serch’s sequel to the Main Source classic, also kept Nas in the mix while his debut album was in its planning stages.
That debut created tidal wave-sized ripples in the pool of hip-hop culture, as Illmatic racked up accolade upon superlative accolade. The climate of hip-hop during 1994 was heavily West Coast dominate, yet Nas was able to spearhead a movement (later including Black Moon, the Notorious B.I.G. and the Wu-Tang Clan) that shifted the focus from melodious, synth-driven R&B flavored G-funk back to the lyrical-based, percussively-dense origins of the music. It was no mean feat, but with producers DJ Premier, L.E.S., Pete Rock, Q-Tip and Main Source’s Large Professor producing tracks like “The World Is Yours,” “Life’s a Bitch,” “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” and “One Love,” it was mission accomplished.
Next on deck for the illmatic rapper was It Was Written, featuring at its center the pioneering east coast/west coast collaboration between Nas and Dr. Dre, “Nas Is Coming.” Unifying rap music listeners and single-handedly terminating the crippling bicoastalism reigning during that 1996 period, Nas also enlisted the Track Masters, Premier, L.E.S., Live Squad and Havoc of Mobb Deep, broadening his sound and fanbase.
“Everybody don’t go to clubs,” Nas reasons, explaining the delicate balance between his gritty and more groovier tracks. “Some people are young, some people are old and work for a living. Some people hustle on the block all day, and they vibe don’t come from jumpin’ around and laughin’. They think about how they gonna get the next dollar, how they get theyself a Benz or just any car to get around; how they gonna take care of they kids and feed they family. So that’s more stuff they could relate to. No doubt you gonna get tired of hearing disco records all day. You don’t wanna be in your box or in your crib listening to fuckin’ disco records. At the same time, you still gotta entertain those millions of people who want that. You can’t disrespect them by saying, we ain’t gonna give you this no more.”
Nas told us before: his architect pleases. Whether listeners favor gutbucket hip-hop nastiness (typical of his Nasty Nas persona) or glossier, flossier grooves (last year, Nas co-wrote and starred in “Belly,” from filmmaker Hype Williams, the progenitor of visually slick hip-hop), the connecting thread is the Word. Nas tailors his words for the occasion (i.e. ghostwriting for Grammy-winning labelmate Will Smith), and they’re always consistently amazing. I Am… is the latest chapter in the chronicle of rap’s leading visionary.