A case for Nas, hip-hop's finest MC
Rapper regarded as master lyricist
Let's begin with a disclaimer: Nas doesn't endorse the following sentence.
But he's the greatest lyricist of all time.
Those words were carefully chosen: "lyricist" over "rapper" or "hip-hop artist;" "greatest" instead of "most successful;" "all time" rather than "today."
Those distinctions are important. Still, Nas isn't buying it.
"It's wayyyyyy, way, way too early in our lives," he said when asked where he fits among history's best MCs. "It's great to put a list together, but don't take it too seriously because your list won't matter 10 years from now or 15 years from now. It'll be a different list."
OK, no lists then; just a strong case for Nas being the best rhymesmith ever, the GOAT, numero uno, and a humble concession that this is but one man's opinion and yours are enthusiastically welcomed below.
With "Life is Good," Nas dropped his ninth No. 1 hip-hop album since 1994. Seven of those have gone platinum, which places him second among rappers only to Jay-Z with 11. (We're not counting compilations or collaborations here, only original solo efforts, and yes, Tupac Shakur had nine, but five were posthumous releases.)
It also ties Nas with Snoop Dogg or Snoop Lion or whatever his name is, and it puts the Queens native one plaque ahead of Eminem, Too Short, OutKast and LL Cool J, all of whom belong in the greatest-ever discussion, as well.
Hold on, you say? OutKast is not a solo act? And if they're included, why not the Beastie Boys, who also have six platinum records?
Agreed, but dissect OutKast into the individual components of Big Boi and André 3000, and you have two of the most technically deft rhymers to bless the mic. (Another disclaimer: This article's author is an ATLien.)
From 1994's "Southernplayalisticcadillacmuzik" to 2003's "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below," OutKast owned most hip-hop rivals, but since then -- barring the "Idlewild" soundtrack -- they've fallen off considerably: Big Boi has put out a pair of tepidly received solo efforts, André a few razor commercials.
While commercial success is important to the equation -- and the sole reason the brilliant Talib Kweli and Pharoahe Monch aren't included in the debate -- it's only one variable.
This debate, if you will, isn't so much about who can move the most rump in a club, but rather, if we were delivered back to 1800, who could hold their own with Coleridge and Wordsworth. It's why we're arguing lyricists and not artists.
The big 4-0
In a genre not known for the longevity of its luminaries, making it 10, 15, 20 years means you're a survivor -- and you survive only if people keep buying your music.
Unlike his aforementioned brethren in the Multiplatinum Club, Nas has done that without a platinum single. Not "Street Dreams." Not "Nas is Like." Not "Made You Look." Not one.
It means his fans want the entire package, the album as a complete work of art -- an endangered concept in the days of iTunes and Spotify.
Given the occasional knocks on Nas' production, it's got to be the lyrical wizardry that keep folks coming back, right? As he turns 40 this year -- sorry if that makes "Illmatic" fans feel old -- he's adapted to every sea change in rap and weathered every label, right or wrong, affixed to him.
"I've been called everything. Gangsta rap. I've been called conscious rap. You know, everything. Whoever feels like calling it whatever they want to call it, that's on them," he said.
Asked how he could be called socially responsible in one breath and a glorifier of violence in the next, Nas said he's not responsible for such tags.
"Don't blame me; blame our wonderful country, America. And you can't even blame America. It's life. Blame life. I talk about life, and I make universal music with an American style -- and that's what I do," he said. "I know one thing: People put too many labels on music."
Strange thing is, Nas didn't know he wanted to be a rapper when he was young, he said.
"There wasn't a lot of things that I wanted to do where African-Americans were achieving what we achieve today because it just wasn't allowed, funny enough to say," said the son of jazz cornet player Olu Dara. "I was trying to figure out, should I become a screenplay writer? Should I be a movie director? Should I make music for theater? I was thinking in the arts, anything that had to do with the arts. Of course, I never had a job in my life, and so I was just this dude that was hanging out -- a vagabond, if you will, in New York."
That's when Large Professor noticed his lyrical skills. A member of Main Source, Xtra P put him on the track "Live at the Barbeque." The song, funky in its own right, is considered a classic today because it introduced the nation to a phenom from Queensbridge Houses named Nasir Jones.
'A street dude with morals'
QB's Finest remembers well when he first heard himself spit, "Street's disciple, my raps are trifle/I shoot slugs from my brain just like a rifle."
He was in his old neighborhood late at night, and he heard the radio playing from a car on the corner. Some older guys were standing around, "doing their thing, talking and kicking it," Nas recalled.
"As I'm walking by, 'Live at the Barbeque' comes on, and I'm like 'Ohhh!' And I stopped, and I was like, 'Wow, this can't be real. This can't be real. This is me,'" he said. "I'm trying to let them know that's me. And they're kind of like, 'Cool,' and go back to their conversation. But it didn't matter. I was so caught up to hear myself on the radio for the first time; I was in heaven."
That was the summer of 1991. Nas was 17. By contrast, Kendrick Lamar, one of hip-hop's hottest new artists, had just turned 4.
There may be 21 years between his first 26 bars on wax and his latest LP, but that doesn't mean "Life is Good" is geriatric rap, even if Spin magazine prescribed it "for the 40-and-over crowd." Nas said he was "humbled" by the review, though his shows seem to be packed with 20-somethings.
"It's important for me to give an honest opinion on the way the world has changed. I feel like it's just who I am today," he said. "To answer your earlier question, why I'm still around, it's because honesty is the best policy. 'The truth shall set you free,' in the words of the great Aunt Esther from 'Sanford and Son.' ... And I think that's where Spin is wrong. It's not for 40-year-olds. It's just for people who know what's up" (One more disclaimer: The author didn't ask, "Why are you still around?" in a snarky way.)
Which brings us back to the debate. Nas' 40th birthday in September will put him in the company of elite survivors, though only a few of hip-hop's quadragenarians can legitimately challenge him for title of best lyricist.
You've got DJ Quik, Sean Price, Tech N9ne and Doom -- all talented rhymers, but no Nases. There's also Common, E-40, Ice Cube, Busta Rhymes, Scarface, Slick Rick and Q-Tip -- again, a poetic bunch who've been in the game for more than a minute -- but none is Nas.
Big Daddy Kane, Rakim and Kool G Rap, all 44, were game changers, trailblazers even, but their catalogs get thinner the deeper you move into the '90s. Ghostface Killah and Raekwon made their marks on hip-hop and still do today, but they enjoyed more successes as members of the Wu-Tang Clan.
In fact, despite the well-warranted accolades heaped upon these five, there's only one platinum plaque among them: Ghost's "Ironman." (The forever-dope "Paid in Full" doesn't count. Sorry, solo efforts only.)
Dr. Dre, 47, and Snoop Dogg, 41, have long enjoyed broad appeal, from college campuses to Compton corners, but neither is known for the complexity of his content or rhyme schemes. Their production is always extraordinary, and they know how to make heads nod, but lyrically? It's more fun than prophetic.
'Exercise till the microphone dies'
Which brings us to the top five, the professors emeritus. Out of respect for Nas' aversion to lists, let's handle them in no particular order.
Eminem is a beast. As Nas points out, the list will be different in 10 years, and Slim Shady may be atop it, but in 2013 you can't challenge Nas if you dropped your first LP in 1999.
Then there's Pac and Biggie -- and the point where the debate might venture into hurting someone's feelings.
Makaveli dropped six albums, four of them platinum, between 1991 and 1996 before he was gunned down in Las Vegas. The Notorious B.I.G. put out his first record in 1994 and was slain in Los Angeles weeks before his second release, "Life After Death," in 1997.
Both have successful releases after their killings, but their life spans, tragically, were too brief, and for that reason -- and that reason only -- it's unfair to put them up against a man with two decades in the game.
Nas still believes Pac and Biggie are "two of the greatest who've ever done it," and it's not because they died. Big L died. Guru died. Big Pun, Eazy-E and Ol' Dirty Bastard died, but they didn't leave the same legacy.
"I just think Biggie was something else. He was the Hitchcock of this thing, man. He told you a story. There was a seriousness that came with it that can't compare with nothing," Nas said.
He wishes the pair hadn't been taken in their mid-20s, he said, because they "would be at the top of the game" today, and they would've pushed him.
"I'd probably be better if they were still around," he said. "I think I'd be a lot better."
"To leave us with that kind of music at that young age is exceptional. There's no other word to say," he said. "They were bigger than all of us, even today -- their music, their sound, their topics. The way the world listened to them was a lot bigger than I would even say myself and the rest of us ... I don't think today we've made an official impact that those guys were just starting to make."
Watch the throne
... And then there was one: Jay-Z, a man who spent the the late 1990s and early 2000s also pushing Nas, and his buttons, during their quest to rock Biggie Smalls' "King of New York" crown.
Let's not bother with the details of their long-snuffed beef or who said what about whom on what album (though, let's face it, Nas' Ginsu verses on "Ether" made Jay's "Takeover" and "Super Ugly" sound a little nanny-nanny-boo-boo. Jigga himself called "Ether" an inescapable "figure-four leg lock").
But it's interesting to note what happened once their ugly rivalry was quashed.
Jay-Z had been named president of Def Jam Records, one of the most powerful posts in hip-hop. Jay-Z could have gone Mortal Kombat and finished Nas. He could've at least used his clout to make life unpleasant for the man who once called him gay, arguably the worst accusation you can levy in the macho world of hip-hop.
What did he do instead? He signed Nas and made a guest appearance on his first Def Jam album.
Or as Hova put it in a 2006 interview with MTV, "I didn't sign Nas; I partnered with Nas. You can't sign an artist of Nas' stature. You can only partner with him. ... Like I said, it's always been a level of respect there. I, for not one second, ever said I don't believe that he's one of the best lyricists ever."
Here is where that "lyricist" v. "hip-hop artist" distinction becomes important.
Jay-Z said it best himself: He's not a businessman; he's a business, man. When you consider 11 of his albums have sold at least a million copies -- seven of those 2 million or more -- as have his four collaborations, two with R. Kelly and one each with Linkin Park and Kanye West, it's as if Hova is King Midas, but with platinum.
He's a hit maker extraordinaire, maybe the world's best, but that doesn't translate to best lyricist. Jay-Z acknowledged as much on "Moment of Clarity" when he rhymed, "If skills sold, truth be told/I'd probably be, lyrically, Talib Kweli."
Even in dissing Nas on "Takeover," he explained why he had sampled Nas' lyrics on "Dead Presidents": "So yeah, I sampled your voice; you was using it wrong/you made it a hot line; I made it a hot song."
And that, friends, is the crux of the debate: hot lines vs. hot songs. No one would deny Hova his dap, but it seems he has said, in both word and action, that it's tough to top Nas.
'Nasty, Nas the Esco to Escobar'
So, who's up next? A&Rs have sought the next great MC since Afrika Bambaataa dropped "Planet Rock."
Nas was once dubbed the next Rakim. Rick Ross has been called the next Biggie (Last disclaimer: not by this author). Kendrick Lamar has been called the next Pac. Everyone from 50 Cent to Lupe Fiasco to J. Cole has been labeled the next Nas.
Who does Nastradamus foresee filling his shoes? He doesn't like that question any more than he likes lists.
"There was never a next Rakim. There's only one Rakim, and you can compare people to me, which is a great honor to me, but those guys are really on their path to becoming great Kendricks and greater Lupes," he said. "I think it took years after 'Illmatic,' after my first record, before people started to get used to me and started to get into what I was all about and what the Nas story was."
Nas' brilliance may lie in his ability to keep adapting that story through the years, whether it's from the days when he "dropped out of Cooley High/gassed up by a cokehead cutie pie" or lessons learned as father to his teen daughter, Destiny: "She heard stories of her daddy thuggin'/so if her husband is a gangster, can't be mad, I love him."
He's been the hustling street kid known as Nasty Nas and the jeweled-up don named Escobar after the world's most famous druglord.
He's been the thug, the black righteous militant, the philosopher, so it's not really weird that he has such broad appeal when he's just as likely to allude to Tony Montana as he is Huey P. Newton or Ivan Van Sertima in his rhymes.
Nas declined to say whether he'd still be rapping in 20 years, though he did offer an assessment on what hip-hop might look like two decades from now.
"It's always going to be youthful expression. It's always going to be a good time. It's always going to be poetry, in the vein of Langston Hughes. At the same time, it's entertaining and party and fun like Luther Campbell," he said, "but it's always going to just be the youth expressing themselves over the sounds that move people in the best way."
Kind of fitting he referenced a Harlem Renaissance poet and 2 Live Crew in that answer.
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