March 11, 2008

Nas - Stillmatic (December 4, 2001)


In the words of George Clooney's character in O' Brother, Where Art Thou?, Nasir Jones was in a tight spot. His fourth album, Nastradamus, sold poorly, primarily because it sucked balls. (Please note that when I say that Nastradamus sold poorly, it still sold millions of copies, so it's not like Nas had to take a second job working graveyard at White Castle.) Critics had the overall feeling that Nas's career as one of the top rappers in the game was essentially over, and began to ghostwrite obituaries. Radio stopped playing his other, better singles (at least, they did where I am). And other rappers seized the opportunity to take shots at Nasir, rappers as varied as former allies Prodigy (of Mobb Deep) and Cormega, to crosstown rivals Memphis Bleek and Shawn Carter. It was becoming abundantly clear that if Nasir wanted to protect his reputation, he would have to act accordingly. And I don't mean actually "act", either. (Anyone else catch his performance in Belly? Terrible.)

I've already gone over the beef between Nasir and Cormega at length (for the uninitiated, let's just say that Cormega once stole Nas's binky and Nasir's ability to hold a grudge has reached heights no human has ever seen without the aid of telescopic equipment), but the more imminent threat to his breadwinning at this point was Jay-Z. Most people seem to assume that there has always been a rivalry in place between the two (since they're both successful rappers from New York), and most people are probably right, but for Max's sake, humor me and acknowledge that the beef didn't truly begin until Nasir responded to a line in a Memphis Bleek song that wasn't necessarily intended as a verbal attack, but Bleek responded as you would expect any rapper to, especially when Shawn Carter is ghostwriting your shit. Nas, of course, responded back to this, but threw in a thinly veiled dis toward Shawn for good measure: it would only have been more obvious if he rode naked into Times Square on a purple unicorn with a neon sandwich board that read "Fuck Jay-Z". Jay-Z, as we all know, responded in the classiest fashion possible: he called him out in front of a sold-out audience at radio station Hot 97's annual Summer Jam concert. The rest is history. (If, by '"history", you mean "a series of back-and-forth outright dis tracks followed by some passive-aggressive grumbling, then a swift resolution that goes against everything the beef was about", of course.)

Nas knew that his fifth solo album, Stillmatic, which he hilariously dropped on Jay-Z's birthday in 2001, had to be a classic in the vein of his debut, so he made the misguided move to title it something similar to his first disc, Illmatic (I gotta tell you, kids, this business stategy never actually works in hip hop). Far from being Nastradamus leftovers, Nas recorded all-new material illustrating the frame of mind he was in. While the album is ultimately about reflection on his life, on his hood, and the changes that need to be made (and, also, how Jay-Z can suck his dick), Stillmatic marked some transitions in his professional life, not the least of which was the apparent end of the relationship between Nas and producer extraordinaire DJ Premier (although Primo has recently promised a Nas album produced entirely by him: I'm sure it will see its release right around the time Royce Da 5'9"'s Primo-blessed disc, the new Gangstarr album, and that fucking DJ Premier solo disc on Fat Joe's Terror Squad label that's been promised for twelve years hit the shelf). Happily, Stillmatic also contains the first collaboration between Nasir and producer Salaam Remi, who at this point was best known for his work with the Fugees, Canibus, and a world-class bread pudding that he made for me two weeks ago; he would go on to provide Nas with a newer, rawer sound and direction to follow, one that would go a long way toward winning back the fans that walked away during "Hate Me Now".

Critics threw phrases such as "instant classic" and "return to form" once Stillmatic hit store shelves, but they said the same thing about Jennifer Lopez's horrid acting in El Cantante and the songs that Charles Manson penned in prison. Stillmatic did little to ease the tension in Nas's personal life: in fact, after its release, he found himself with even more enemies, a position he still finds himself in today. Stillmatic sold decent numbers and proved that Nasir Jones had a birth right to a record deal in the first place; it also set up the audience for album number six, God's Son, that would see its release the following year, right after Columbia Records, Nas's label at the time, trumped the bootleggers with their compilation The Lost Tapes, which featured songs Nas recorded and ultimately scrapped from the likes of Nastradamus, I Am..., and his unreleased third album I Claudius.

But who cares what everyone else thinks?

1. STILLMATIC (THE INTRO)
Starts off as another one of those generic self-important rap album intros that I love so fucking much, but then Nasir starts rhyming. It's curious that he mentions the fact that he will never make another Illmatic because he's always moving forward, but then named his fifth album Stillmatic in an attempt to trick his old fans. Hmm...

2. ETHER
The infamous Jay-Z dis track makes its appearance early in the sequencing. This is Nas's response to Shawn's "The Takeover"; while the lyrics are hyper-personal, just like how I like my dis tracks, I care for the beat about as much as I care for any Joel Schumacher movie after The Lost Boys. Which is to say, I don't. For my money, "The Takeover" is the better song, and Nas's supposed comeback is only possible because Shawn brought him back into the game just after he started to become complacent. (Comments can be left at the end of the write-up.) I also thought it was weird that he kinds takes a shot at Foxy Brown, for no real reason.

3. GOT UR SELF A...
The first single, which capitalized on the popularity of HBO's The Sopranos by stealing (sorry, I meant 'sampling') the lyrics from the song that features over the opening credits. I always felt this was a very bizarre choice by Columbia as the first single, and they obviously thought the same thing, since they deleted the firearm reference from its original title, "Got Ur Self A Gun", which itself was altered from the working title "Puppy Dogs & Firecrackers (Get Your Back Up Off The Wall)". It also didn't sound anything like the crap that was on the radio in late 2001, but that shouldn't dissuade you: listening to it today, it actually sounds pretty good, even though the chorus is out of place.

4. SMOKIN'
Meh.

5. YOU'RE DA MAN
There was a bug hub-bub on the Interweb when fans discovered that Nasir was reuniting with the Large Professor on Stillmatic: the two hadn't worked together on a song since Illmatic. As such, listeners immediately claimed this song to be proof that the Nasir of old, before the Escobar alias and the nosedive into Puff Daddy territory, had returned, and I suppose it makes sense, as it sounds pretty damn good, but not great. Extra P has done better work, both before "You're Da Man" and since.

6. REWIND
The other Large Professor production contribution, although it doesn't sound like anything I've heard from him before. Obviously inspired by Memento, Nas narrates a story in reverse, and although it is very awkward hearing Nas spit lines like "Go he there!", it's interesting enough to warrant you listening to it once. Once. (By the way, anyone who enjoyed Christopher Nolan's Memento should also check out his debut film Following, a small-crime caper told out of sequence. Or you can just watch The Dark Knight when it comes out this summer.)

7. ONE MIC
The second single. I always wondered how strange it was for Columbia to release singles to radio that ostensibly sound like album tracks. This only spun on the radio once around my way, but still deserves your ears anyway, just for the gimmick alone: Nas's voice grows louder (and larger) or shrinks, depending on the beat, which constantly changes. It doesn't read well in a blog, but it's pretty fucking effective when you listen to it.

8. 2ND CHILDHOOD
The final song (to date) that DJ Premier did for a Nas album track. Oddly, this is the most boring collaboration between the two hip hop giants (even worse than their work on Nastradamus); Primo's beat comes nowhere close to being on the level of Nas's storytelling. A huge disappointment.

9. DESTROY & REBUILD
Nas wakes up, he showers (with soap), he eats breakfast, and goes to the studio to dis the hell out of Cormega, Prodigy, and former bandmate Nature; unfortunately, he does so over a beat that lies just this side of corny. After taking a sly potshot at Shawn Carter, he actually proposes rebuilding the relationships with Prodigy and Nature, something that is virtually unheard of on a dis track. (As expected, he doesn't even attempt to patch things up with Cormega, who was out getting a curry at the time.) Judging by the output of the two rappers, though, I doubt Prodigy and Nature are returning Nas's calls. (Ironically, the only artist of the three that he was able to rebuild the friendship with was actually Cormega, but this would happen several years later. Just thought I'd throw that in.)

10. THE FLYEST (FEAT AZ)
Nas brings old friend and baggage handler AZ back into the fold, and this song proves that they can sould good together; however, they could sound great together if the song itself didn't suck so damn much. Not even close to "Life's A Bitch" standards. Sorry to disappoint you.

11. BRAVEHEART PARTY (FEAT THE BRAVEHEARTS & MARY J. BLIGE)
This song is goofy to write about for two reasons. First off, it represents yet another poor business decision by Nasir: Stillmatic was intended to be a return to form for Nas after the disastrous Nastradamus, which was ruined by club-friendly tracks, so of course he gets his Braveheart frozen-banana peddlers to rhyme with him on a shitty club banger produced by Swizz Beats, who should really not work anymore. Makes perfect sense to me. Secondly, the song was deleted from future pressings of Stillmatic, not because it sucked, but because Mary J. Blige, the hook's guest performer, claimed that the song was an unfinished song for her intended use, which Nas and friends swiped and released it without her consent, and threatened legal action. Which explains why Mary never specifically mentions the word "Braveheart" in her chorus. I include this track because it's on my copy, but if you were to buy this today, it would jump from "The Flyest" straight to...

12. RULE (FEAT AMERIE)
Remember the Trackmasters? Yeah, nobody does, but they seemed to believe their career was still at its peak, so they sampled the shit out of Tears For Fears's "Everybody Wants To Rule The World" and got Nas to flash back to "If I Ruled The World", a bona-fide hit collaboration between the two camps. This song is okay, but not very good; as such, I imagine it would have done pretty well on the radio, if it were ever released as a single. Whatever happened to Amerie? She was cute, and her voice wasn't bad; it's a shame she never broke big in the States (I always liked that "One Thing" song, and the song that I can't remember the title to where the video features her walking down the street in those super-short shorts. But I'm getting off topic).

13. MY COUNTRY (FEAT MILLENNIUM THUG)
A good message derailed by the workmanlike hook. Millennium Thug meshes with Nasir surprisingly well.

14. WHAT GOES AROUND
I did a double take when the lyrical flow kicked in: I had to make sure that this was still Stillmatic and not, in fact, a Lupe Fiasco song (listen to it, and you'll see what I mean). I still think it's just missing a hook by Matthew Santos, but whatever. Salaam Remi's first production work for Nasir appears on this track; it would be the start of a beautiful friendship.

The following song is listed as a bonus track:

15. EVERY GHETTO (FEAT BLITZ)
The lyrics are certainly much better than Nastradamus, but the beats sound waaaay too polished to recall thoughts of Illmatic.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Stillmatic proves that Nas still has what it takes to captivate an audience, at least with his lyrics, so on that measure the comeback was a success. However, without actually being bad, this album isn't enjoyable to listen to at all, a fault on which I blame the beats, which are mostly z-grade. Mostly. The inclusion of Large Professor and Salaam Remi are a step in the right direction, though, and I look forward to writing about album number six, which given my writing schedule, should happen around 2013.

BUY OR BURN? This album was mostly about proving that Nas hadn't fallen off of the lyrical bandwagon, so in staying that course, Nas pulls a Ras Kass. You're not missing anything by simply burning this album, but you should at least take a gander at the tracks listed below, and then pull your copy of Illmatic from its CD case and listen to that instead.

BEST TRACKS: "One Mic"; "What Goes Around"; "You're Da Man"

-Max

RELATED POSTS:
Nas - Illmatic
Nas - It Was Written
Nas - I Am...
Nas - Nastradamus
Nas, AZ, Foxy Brown, & Nature Present The Firm: The Album

20 comments:

  1. Nicely written. No idea why I never gave "What Goes Around" a chance before.

    Now do "Gods' Son".

    And so help me if you diss my fav track off that Album I'm gonna have to...post a strongly worded comment on your blog.

    Don't test me.

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  2. Now I almost want to know what your fave track on there is, just so I can make a special effort.

    Just kidding. I'd rather it be a surprise.

    Anyway, thanks for the support, and stay tuned.

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  3. the most felonious vocalist in the wide world of showbusinessMarch 12, 2008

    There is a common perception that Nas completely fell off after I Am... and didn't return to form until Jay-Z lit a fire under his ass. I suggest that proponents of this theory check out his work on the QB's Finest album. Well, everything except for Oochie Wally but that was a radio remix, he's not even on the song that appears on the album. He also was outstanding on B-Ez from CNN's Reunion album and on Let My N's Live from The W. Nastradamus was a piece of shit but Nas still showcased his lyrical ability on several tracks. The media like to act like Jay-Z is entirely responsible for Nasir's resurgence but in reality all that happened is that people started paying attention to Nas again after Jay-Z dissed him. This theory is best articulated on: escobartheory.blogspot.com

    As for Stillmatic, I think it's a very good album and I am ecstatic that Braveheart Party is no longer included on pressings of the CD. Now if we can just do something about that horrendous cover. This is the only Nas CD that I have not purchased a retail copy of because the cover is just repulsive. I love Ether particularly because I was a big Jay-Z hater during this time, primarily for the reasons that Nas lists on this song. I didn't mind Jay until he started proclaiming himself to be the greatest rapper of all time. When he constantly did so and the media seemed to back him up, I mentally compiled a list of reasons why it was not true and Nas lays out the reasons beautifully here. Also, I'm not sure that saying, "Foxy got you hot 'cause you kept your face in her puss" is taking a shot at Foxy Brown. It seems to be saying that Foxy was responsible for jumpstarting Jay-Z's career, primarily because he gave her good head. The line is saying that Jay-Z is a groupie made good.

    As for The Flyest, I agree that the beat doesn't do the Nas and AZ collabo justice. They have since collaborated much more effectively on The Essence from AZ's Aziatic and on Serious which I believe was cut from Streets Disciple. The Serious song is outstanding and should have definitely been included on something available for retail sale. What Goes Around is tremendous as is One Mic. I also enjoy You're Da Man and 2nd Childhood but Nas does pull a Ras Kass on the rest of the album. Meaning he murders shit on the microphone but the shortcomings of the people hired to supplement his artistry let him down.

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  4. How could you simply shrug off the Stillmatic intro, in my humble opinion that is one of the best opening tracks on ANY album EVER. You always complain, (rightfully so) that album intros are just slick talking with no purpose. And for you not to acknowledge "You're Da Man" with its just do, lets just say I'm very disappointed Max. Nas happens to be my favorite artist, and the lyrics of "You're Da Man" take Nas from mere hip hop artist to the best to EVER do it. "When everything around me got cloudy, the chair became a king's throne, My destiny found me, It was clear why the struggle was so painful, Metamorphosis, this is what I changed to And God, I'm so thankful." Can the man put it more beautifully. And on a side note Nas MURDERED Jay with Ether...diss tracks are about the lyrics not the production (not taking away from Kanye's crazy production on "The Takeover") Love your site Max, your third reader

    -JordanGunz

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  5. I usually agree with your reviews. Other than the last quarter of this album,which is a little . . . weak, the rest of the album is very, very, very good.

    2nd Childhood is an unbelievably great song, and the beats on You're Da Man is better than just good, it also bangs.

    I don't know, maybe you listened to this album with the volume too low or something.

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  6. maxwell...
    in case you didnt hear, i moved the blog. it's all over the place, hopefully you can find the new link (check the cbox?)

    anyhow, this album isnt as bad as you make it seem..perhaps the name similarities have led you to believe that it's supposed to be approaching illmatic status.
    ether SHITS on takeover, just as a real quick note, and One Mic is possibly my favorite nas song ever

    i'm not really sure where else to go with this, but i dont find your criticism to be totally accurate, i'd certainly spend a few bucks to pick this up used on amazon.
    this is actually one of the first ones i disagree with actually, keep up the good work.
    it's good to disagree
    -andrew
    www.musicalessence.wordpress.com

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  7. the most felonious vocalist in the wide world of showbusinessMarch 15, 2008

    Max, I love your blog. It's my favorite music blog in the whole universe. This and Fire Joe Morgan are the only sites that I check daily to see if they've been updated. I've actually made your site my homepage (uh, no homo) so that I don't have to go through the bookmark jungle to check for updates. But you've been pretty hard on Nas. In your opinion, his career from Illmatic to Stillmatic is worth $13.98.

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  8. MRPHATBALSACHMarch 17, 2008

    FUCK YOOOOOOOUUU!!! BITCH!!!!! 2 LIVE CREW RULZ! FUCK NAZ AND JZ!!!!! MAX U R A SKANK!!!!!

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  9. 2nd Childhood is fucking sick.. That beat is insane.. You're an idiot.

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  10. IfukedmaxesmomindashitterMarch 20, 2008

    Yeah Max is a hoe ass nigger.

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  11. Hello. This post is likeable, and your blog is very interesting, congratulations :-). I will add in my blogroll =). If possible gives a last there on my blog, it is about the Celular, I hope you enjoy. The address is http://telefone-celular-brasil.blogspot.com. A hug.

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  12. the most felonious vocalist in the wide world of showbusinessMarch 23, 2008

    Max, these comments really have me wondering what kind of stuff you decide NOT to publish with the comment moderation feature. That must be some scandalous shit.

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  13. Eh, for the most part if someone expends the time and energy that it takes to curse me out, I'll publish it anyway, because that means they had to have actually looked at the page and clicked on the link to leave a comment. That means more page views for me, and yet another satisfied customer. But yeah, some of these readers need hugs. I mean, seriously, leaving ridiculous comments because I didn't like 'Stillmatic' that much? That energy can be put to better use trying to find a cure for cancer or finger fucking a male prostitute or something.

    And I stand by my review. Sorry, but I didn't like 'Stillmatic' all that much. I just realized, though, that I never actually said that "What Goes Around" was a great song, so take that for what it's worth.

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  14. I don't get the praise for this one. Some good tracks but overall nothing special. Maybe the title tricked people into thinking it's like Illmatic? I much prefer God's Son.

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  15. this album is great but of course is not close to illmatic, i agree, nas should of renamed it

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  16. dis album is not no illmatic, but I think it's a great album, I can listen to it from beginning to end, I think it's a classic in it's own way, just like I think it was written is a classic n people don't give it da credit it deserves

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  17. AnonymousMay 13, 2012

    Max is fucking stupid

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  18. Max I think you clearly hate Hip Hop...seriously you can't compare every album to arguably one of the 5 best albums OF ALL-TIME. I don't care that you supposedly "like Nas." You basically say you would burn every album of his other than Illmatic and Lost Tapes (you would only purchase it was written for $5). Just because for example you only like 5 songs on the album, which is ridiculous anyway, doesn't mean you shouldn't buy it. That's 1/3 of a damn album. That's worth $10.

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  19. I said 2nd childhood was a weak preem track on twitter yesterday to hands of Zeus and about 50 people attacked me LOL

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  20. Easily Nas' best album all of which are great except for 1 (who's name shall not be spoken aloud ). Followed by I Am then illmatic. The lyrics on here make illmatic seem like batting practice. This is the home run. Peace... Wu-Tang Forever... Jay-Z is possibly the worst rapper of all time. 3 good albums out of like 15. He's been wack since 2000 and was dope from 96 - 00, trash

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