February 22, 2009

Reader Review: Nas - Stillmatic (December 18, 2001)


(On this, the last Reader Review of the second round, The Most Felonious Vocalist In The Wide World Of Showbusiness rewrites my perspective on Stillmatic, the Nas comeback vehicle after the shitstorm that was Nastradamus. As the man frequently leaves some of the longer comments on my posts, you should prepare yourselves for a feast of the written word. No, seriously. You may want to get a snack first.)

On September 14, 1973, Nasir Jones shot his way out his mom dukes. Demonstrating his knack for making a good first impression, Nas was picked up by his pops, jazz trumpeter Olu Dara, who wiped him off and said, "At least the n---a ain't ugly." As an infant, to keep him alive, his mom was forced to fight off giant sized bats that would attack six at a time, crying "Nas." This was a portent of things to come, as the youngster would experience a turbulent upbringing highlighted by multiple encounters with truly iconic figures. In perhaps the most memorable of these, Nas went to hell for snuffin' Jesus at the tender age of twelve. The Queensbridge resident was able to make the best of the situation, striking up an unlikely friendship with Medusa over Moet and marijuana. Young Nasir also spent a lot of time breaking the locks at candy factories and waving automatic guns at nuns. Every day, a different plot had him running from cops. Although the good times were few and far between, Nas has many fond memories of raking leaves and robbing foreigners. (I honestly can’t add any comments to that paragraph. Good show.)

Nas made his recording debut on "Live At The Barbeque", a posse cut featured on Main Source's landmark LP Breaking Atoms. (I can see it now: "Max, why haven't you reviewed Breaking Atoms yet? Stop reviewing Wu-Tang!) Nasir had adopted Nasty Nas as his new microphone moniker, abandoning his earlier Kid Wave handle. (Apparently, the name thing might be true.) He was 18 years old, yet his verse featured many of the hallmarks that would eventually make him one of the most respected rappers of all time. These traits include the use of poetic imagery, a fascination with the occult and the macabre, and a devastating flow reminiscent of the exalted Rakim Allah. It was 1991 and people were eager for a full length Nasty Nas project. Their wish wouldn't be granted until 1994 when Illmatic, the consensus Greatest Album In Hip Hop History, was unleashed to adoring critics and fans.

Illmatic earned Nas critical acclaim and respect in the hip hop community but commercial success proved elusive. The next thing you knew, Nas was dancing around in a pink suit and pouring champagne on bitches left and right. He no longer seemed capable of the seemingly effortless mastery he had displayed on Illmatic. Nas's third and fourth albums (we're skipping over It Was Written, for those of you that keep count) were famously described as "doo" and he was shamefully outdone by his bodyguard on the lyrical showcase "Oochie Wally." (I just had to pick my ass up off the ground after laughing it off to “lyrical showcase".) Supposedly sporting a one hot album every 10 year average, the future did not look bright for Mr. Jones. When Jay-Z dissed him in the summer of 2001, the prevailing opinion was that Nas was no longer an elite rapper capable of recovering from an attack of that magnitude. It was an opinion based on the testimony of archrival Shawn Carter and unshared by those who practiced internet piracy or patronized bootleggers, but it was the prevalent opinion.

Late in the fall of 2001, "Ether" was leaked to hip hop radio. Detailing Jay-Z's penchant for switching allegiances, plagiarizing entire stanzas, and wearing Hawaiian shirts, “Ether” struck a nerve. Listeners of New York City's Hot 97 preferred the song to Jay-Z's response track "Super Ugly", a development which left Jay-Z's trademark swagger shaken as he tried to make sense of the results on live radio. Jay had woken a sleeping giant and restored Nas's hunger. When it was revealed that Nas had titled his fifth solo album Stillmatic, expectations were once again sky high.

Sit back, I'm ‘bout to begin.

1. INTRO
Oh, man. This is the ideal way to start the album. The beat is triumphant, but not celebratory, and Nas immediately sets the agenda: restoring his reputation and defaming Shawn Carter. (Not necessarily in that order.)

2. ETHER
The best thing I can say about the beat is that, as terrible as it is (and it’s pretty awful), it doesn't really get in the way. It certainly doesn't add anything, and its true worthlessness will shine if you ever subject yourself to listening to the instrumental, but at least it sucks in a quiet, unassuming manner. The caricature of Shawn Carter that ultimately emerges is that of the freshman with no true identity, willing to portray himself in any manner that will win the approval of Biggie Smalls and Nasty Nas, the popular seniors. Now, I admit that I'm on Nasir’s dick and I love his style, but I don't see how Jay’s "Takeover" competes with this lyrically. Jay's brief verse about Nas on there sounds like it was an afterthought, and "Super Ugly" just cemented his obsession, as Shawn Carter recounts all the places he thought about Nas while having sex with his ex.

3. GOT UR SELF A…
This is a really good song with a super stupid, way too obvious sample mixed in to ensure that I never find true happiness. For the absurd video, Nas played the parts of 2Pac and Biggie in the reenactments of their murders. He thought it was a good way to honor them. I'm not so sure that it was.

4. SMOKIN'
Nas gets off some good rhymes and the beat is solid, if unspectacular. The hook, which I'm not too fond of, sounds like it should have been performed by Havoc. It's nice to see Young Guns II get some play. “Arkansas” Dave Rudabaugh is hip hop.

5. YOU'RE DA MAN
This is not a hit single or a street anthem, but it's exactly the kind of track that helps round out a strong album. Nas does some nice pontificating on the "Fuck Jay-Z and the dick he rode in on" mission statement, but this song's lyrics reach their zenith in the second verse, when Nas starts talking about how much he gets high, how much weed he smokes, and that crazy space shit that don't even make no sense. Unbeknownst most, the version of this song available on Stillmatic is not what Nasir originally intended (and he’s not referring about the version that popped up on producer Large Professor’s album, either). The original version featured the following bars before the beginning of the second verse: "At church on my hand was a preacher's blood/ Swallow dirt from a graveyard in need of love/ I vomit blunt residue, I want revenue, dreaming/ And pump lead at you devils trying to take my freedom/ It drove me crazy the day I drank my own urine, my own semen/ With a .9 to my brain, but wait a sec, give me time to explain". The “no homo” crowd and Bill O'Reilly would have had a field day with that one. (Wait, he actually rhymed about drinking his own semen? When did that happen?)

6. REWIND
Oh, I see: it's backwards. This is probably the worst sing-along song of all time. It's like an M. Night Shyamalan movie: confusing and annoying the first time, somewhat enlightening the second time, and altogether unsatisfying.

7. ONE MIC
This is a great song. It showcases the evolution of Nasir's talents, as I do not believe that Illmatic's Nasty Nas could have pulled this off. He manages to convey his emotions through simply the tone of his voice, rather than linguistically, while successfully utilizing an experimental flow. Bonus points to QB's Finest for improving the rhymes for the video edit and for allegedly handling the production duties.

8. 2ND CHILDHOOD
Not the customary Premier banger by any stretch of the imagination, but it still succeeds on the strength of Nasir's maturity and insight. Nas's characters are vividly rendered, and each is a representation of a larger sociological trend. Also, the beat manages to sound like it's composed of weed smoke and maple syrup, similar to "Burning of the Midnight Lamp" by Jimi Hendrix. (The sketch at the end of the song is a pretty big misstep, as nobody was ever fiending for a skit on a Nas album.)

9. DESTROY & REBUILD
If you listen closely enough, you can hear my heart breaking when Nas starts dissing Cormega. (No, this is true: just read through the man’s comments when I wrote about the first two Cormega albums.)

10. THE FLYEST (FEAT AZ)
The chemistry's still there, but the strong rhymes provided by Sosa and Escobar are undermined by a beat that's about as catchy as Morse code. (Thanks, L.E.S.!) I'm not going to try to defend the quality of the hook, but the female vocalist sings it so earnestly that I can't help but like it as satire. "Pushing big dicks and packing our chrome..." That shit comes straight from the heart, dunn.

11. BRAVEHEART PARTY (FEAT THE BRAVEHEARTS & MARY J. BLIGE)
Nasir Jones is about to marry Kelis Clownwig. Her parents hate him. Her old boyfriend hates him. They all have money and he gets a cut off of the crap games on the catholic school bus he drives. His friends decide to give him the Braveheart party of all Braveheart parties with an expensive hotel, booze, movies and hookers. As the players catch wind of the elements of the party, each adds a little monkey wrench so that one set of hookers ends up giving demos at the bride's shower, the bride's friends end up dressed as hookers in a room with a number of non-English-speaking Japanese businessmen, and so on as things get out of hand. Plus, Tawny Kitaen kind of shows her tits. (That description was so much more entertaining than the actual song.)

12. RULE (FEAT AMERIE)
Sounds like a Puff Daddy outtake. Following "Braveheart Party" with this happy horseshit is all the proof some people need that Nas likes naked dudes. (Or at least Tears For Fears.)

13. MY COUNTRY (FEAT MILLENNIUM THUG)
Stillmatic was released three months after the 9/11 attacks. (I just looked at my original review, and my sources indicated December 4, 2001, as the release date of this album. That's weird.) Compliments to His Nastiness for acknowledging, however obliquely, the role America's foreign policy played in the tragedies in the lead-in to this song. I feel like Nas should have used his verses from "Rule" with this hook over this beat.

14. WHAT GOES AROUND
Nas unveils the stiletto flow that made him famous, spitting some of the illest rhymes of his career. The unusual song structure lends his rhymes an extra sense of urgency before the bridge and increased gravitas afterward. The "Phone Tap"-like vocal effect just adds to the party (which has nothing in common with a Braveheart party).

15. EVERY GHETTO (FEAT BLITZ)
Nas's second verse makes this song worthwhile to me. I wouldn't request it at a wedding or anything, but it's not too shabby.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Stillmatic was a rousing success. The man Jay-Z dissed in the summer of 2001 was a composite of his role as Sincere in Belly and that dude dancing around with Ginuwine. The Nas who emerged from Stillmatic was an inner-circle hip hop hall-of-famer.

BUY OR BURN?: Stillmatic is a stupid title. Nas has, once again, failed to duplicate Illmatic, but what he managed to do was make an album with enough quality songs to justify a purchase.

BEST TRACKS: "Intro"; "Ether"; "You're Da Man"; "One Mic"; "2nd Childhood"; "What Goes Around"

-The Most Felonious Vocalist In The Wide World Of Showbusiness

(I don’t know about you, but my eyes are tired. Nice work. Be sure to leave comments below, and here’s the link to the first Stillmatic review for comparison’s sake.)

(BONUS VIDEO: The inspiration for “Rule”, in keeping with my infrequent habit of pointing out influences from 1980's new wave and pop radio.)

14 comments:

  1. Not a bad review at all, at least in my opinion. I thought it was funny you added the intro to the best tracks list, that barely counts lol. Anyway am i the only one who has always wondered what in the hell nas was thinking with the outfit he has on on the album cover...

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  2. i was thinking that too, other anonymous

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  3. the most felonious vocalist in the wide world of showbusinessFebruary 23, 2009

    Anonymous-
    I completely agree about the cover photo. I commented on that when Max reviewed this album. The most palatable explanation I've seen is that Nas chose to dress like that because the cover represents the folly of mankind before God cleansed the Earth with flood waters (as shown on God's Son). I'm not convinced.

    P.S. Love your poem about Jesus on the beach.

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  4. I always thought Stillmatic was great until after "2nd Childhood," then it goes downhill, quality-wise. All his albums besides Illmatic are very inconsistent IMO.

    And nice review... liked this bit-- "Also, the beat manages to sound like it's composed of weed smoke and maple syrup." LOL.

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  5. I liked this better than It Was Written.

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  6. AnonymousMay 03, 2009

    The Reason the Album Cover is Like That Becuz on His Classic it Ain't HARD TO TELL Video, He Was wearing that oufit sitting down like that...so saying hes still illmatic he went back to that GET IT?

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  7. AnonymousJuly 28, 2009

    ARE YOU SERIOUS!! after 2nd childhood it went downhill!!! "The flyest" is such an underrated classic song also "Rule". Sorry but everybody has there opinion and think this is his 2nd best album next to illmatic.

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  8. Good review; shame that this was the only review that he's written, that comment he made for "Braveheart Party" was pretty entertaining.

    I agree with him completely on the intro, it's one of the few rap album intro's I would listen to repeatedly, mainly due to the perfect combination of the beat and the rhymes. I would of wanted it longer but it works more as a one verse wonder then anything else.

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  9. the most felonious vocalist in the wide world of showbusinessFebruary 12, 2012

    Anonymous #4:
    Sorry for the delay. I'm a busy dude nowadays.
    NO becuz I v'd it by youTube and on His Clazzik vid HE wuz in DIFFERENT outfitz than dis 1 on STIllMATIC.

    Taylor:
    Thanks for the feedback. I wrote reviews of Cormega's albums in the comment sections of Max's reviews. They're ill.

    Max:
    Still love your blog. You've shown more dedication than liner notes and I've enjoyed watching your sidebar grow up over the years. Hip Hop Isn't Dead is crazy, homes. It's an institution.

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  10. @ the most felonious - Personally, I'm just glad to see that you're still around. Thanks for the continued support.

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  11. Derek ClaptonDecember 28, 2012

    The reason I prefer Takeover to Ether is that while about half of Ether is pretty valid criticism of Jay-Z, the other half amounts to little more than Nas calling Jay-Z gay. Seriously.

    Also, Takeover's beat, while pretty lazy, still knocks.

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  12. Max, has this guy the most felonious vocalist made written any more reviews on this blog? That guy entertains me in the comments.

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    Replies
    1. No, although if you check on some of the Cormega reviews he has posted some rather lengthy reviews of his own. Hasn't been around in a while, though.

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