Friday, September 14, 2012
Happy Birfday, Nas: Top 5 Nas Songs Not On Illmatic
Jay-z once rapped that people in Brooklyn "argue all day about who's the best M.C., Biggie, Jay-z or Nas". It's a debate that will never end for rap fans. Not counting Biggie, who most people revere in Brooklyn like he invented pizza by the slice, it's really a 2 man race. Most people who know what "the purple tape" is will rate Nas and Jay-z 1 and 2 in varying order depending on their personal tastes. Being proud Brooklynites, most of PTU will probably rank Jigga slightly ahead of Esco, despite those silly nicknames, but the debate will never end. Personally, I think Nas is a more skilled rapper than Jay, but Jay's had a better career. Kind of like LeBron is more skilled than Kobe, but that doesn't mean he's a better player (at least not yet). Nas might be the best lyricist EVER, but for whatever reason he hasn't been able to put everything together consistently. His beat selection is a little off, and he can come off at best preachy and worst corny. This isn't to say he hasn't put out classic songs throughout his 20 year career. If we were to honestly put out a top 10 Nas list it would just be "Illmatic" but he's had some other gems aside from his epic debut. In honor of the little homies 39th birthday (good God, we're getting old) here's a few of my favorites post Illmatic:
5) Locomotive ft. Large Professor (Life is Good)
Yes, one of Nas's five best ever songs was on his most recent album. Part of my obsession with this track might be nostalgia for classic era hip hop (Nas even shouts out his "trapped in the 90s niggas" a couple times at the end), and another part is my lowered expectations for anything Nas has released for the past, oh, 15 years. But that doesn't take away from the fact that this is just a really, really good song.
4) Undying Love (I Am)
Remember how I said Nas might be the best lyricist in rap history? One aspect of his lyrical ablities that's a little under rated is his story telling, which is really, really good. Case in point the last track on the otherwise dissapointing I Am (the one with Nas looking like a Sphinx on the cover). Maybe the most vivid story I've heard on a rap song (even more than Story to Tell), Undying Love finds Nas coming home from Vegas to propose to his girl, only to find that he's been cuckolded by some poor fool. The last verse finds Nas and his Braveheart buddies (the subtle detail of Horse getting his foot stuck in the door is great) shooting it out with the cops before accidentally shooting his girlfriend and turning the gun on himself. "Now unto God we elope" is something you'll never hear in a 2 Chainz song. The racist cop finding their bodies at the very end is also a nice subtle touch. Great song.
3) I Gave You Power (It Was Written)
Another example of Nas's fine storytelling abilities. The whole "inanimate object personification" thing has been done to death in hip hop, usually involving someone rapping about a gun or weed as their woman (see Me and My Girlfriend by Tupac or Mary Jane by Scarface or a million other fucking songs). In 1996, though, this was still a pretty radical concept. Supposedly Nas didn't really want to do this, thinking it was a little too artsy for the mid 90s rap crowd that didn't listen to Organized Konfusion, but he eventually did it, and it's a classic track. Also featuring one of the least DJ Premierish DJ Premier beats (no scratched chorus for starters), this is a standout track on Nas's sophomore album.
2) Phone Tap (The Firm)
Nas, AZ, Foxy Brown and a couple other Queens and Brooklyn rappers joined forces with Dr Dre to create The Firm. They made an album in the late 90s that is widely considered a flop, mostly because Dr. Dre himself famously rapped that it was on a song most likely written by Eminem. Also, it was a bit dissapointing commercially and critically. As always, blame for a rap album flopping falls squarely and unfairly on the record label's shoulders. They probably shouldn't have released the awful Firm Biz as the first single and instead went with Phone Tap, which is a classic. The Dre beat on this is so great that it was a hit song for Carl Thomas about a year later.
1) The Message (It Was Written)
As previously mentioned, Illmatic is worshipped by rap fans, and even some people who aren't that into rap. A follow up was bound to fail, or at least come as somewhat of a dissapointment. However, the first real track on this destined to fail sophomore album starts out very promisingly. Built around a Sting sample, Nas spits quotable after quotable. "A thug changes, and love changes, and best friends become strangers" will probably be on the tombstone of millions of people over this next century and if not then it should be.
Honorable Mention: Affirmative Action ft. The Firm (It Was Written)
I have trouble even calling this one a Nas song since it's a posse cut in the truest sense of the term but I'd hate myself if I didn't mention Affirmative Action. "Life's a bitch but God forbid the bitch divorce me, I'll be flooded with ice so hell fire can't scorch me". C'mon now, Nas.
Other Honorable Mentions: A Favor for A Favor ft. Scarface (I Am) (Motown Marxist's Favorite), Ether (Stillmatic), Street's Disciple (Street's Disciple), The World Is An Addiction (Life Is Good), Nas is Like (I Am), You're the Man (Stillmatic)