Like all true Nas fans, when I heard these words sung on the hook of the first single from his last LP Nastrodamus, I cringed. In addition to being a sub par track, the song forced me to accept a sad but apparent reality: Nasty Nas was dead. The hungry kid from Queens Bridge Projects had become a casualty in the bling-bling era of hip-hop. Gone was our poet laureate of the projects who painted word pictures so vivid on masterpieces like "Life's a Bitch" and "One Love" that the entire hip-hop community stood up in 1994 and dubbed him their new king. In his stead was an ice wearing, Bentley-driving imposter who told fantastic stories of international drug deals and intricate murder plots. "The ni**a who be pissin' in ya elevator" had sold his soul to the commercial devil for a few platinum plaques. But like the proverbial phoenix, Nasty Nas has risen from the ashes to reclaim his crown as hip-hop's king with the release of Stillmatic.
After the introduction, the album starts with the super-hot "Ether", a battle response track to Jay-Z's "The Takeover". Though he, like Tupac, chooses to break away from the rich hip-hop battle tradition of pure lyrical-comical jousting by adding numerous gun references ("burner at the side of ya dome" . . . "R.O.C. get gunned up and clapped quick"), Nas still brings enough lyrical heat to supplant Jigga as New York's king. On the album's other battle track, "Destroy and Rebuild", Prodigy, Nature, and Cormega are the primary targets of Nas' lyrical onslaught. In a laid back Slick Rick flow, Nas substantiates the oft told tales of Prodigy being robbed ("P, how many times nature ashamed that / Jungle was bustin' his gun to get yo' weak chain back?") and Nature's treachery ("Nature moved to MARCY . . . / Nothin' else to say, man, Nature moved to MARCY"). His harshest words, however, are reserved for Cormega: "Mega was his name sorry bout that / But it's so haaard to put a coward's name in my rap" . . . "Then he got jealous and mad at my shine / Makin' silly tapes, I'm always on his mind / Nonsense not to be obnoxious kid / But Mega for the record you can suck my dick". Then, in a spoken word cadence reminiscent of Tupac's "Hit 'Em Up", he continues to antagonize but offers an olive branch of sorts to everyone except Cormega.
Thankfully, Nasty Nas returns to his lyrical Illamtic roots on wonderfully produced tracks like "2nd Childhood" and "The Flyest", which features a sharp guest appearance from on-again off-again running mate AZ. Nas keeps the momentum going with tracks like "You're Da Man" and "Got Ur Self A . . .", which features a cleverly sampled hook from The Sopranos. On "Rewind" Nas delves into relatively unchartered territory by telling a story from end to beginning a la Memento.
The album's standout track, however, is the magnificent "One Mic". Beginning with a slow, deliberate flow and beat, Nas passionately talks about his desire to live a simple life ("Only if I had one gun, one girl, and one crib / One God to show me how to do things his son did") and the things which prevent him from doing so ("[if] One ni**ga front, my face on the front page"). Then, the track crescendos until Nas is nearly screaming over the subtly elaborate track. Just as the listener becomes accustomed to the hectic lyrical atmosphere replete with Nas' especially poignant ghetto meditations, the track slows, allowing us to appreciate the mercurial nature of our magnificently human rap god.
Despite the brilliance of most the album, it is not without its share of blemishes. With the exception of AZ, Nas did not get any help from his comrades. Otherwise strong tracks like "Every Ghetto" and "My Country" would have greatly benefited from a lack of guest appearances by his cadre of mediocre MCs . "Braveheart Party", an uninspired radio friendly track featuring Jungle and Mary J. Blige, should have been scrapped altogether. Also, the album can be self-righteous and preachy at times. Nas criticizes Jay-Z for "dissin' women", yet uses the word "bitch" several times throughout the album. This is, of course, par for the course when dealing with the ambivalent Nasty Nas.
Despite its flaws, Stillmatic is perhaps the best hip-hop album of the year and certainly the best Nas album since Illmatic. This is a must buy LP that will provide definite listening satisfaction to Nas fans, past and present.