With middle age rapidly approaching, ghetto poet/prophet Nasir Jones settles in for the long haul. Of all his peers, he ages gracefully, although Street's Disciple two discs reflect the less-focused Nas of the past, a Nas that's ready to hand off the baton, but unsure what to do next.
Your favorite rappers are middle-aged. Eminem struggles to make an album radically different than the one he releases over and over, Jay-Z pulled out of the game, Snoop went soft, and hail of bullets stopped BIG and Pac in their prime. Therefore, by virtue of survival and subject matter, Nas is the first of his peers to grow up on wax.
Throughout the course of his career, Nas has undergone some very serious transformations. His first offering, Illmatic, established him as a street poet in the vein of Gil Scot-Heron. It Was Written saw the poet polish his image to a glossy sheen in order to achieve some commercial success. By the time his super group, the Firm, flopped, Nas had lost nearly all his credibility as hood prophet. Suddenly, he hid himself behind a number of super egos and pseudonyms ("Nasty Nas to Esco to Escobar, now he is Nastradamus"). For the modern day equivalent of 40 days and 40 nights, he stumbled through the desert through two lackluster releases (I am and Nastradamus. With Biggie six feet under and Nas floundering, Jay-Z laid claim to the title of King of New York with "Takeover", a stinging indictment that tore into Mobb Deep and more importantly Nas. The battle recharged Nas, whose blurry vision found focus when he pointed Stillmatic's "Ether" at Jigga. And then, the prophet returned with another album and the words "God's Son" emblazoned across his belly. It was a ballsy move, but Nas has always revelled in tying himself up in prophecy. On the cover of his new disc, Nas assumes the role of Jesus and all his disciples at the last supper, which aside from being utterly confusing says one thing: Nas may die, but his message will live on.
Street's Disciple splits Nas' personality down its many seams, with militant pro-black revolutionary fuelling the first disc while the second offers a glimpse at a rapper's braggadocio as his testosterone levels dwindle. On disc one, he lashes out at the federales who let drugs flood the inner city like a killer tsunami -- without sending relief ("A Message to the Feds"). This is the Nas we respect and expect -- the rebel to America. Not even P. Diddy can steer clear of his reach as "American Way" finds Nas unloading a flurry of well-directed jabs at rappers who tote socially conscious rap around as if it were the new company line. In the hood there are no choices, says Nas. A vote for Kerry or Bush doesn't change the bleak reality of ghetto life. "These Are Our Heroes" sees Nas denouncing "Uncle Tom" type performers as modern-day minstrels. The Laker's Kobe Bryant bears the brunt of the attack here, as Nas says the franchise player is too busy defending accusations of "abusing white pussy" to give a fuck about the ghetto.
"Bridging the Gap" sees Nas' reunited with his father for some jazz-rap and while Jay-Z teamed with his mother on The Black Album's "Dec. 4th" with similar results, neither song is enduring. "Just a Moment" is the coming of age track that illustrates Nas' newfound comfort with the onset of middle age. Like Illmatic's "Life's a Bitch" it starts with Nas passing the torch to an up-and-comer, this time named Quan instead of AZ, who dedicates the track to all those locked down in the eternal struggle. But where "Life's a Bitch" was callous, nonchalant toast to getting stoned in order to await your death, the soaring flutes of "Just a Moment" say let's hope and pray for change.
All MCs are storytellers, but few can match the razor sharp detail of a Nasir Jones original. "U.B.R.'s" thunderous bass kicks off the unauthorized biography of Rakim. From his birth as William Griffin "The Great" on January 28, 1968 to his life-altering meeting with Eric B., Nas positions listeners' at the most significant moments of rap history. It's here that Nas accepts his other role, as educator.
Midway through the second disc, the bottom falls out of Street's Disciple as Nas seems intent to regale his listeners with ho-hum tales of life in your mid-30s. Although it's fun to hear him recount his sexual exploits ("Remember the Time") or an compose ode to his daughter ("Me and You") once, they make for poor repeat listens on what could have been an above average one-disc release. The Caribbean flava of "The Makings of a Perfect Bitch" does little to rescue the track from its use as an outlet for Nas to play weird science. That he's married to Kelis, whose milkshake brings all the boys to her yard, and still finds the need to write a track like this says Nas is still holding onto some insecurities.
As an MC, many predicted he'd be rap's next ruler. He's been attacked as a heretic, he's carried the cross on wax, and now he's old. Nas is no longer the 18-year-old kid scribbling in his book of rhymes from his parent's apartment. He's a father and a husband and this album demonstrates that despite his maturity, he needs the focus of a rap battle to keep him on target. Only tomorrow knows if future generations will fully interpret his prophecies and until then, Nas will always be a disciple for the streets, the Afro-centric Asian, half-man/half-amazing.