ots of rappers are lazy.
Jay-Z, for instance, is frequently lazy on record. He pulls it off, much of the time, because he makes everything sound effortless; lyrics just roll off his tongue, conversationally direct. Nas, on the other hand, sounds terrible when lazy. And there’s no need to catalogue the examples, the countless tracks where Nas either lacked the ambition or the willingness to make a song succeed, to have it stand out from the pack of NYC thug snoozery. The best Nas work jumps at you, a musical knife to the gut, so even though your eyes glaze over halfway through I Am…, “Nas Is Like” cuts through the bullshit, his voice ripping through the cinematic loops and grimy tunnel-banging drums. Nas’ brand new double-album Street’s Disciple is full of moments like these—each track explosively gritty, focused and personal. Most importantly, Nas sounds inspired—this isn’t the forced comeback effort of Stillmatic or the half-assed stab at relevance that made up most of God’s Son. Street’s Disciple reveals Nas at a new peak, finally comfortable in the post-millennial hip-hop world.
The production—almost entirely by longtime collaborators Salaam Remi and Chucky Thompson—is unexceptional, yet accompanies Nas’ tone perfectly. The beats are often little more than a chopped loop or breakbeat and the occasional 808, so they deftly emphasize Nas’ rapping. The production complements him, yet never outshines him. There are no huge hooks, no superstar collaborations—just Nas and some grainy New York breaks. The ambience on tracks like “Rest of My Life” and “War” sound dirty, evocative and nostalgic all at once. The lead single “Thief’s Theme” is a familiar sample, (the Incredible Bongo Band’s cover of “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida”) twisted and distorted into a harsh street anthem that crawls down New York’s midnight boulevards like the stocking-capped bandits scheming for dollars in the music video.
Like past Escobar efforts, it would be simple to watch him fall, to lazily spit some vague rhymes about how far he has come, incorporating weak Italian Mafioso references or disgusting sexuality and misogyny; yet Nas sounds motivated and genuinely interested in rapping, although not in Jay-Z-esque wordplay or classic Illmatic street narratives. It is personal, biographical and specifically topical. “American Way” decisively attacks the “uncle toms” he sees hurting the black community, finds him searching for “someone from the hood as my councilman” and broad siding the black “heroes” of that same community on “Coon Picnic”. He effectively discusses his own family in a way that “Dance” from God’s Son tried (and failed) to do, with “Me And You”, a graceful song dedicated to his daughter that rides Slick Rick’s “Hey Young World” vibe near the end of the album. He switches up his flow from languid matter-of-fact proclamations into double-time triplets on “A Message to the Feds”. And in “U.B.R.”, Nas salutes his chief inspiration Rakim: “at sixteen son was watchin’ him / Mesmerized, respect, not jockin’ him,” over a beat that echoes the breaks from the end of “Microphone Fiend”, heard outside club doors.
Street’s Disciple is also well-sequenced, particularly the four-song exploration of his relationships: the sexual memoirs of “Remember the Times” lead directly to Nas on the hunt in “Makings of the Perfect Bitch”, the eventual resolution “Getting Married” and the honeymoon experience of “No One Else in the Room”. On “Getting Married”, an elegant song that relies on a sublime flute riff for the chorus, Nas flips the music-as-a-metaphor cliché to great effect while discussing his marriage to Kelis: “Will you take music as your wedded wife? / Psych, this ain’t about music / You know who I’m talkin’ to.”
This is not to say this album is perfect—like most double albums, it could use some editing. The beat on “Live Now” lurches upon the same tired Earth, Wind and Fire loop for the entire song, and even Nas’ deathbed reflections can’t save the musical monotony. And once again, Nas’ attempts to describe his sexual encounters often end up being uncomfortably creepy (she “tried to eat [his] excrement”?) on the otherwise entertaining trip down intercourse-memory lane.
For the most part, however, Street’s Disciple confirms that Nas remains a dazzling and singularly talented rapper. What differentiates this album is not the production, or Nas’ prodigal skills, or even his position as a “streets disciple.” This is Nas’ most personal-sounding work—and as a result, it is one of his most exceptional. Hip-hop fans like to pretend that it was “The Takeover” that revitalized Nas’ career. While Jay’s lyrical assault may have been the catalyst, this album proves passion was what Nas was missing; passion for his wife, for his daughter, for his people and for rap music as a whole.
Reviewed by: David Drake
Reviewed on: 2004-11-29