Nas - Stillmatic Music Album Reviews

Nas - Stillmatic Music Album Reviews
Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit the 2001 resurrection of Nas, a canonical comeback album that came out swinging and never backed down. 

In the summer of 2000, at music mogul Steve Stoute’s birthday party in New York, Nas and JAY-Z ended up in an unexpectedly tense conversation about the state of hip-hop. The pair had never exactly been friends. After growing up in housing projects five miles and a borough apart, the rappers met in the early 1990s on a tour that included Jay’s mentor, Jaz, and Main Source, the group that had introduced Nas to the public with his incendiary guest verse on 1991’s “Live at the Barbeque.” They were not the main attractions; Nas would pop out to rap about snuffing Jesus and Jay would play hypeman for Jaz. The tour went off without a notable hitch, save for the incident in Washington, D.C. when members of the crowd, upset at a sound system failure, chased the performers back to their tour bus. “We were figuring we gonna have to knuckle down,” Main Source’s Large Professor would tell XXL in 2002, until Jay pulled a TEC-9 out of his gym bag and told the more famous artists not to worry.

With his astonishing 1994 debut, Illmatic, Nas was anointed the savior of a certain strain of formalist, autobiographical rap. Two years later, Jay released his own debut, Reasonable Doubt, on a label he co-founded with Biggs Burke and Dame Dash. Nas was supposed to appear on Reasonable Doubt’s “Bring It On,” but, according to Dash, kept flaking on scheduled recording sessions. His voice still made the album, though, sampled in the hook of “Dead Presidents II.” Nas’ second album, It Was Written, came out a week after Reasonable Doubt. On its first song, “The Message,” he sneers at rappers driving around New York in Lexuses with TV sets in the headrest; the line came to him when he saw Jay behind the wheel of one.  

For several years, the feud—if you could even call it that—stayed at a simmer. But around the turn of the century, little barbs started jutting out of songs and freestyles. At first it sounded like bickering over the throne left vacant after the death of The Notorious B.I.G. Then things grew more personal, each rapper claiming he’d paved the way for the other’s style, career, persona; Jay began teasing a relationship he’d had with the mother of Nas’ daughter. There were no names yet, but the lines got more pointed.  

Anyway—the conversation at the Stoute party. According to Nas, who recounted the conversation in the fall 2001 issue of Felon magazine (on the cover: “PEE WEE KIRKLAND SPEAKS OUT ON: GROUND ZERO”), Jay started by throwing his own people under the bus. He said that his protégé, Memphis Bleek, was a big fan of Nas. He said that Beanie Sigel would never sell more than 600,000 records. He said that unlike 2Pac and DMX, he and Nas were “lyricists”—that Pac and X only had “starving” fans buying their albums. “I looked at him like he was crazy,” Nas told the interviewer; he had just recorded with DMX, and had made plans to fly to Las Vegas and smooth over the tension with Pac before his death in 1996. Even more audacious was Jay’s alleged claim that he’d finally surpassed Big as an artist. (Sometime after this interview, on record, Jay would hedge—slightly: “And if I ain’t better than Big, I’m the closest one.”) “Then,” Nas said, “this slithering snake goes and does that Summer Jam bullshit.”
On June 28, 2001, during Hot 97’s annual festival at the Nassau Coliseum—where, five years earlier, Nas had famously stopped his concert after learning of Pac’s death—Jay rapped, first over Kanye West’s flip of the Doors’ “Five to One” and then, when the cheers grew deafening, acapella, an early version of a song called “Takeover.” Initially he went after Prodigy, whose childhood dance recital photos were plastered on a video screen. (Earlier in 2001, when Jay had convinced Funkmaster Flex to let his new signees freestyle for an hour on Hot 97’s airwaves, he made sure they were given the Mobb Deep rapper’s “Keep It Thoro” beat before tearing into Nas et al.’s “Oochie Wally.”) But at the end of the performance, he took aim at a different target. “Ask Nas,” Jay shouted over the din. “He don’t want it with Hov!”

A few weeks later, Nas responded with a freestyle over the beat from the “Paid in Full” remix. This is where he came up with the title Stillmatic. In a verse denser than most of the new ones from 1999’s tepidly received I Am…, Nas accuses Jay of biting his style back when the less established MC rapped “like the Fu-Schnickens”; he derides Jay’s “fake coke rhymes” and calls him, quite plainly, a liar. “Un was your first court case,” Nas notes, referring to the stabbing of record executive Lance “Un” Rivera, for which Jay eventually received three years probation. “You had no priors.” 

It didn’t stick. The Blueprint dropped on September 11, 2001 (it “couldn’t even be stopped by bin Laden,” Jay would later brag), complete with the full version of “Takeover.” The verse that Jay stopped short of performing at Summer Jam, the one about Nas, was revealed as one of the most scathing disses in rap history. After some perfunctory cracks about “Oochie Wally” and those Karl Kani ads he, now, takes his turn calling Nas a fraud who patterned an identity on his. “You ain’t live it,” Jay raps,

You witnessed it from your folks’ pad
Scribbled in your notepad and created your life
I showed you your first Tec, on tour with Large Professor
Then I heard your album ’bout your Tec on the dresser

Jay even addresses the disembodied Nas on “Dead Presidents II,” taunting him for not receiving any royalties on the song. Perhaps more damning than any specific allegation of fabricated biography or financial maneuvering was the sense that Nas had not only failed to live up to the hype Illmatic inspired, but had become something of a joke. He had fallen, as Jay puts it, “from top ten to not mentioned at all.”  

The history of rap beefs is a history of rappers who did not have to take the bait. (Nas would have known this well, growing up in Queensbridge and seeing local star MC Shan lured into a battle by the upstart KRS-One, who claimed to take offense to a point of historical accounting but was in fact carrying out a personal grudge against Mr. Magic and the Juice Crew; KRS leveraged the spat into a position as one of the most iconic rappers of his generation.) And yet, beyond simply engaging, Nas seemed to accept Jay’s premise about the state of his career and reputation. Stillmatic is framed conspicuously as a comeback album, and twice on its first two songs, Nas evokes the image of his body coming out of a grave—not as a Christ figure, as he might have shaded the scene in the ’90s, but as a man who’d been buried alive.  

Someone looking at a balance sheet would be confused. Nas had followed Illmatic—which was rushed onto shelves to combat bootleggers and sold poorly despite its instant canonization by critics—with It Was Written, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and was certified double platinum two months later. In 1999, he released two albums: April’s I Am… (also No. 1, platinum by May) and November’s Nastradamus (a slip to No. 7 that still earned its plaque within a month). But he also alienated swaths of his audience, starting with the purists who balked at the Trackmasters’ pop sensibilities, which guided half of It Was Written, or at the mafioso persona Nas adopted for much of the other half.  

He had planned to make his third album a sweeping double-disc called I Am… The Autobiography, tracing his life from beginning to hypothetical end. But bootlegging, which had only accelerated in New York, was also moving onto internet file-sharing sites, and the bulk of the album was widely available long before the label could put together cover art or a marketing calendar. Frustrated, Nas kept a few of the leaked records and rushed to replace the others, rapping agitatedly over busy faux-Timbaland (or, occasionally, C-grade actual Timbaland) or downright creepily. While both albums have redeeming qualities—and Nas would release weaker albums in the future—this was, for the time, an unquestionable nadir. 

Through these years, when Nas went to the studio, he recorded in marathon sessions, writing long verses and labyrinthine narrative raps. This approach yielded innumerable impressive songs, but that proliferation, along with a self-sustaining reputation as someone whose best work was damned to languish on DAT tapes, ensured that new material would be leaked by studio and label employees, sample-clearance specialists, and assorted hangers-on whenever possible, each knowing any scrap would be eaten up by mixtape DJs or online collectors, often for a significant price. So when it came time to record Stillmatic, the album on which his reputation would now hinge, Nas retreated to the Bahamas.

Alongside his A&R and a longtime friend, Lord, Nas wrote and recorded there for three weeks, ruminating on his present situation and mining stories from his and Lord’s lives back in Queens. At several points throughout Stillmatic, Nas turns to examine his adult life, specifically the way money and fame have corroded it. But this introspection gets blotted out, again and again, by grudges and complexes—and by details smaller, warmer, from longer ago. Memories spring to the surface as if by random access: cigarette burns on the sofa in his childhood home, plastic bags from the CTown Supermarket, the faces of the older women you could and couldn’t curse in front of—the surnames of those in each category. It is not exactly nostalgic, though you wouldn’t call it haunted, either. It’s as if everything is happening at once; as he raps over a warped Stacy Lattisaw record on the intro, “This is my ending and my new beginning,” a Mobius strip that cuts through unattended stairwells and limousines with hourly rates recoupable to Columbia Records. Maybe the word is burdened. 

There was presumably no greater preoccupation during the Stillmatic sessions than “Takeover.” The bin Laden line from Blueprint 2 is barely an exaggeration; that song, and The Blueprint as a whole, made an immediate impact, by nudging Jay, who was already a superstar within hip-hop, into the clubs and canons guarded by corporate executives and rock critics. The “one-hot-album-every-ten-year average” he cites became conventional wisdom about Nas’ career (despite its obvious absurdity—It Was Written is as good as anything Jay had recorded to that point). What’s worse: Jay delivered the song with a mix of menace and bemusement, reducing Nas, when convenient, to a lapdog nipping at his heels. 

Rather than reflect this coolheadedness back at Jay, Nas decided to rip out his throat. “Ether” was recorded over Ron Browz’s chintzy beat, and in the lineage of many great diss songs, it slow-plays its best material: Though it begins with a sample of Pac saying “Fuck Jay-Z”—and while it strings “I will not lose,” the spine of Jay’s “U Don’t Know,” through its own chorus—its first two verses contain relatively few personal details, save for the evocation of Jay’s “Hawaiian Sophie” cameo. Nas chooses instead to tout his own influence, and to place himself in one of those graves. 

When he digs out, though, Nas is positively brutal. Just a few bars into “Ether”’s extended third verse, he’s wondering if Jay had been abused as a child—this, he argues, is the only thing that would explain the way Jay had been writing about women. “Scared to smile?” he prods. “They called you ugly?” He scoffs at Jay’s claims of having been a drug kingpin, recalling instead an eager aspiring artist who would phone Nas’ home unsolicited, showing up to dinner

Nas rehashes Jay’s claim to have eclipsed Big and mocks his and Dame’s Big-and-Puffy cosplay; he alleges that Jay did not, in fact, stab Un Rivera, and was being “made” to take the fall; he paints him as a fawning protégé in perpetual search of a mentor, from Jaz to Big Daddy Kane, Irv Gotti to Big. Nas actually coins the term “stan,” as in obsessive fan, in this verse, a reference to the song by Eminem—who he says “murdered” Jay in their collaboration on The Blueprint, a ridiculous claim that has nevertheless been internalized by generations of rap fans.

In a final act of pettiness, Nas dropped “Ether,” along with the album’s actual second single, “Got Ur Self A…,” on December 4, Jay’s 32nd birthday. The reaction was immediate and it was totalizing. Within the week, Jay had issued a response with “Supa Ugly,” which desperately explicates his relationship with the mother of Nas’ child, and for which Jay’s own mother forced him to apologize. But there was no coming back; “Ether” was the knockout blow. Despite the gossip value of “Supa Ugly,” when Hot 97 pitted the two tracks against one another in a listener poll, Nas trounced Jay. The latter knew it. “Jay’s on the phone with me, convincing me that this has to happen in life: We have to go through ups and downs,” a Roc-A-Fella A&R would later recall Jay saying to him on the phone. “We have take losses in order to get greater wins.”  

Like “stan,” “ether” entered the lexicon as slang for the highest form of evisceration. And yet, despite the stickiness of Eminem’s supposed “Renegade” win and the sense of Nas’ 1997-2001 as a period spent in the wilderness, the victory was not really about historical recordkeeping. It was a triumph of timing, craft, and tone. If anything, the beef underlined how Jay and Nas had always reflected one another and moved uneasily into the other’s professional territory—Nas the wunderkind, whose attempts to cross over were seen as phony, and Jay, the commercial behemoth who felt that he’d mortgaged his credibility to get there. 

The knottiest verses on Stillmatic—its introduction, “2nd Childhood,” even “Ether”—recall the cobweb raps of Illmatic and It Was Written. This added density almost always comes in the form of flooding detail; the songs become technical showcases. The sparer tracks are indebted in part to Pac, whose freewheeling improvisation Nas seemed to channel in bursts on I Am… and would continue to tinker with for years. But where the negative space in Pac verses suggested a first-take looseness, it has the opposite effect on Nas—the forced economy makes his writing seem more structured, more premeditated. This is clear on the Phil Collins-sampling “One Mic,” both when Nas explodes (the “get busy/load up the semis” burst in the second verse) and when he drops into a hush (“Diamonds are blinding/I never make the same mistakes” in the third). On “Smokin,’” the air between words underlines the threats in an otherwise casual delivery, and on “Rewind,” where Nas tells a crime-movie vignette in reverse, the lack of clutter makes each step in the murder plot chillingly inevitable.

There is no uniformity to the production on Stillmatic—it lurches from “Ether”’s artificiality to Premier’s analog warmth, the playful ’80s revivalism on “Destroy & Rebuild” to “One Mic”’s melodrama. When Megahertz flips the Alabama 3’s “Woke Up This Morning” for “Got Ur Self A…,” it has the superficial novelty quality of a mixtape track from the period—that is, unless you remember Jay having rapped, a year earlier, that the theme song to The Sopranos plays in his head on a loop. If there is any unifying force, it’s the overcast sky from the album cover, which seems to hang over almost everything. 

The oddest and most satisfying beat on Stillmatic is Large Professor’s sorrowful Ernest Gold flip on “You’re da Man,” a song that treats Nas’ celebrity as a new circle of hell. He writes about the jealousy he clocked from his earliest brushes with fame, the innumerable men he saw mimic him while praying for his downfall. Despite his early adoption of melodies into his hooks, Nas is seldom given credit as a particularly musical rapper; here his vocal intonations add tremendous depth to the text, as when he quips, “Look at me now: ten years deep,” a  straightforward boast that warps into a lament. In the second verse of the song’s original version, Nas literalizes his angst in a scene that recalls centuries of literature about devilish secret societies:  

At church, on my hand was a preacher’s blood
I swallowed 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 nine to my brain

That scene’s exclusion from the retail release made the demo a totem for collectors; more than that, it burnished the legend of Nas as someone too volatile for the record industry’s tastes. But most interestingly, it reveals how brutalized he had come to feel by that industry, by forces beyond his control or understanding. As emotionally raw as the song is, the details and events appear at a distance, as if Nas is insulating himself. The direct contrast is with “Destroy & Rebuild,” where Nas airs grievances with former friends and collaborators from Queens. The fracturing of these relationships would presumably be painful, and while hurt feelings seem to animate that song, there is also an apparent glee, perhaps at the opportunity to tackle solvable problems—to clean up, as he puts it, “my own backyard.”  

Nas follows “Destroy & Rebuild” with “The Flyest,” a charmingly overproduced AZ duet that functions as a victory lap but is, frustratingly, betrayed by the filler that comes next. Stillmatic’s original pressing included “Braveheart Party,” a song so clumsy and cloying that it makes “Oochie Wally” sound like “Verbal Intercourse.” It was removed, at Mary J. Blige’s request, from subsequent CD and vinyl batches and does not appear on digital streaming platforms. (Blige cited “personal reasons” in her plea to Columbia.) Unlike most post-facto edits, which usually—especially after the advent of DSPs—bring with them a vaguely authoritarian air, this one had an uncomplicatedly positive effect on the album. 

The blemish that remains is “Rule,” the Trackmasters’ reinterpretation of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” that Nas and Columbia released less than 30 days after September 11. It’s not a totally pollyannaish song—Nas raps about the alienation he feels as a Black American, about African mineral rights, about military spending—but the schmaltz is unavoidable. (When he raps, unconvincingly, that “we must stop the killing,” it’s unclear who and which.) Yet something curious is tacked onto its end. After the beat has stopped, Nas delivers a short monologue over a 19th-century military reveille that undercuts what came before it: 

“Men, women, and children killed by the police… niggas ain’t gon’ forget that, man. You know what I mean? So what this war show me is, like, whatever you want out of life, whatever you feel is rightfully yours—go out and take it, even if that means blood and death. That’s what I was raised up on, that’s what this country’s about. This is what my country is. And my country’s a motherfucker.”

The following “My Country” casts Nas and Millennium Thug as a Rikers Island convict and an American soldier in a desert, respectively, who send letters to one another about their experiences. The latter’s imagistic writing (“You could see the sea and the stars look closer to me”; “Every time I hear the wind I think a slug went in”) is contrasted with Nas, who turns inward—to memories of his father holding him above his head as a toddler, cursing the place they both live. The rappers’ voices only overlap once, when they refer to their respective situations as billion-dollar businesses. 

Rather than pursue a strictly structural critique or retreat to safer ground, Nas ends this post-9/11 coda, and Stillmatic as a whole, by extending the argument from “My Country” into something more elemental, even spiritual. “What Goes Around” is about poison: ecstasy and cocaine, prescription drugs and vaccines, white Jesus and Coca-Cola, the Queens public schools Nas attended as a child. It’s a song where, when someone dies, Nas invites you to imagine trudging to a florist and filling out a condolence card—but also to see the rain that accompanies death, to feel the metaphysical fracturing that can’t be explained or legislated away. “What is destined shall be,” he raps to end the album proper. “George Bush killer till George Bush kills me.” 

Stillmatic shirks the expectations placed on Nas as a teenager and the baggage he carried with him into his 30s. But there’s little joy in this, and the catharsis is only intermittent. So he turns to score-settling, clawing back what was taken from not only him, but the smiling women across the hall, the revolutionaries he cites at the end of “My Country” who were killed by the state, the friends who went away and never came back. By its end, he’s no less burdened—but his burdens are finally his own.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

Hey, I'm Perera! I will try to give you technology reviews(mobile,gadgets,smart watch & other technology things), Automobiles, News and entertainment for built up your knowledge.
Nas - Stillmatic Music Album Reviews Nas - Stillmatic Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on February 05, 2023 Rating: 5


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