"Two of them shits was doo/One was . . . hummmm, the other Illmatic/Thatís a one-hot-album-every-10-year average." And with that pithy dissection on "The Takeover," Jay-Z voiced what every Nas fan has felt since the Queensbridge MC began his slow decline from hip-hop golden child to chat-room whipping post. Hailed as the best rapper to grab a microphone since Rakim ruled the roost, Nas has been in artistic free fall since his 1994 debut, Illmatic, flailing with poorly calculated collaborations and three increasingly disappointing solo discs: 1996ís it was written, 1999ís I Am . . . , and the laughably named Nastradamus (all Columbia), also from í99.
Somewhere deep inside, Nas must agree, for Jay-Zís attack ignited a creative flame thatís been absent from Nasís work since the mid í90s. The result is Stillmatic (Columbia), his fifth album and his best since his precocious debut. A friend has derided my opinion as wishful thinking, a condescending pat on the back for a down-on-his-luck MC who finally produced a passing grade. But Stillmatic does more than just "not suck." It finds the self-proclaimed Streetsí Disciple returning to the steely hard flow, sweeping poetic observations, and vicious metaphors that defined his rhymes back in 1994.
The pressing question, however, is more gossipy: whereís the beef? Nas comes out swinging at his opponent on Stillmaticís second cut, "Ether." Setting up the track perfectly ó "Brace yourself for the main event/Yíall impatiently waitiní/Itís like an AIDS test, whatís the results?"ó he builds from more general disses (you stole my style, youíre ugly, you dress badly) to a venomous third verse that portrays Jay-Z as an insecure woman hater, a backstabbing Judas, and, of course, a homosexual. By the end of the disc, Nas has ensured that this now-legendary hip-hop battle will continue, igniting new beef with fellow Queensbridge MCs Cormega, Nature, and Prodigy along the way.
And though he plays down the nostalgic elements in the albumís intro, Stillmatic, as its title suggests, harks back to that first album, bringing on several of the same collaborators ó producers Large Professor, L.E.S., and DJ Premier plus Brooklyn rapper AZ ó to rehash their old roles. Itís a blatant tactic for the backpacker vote, but it works. Nas and the long-MIA Large Professor combine for two of the albumís highlights: the reflective "Youíre da Man" and the rapid-fire "Rewind," a "Memento" for the hip-hop set that tells a murder story in reverse. Itís a gimmick, but Nas pulls it off, spitting out the narrative in a pause-free burst that demands repeat listens.
Itís DJ Premier, however, who brings out the eagle-eyed street observer inside. Over a signature Premier backdrop of crackling funk loops and taut scratch jabs, Nas narrates a tale of dashed expectations and ruined hopes thatís painful in its accuracy: "Yo, dude is 31, living in his momís crib/Ex-convict, was paroled there after his long bid. . . . Junior-high-school dropout, teachers never cared/They was paid just to show up and leave, no one succeeds/So he moves with his peers, different blocks, different years/Sittiní on different ventures like itís musical chairs/All his peoples moved on in life, heís on the corners at night/With young dudes itís them he wanna be like/Itís sad but itís fun to him, right?/He never grew up, 31 and canít give his youth up/Heís in his second childhood."
But before the aging b-boys get all weepy, they should note the changes in Nasís persona. Thereís an emotional and political anger thatís new for this cool-as-ice ghetto philosopher. "What Goes Around" and "One Mic" reveal a tender redness and simmering anger below the surface, Nasís cement-dry voice rising to a searing scream and dropping down to a desperate whisper. The steadily stalking, exacting cadence of his past is filled with angular stutters and pauses now; itís as if the years of disses and disappointments had cut gaping chunks into his armor. Also, since Illmatic, Nas has funneled his vague anti-establishment attitude into a more defined political stance. He takes drug users to task and preaches karmic payback on "What Goes Around." And the cynical anti-anthem "My Country" features a bold chorus ó "My country shitted on me/She wants to get rid of me" ó for these rally-íround-the-flag times.
True, an intelligent postĖSeptember 11 call for mutual understanding ("Rule") is weighed down by a corny sample of Tears for Fearsí "Everybody Wants To Rule the World." And the lead single, "Got Ur Self A . . . ," featuring the hook from the Sopranos themesong (A3ís "Woke Up This Morning"), is just plain awkward. But these are minor bumps on a comeback disc thatís got Jay-Z watching his back. Your move, Jigga.
Nas headlines Avalon next Sunday, March 3. Call (617) 423-NEXT.