Stillmatic Proves Nas Still Matters
Adam Poe
6/16/2002 8:22:48 PM

1994's Illmatic, the impossibly good debut of Queens-born rap prodigy, Nasir Jones (a.k.a Nas), raised the expectations for the whole of hip-hop, and began the coronation of Nas as the second coming of Rakim. Heartfelt and unerringly vivid, Illmatic was a critical and commercial pinnacle that Nas would, understandably, fail to reach in any of his subsequent albums.

Dubbing himself "Nas Escobar" and spinning pedestrian gangster fantasy, Nas seemed to be disconnected from his roots. Rather than painting compelling street-level narratives, Nas took a bird's eye (penthouse?) view that rang hollow and insincere. While no amount of over-slick production or contrivance could mask his unparalleled mic control and flow, It was Written (1996), I am (1999), and Nastradamus (1999) all seemed a tragic waste of talent.

Undoubtably sensing this, Nas has unleashed a new standard for critics and peers alike - the not-so-subtly titled, Stillmatic [Columbia Records]. Equally telling, perhaps, is Nas' reunion with Illmatic veterans DJ Premier, AZ and Large Professor. Featuring stripped down production, savage retorts towards nemesis Jay-Z, among other targets, and an earnest humility not heard since his debut - Stillmatic is the awakening that his fans have been praying for.

From the triumphant opening track, Nas spells out the reclamation of his throne ("...I crawled up out of that grave...they thought I'd make another Illmatic, but its always forward I'm moving, never's another classic"); addresses the phonies and non-believers, and hints at a rediscovered sense of community and reparation. One or two misguided tracks aside, each subsequent track stays true to these themes (In particular, the unfortunate Swizz Beats-produced "Brave Heart Party" - which is to be omitted from future printings at the behest of the featured Mary J. Blige).

"Ether" - Nas' response to Jay-Z's "The Takeover" - is the next installment in the well-publicized feud between the two hip-hop luminaries; officially making this rivalry one for the ages. "Ether", at times, betrays genuine hurt at the hands of "Judas"; making his fury all the more focused. To Jay-Z's credit, "The Takeover" has brought out the best in Nas - and placed him squarely in his prodigious lyrical cross-hairs.

Nas saved some of his venom for the first single, "Got Ur Self a Gun" (sampled from the "Sopranos" theme) - alerting phonies and critics of "the return of the Prince", and reclaiming the usurped memories of Tupac and Biggie - "fellow soldiers in the cause". "Destroy & Rebuild" is a searing response to the KRS-One/BDP Queens dis "The Bridge is Over"; simultaneously vindicating his home and his own faltering image. Those feeling especially nostalgic for Illmatic will enjoy the Large Professor produced "Rewind" - an inverted day-in-the life account , and "The Flyest", featuring AZ.

The self-produced "One Mic" is the summation of Nas' spiritual trek away from Queens and back again. Over a seething crescendo, Nas lays bare his priorities, hopes and fears. Replete with gunshots, sirens and breaking glass, Nas acknowledges his absenteeism - and vows his renewed dedication ("This is my hood/represent ʽtil the death of it...I'm on the right track now/I'm finally found/You need some soul searchin', the time is now).

Prodigal son Nas is once again in a "NY State of Mind".


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