Diamonds and Coal


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Since Nas released his debut album Illmatic in 1994, he’s been a legend with a lot to live up to.  Illmatic was widely hailed as a great album when it was released, and it’s still frequently named as one of the best hip-hop albums of all time.  The quality of its nuanced lyrics, which depict Nas’s life in the housing projects in Queens, and its top-notch production, courtesy of several notable producers, set the bar for all subsequent hip-hop albums. They also set the bar especially high for Nas himself. 

For the past 15 years, Nas has been working hard to reach the zenith he reached on Illmatic — with varying results.  However, he has continued to be a relevant and intriguing figure in hip-hop, making him an excellent choice for a dynamic and thought-provoking Spring Weekend performer.

Born Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones, Nas dropped out of school in eighth grade but continued his education by studying religious texts and exploring the underground hip-hop scene.  He slowly but surely gained notoriety as a promising young rapper and was signed to Columbia Records for his first album.  Being on Columbia helped him get his music out to a wider audience, but the label was both a blessing and a curse.  Columbia pushed him to rap about topics that were more crossover-friendly than growing up in Queensbridge, and the result was a succession of albums that found Nas exploring more “commercial” topics like politics and making money.  His popularity stayed high, but his critical reception slightly soured.  In 2001 he called his fifth album Stillmatic, a name that proved prophetic — this album helped him regain some of that critical favor.

Since Stillmatic, he has been making successful albums and stirring up a whole bunch of controversy.  In 2006, Nas came out with Hip Hop is Dead and on the title track lamented that “everybody sound the same, commercialize the game,” a possibly problematic perspective considering the deliberate moves he made to become commercialized in the early stages of his career.  Any way you slice it, it’s evident that Nas isn’t afraid to say what he thinks, even when he’s taking a complicated position.  In 2007, Nas entered into a heated feud that was nearly as testy as his now-buried beef with Jay-Z — he took on Bill O’Reilly.  O’Reilly was furious that Nas would be performing at Virginia Tech in the wake of the shootings there, mainly because of the violence in Nas’s lyrics and Nas’s gun conviction.  Naturally, Nas found this ridiculous and made that clear during his Virginia Tech performance.

One of the greater controversies of Nas’s career was the name of his new album — the n-word.  Both right-wing and left-wing talking heads vehemently criticized his proposed title, especially Al Sharpton.  Citing concerns that major retailers wouldn’t stock his album, Nas eventually caved and left his album untitled.  However, the cover image still depicted Nas’s back with an “N” scarred onto it from whip marks.  Once again, this was another complicated decision from a complicated performer.  What does removing the title accomplish, exactly?  Was Nas really compromising his ideologies for the sake of Wal-Mart sales, or had he effectively named the album for good when he announced its title in the first place?  There’s no easy way to answer these questions, just like there’s no easy way to define the trajectory of Nas’s career.

It is easy, however, to see why Nas’s most recent album is so riveting.  On “Sly Fox,” he takes on Fox News with the language of sci-fi paranoia, claiming that “Fox keeps feeding us toxins” and referencing Branch Davidians and the Matrix.  “Black President” is a hopeful but wary look at the potential in Obama’s presidency that finds Nas asking “When he wins will he really care still?”  Even his songs about fried chicken and cockroaches are about so much more than they appear to be on the surface — they’re actually nuanced critiques and discussions of the state of Black America.  When you go to see Nas this weekend, listen closely and try to make sense of Nas’s endlessly clever language and heady, meaningful commentary.  That way, you’re guaranteed to get more than your money’s worth.