It Ain’t Hard to Tell

Published on June 28th, 2011

Alex looks at the irrational things fans expect from Nas, and our favourite artists in general.

Oh, Nas. You’re kind of the worst, but you are only the worst because you consistently remind us that you’re one of the best.

As any person who is trying to sell records on a major label does, Nas puts out a single a couple of months in advance of every new album in order to drum up interest in said album. Nas’ first singles for these albums, particularly post-Stillmatic, tend to be pretty great and get listeners riled up in a “Nas is back!” kind of way, like his new album will be the entry into his discography that will finally be able to stand up next to his classic debut, Illmatic. Finally, this will be the new Nas album that reminds us of April 1994, of hearing beats by DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, L.E.S. and Large Professor, of being unsure that we have ever heard flows this impressive. This feeling, of course, will never happen but the following chain of events will, of course, continue to happen regardless.

  1. Nas announces new album, says DJ Premier will totally produce, like, 8 tracks
  2. 2 years pass
  3. Nas reminds everybody that this new album will still have, like, 4 DJ Premier tracks
  4. DJ Premier does an interview saying that he and Nas have been in the studio recently, and that Nas is “taking his flow back to ’94”
  5. I get excited by this news, proceed to listen to Nas is Like twenty-four consecutive times
  6. Nas releases first single, which has a hard drum loop and a minimalist hook; said single is fucking BANANAS in a way that we haven’t heard Nas rap since… his last album’s first single
  7. Nas’ new album comes out with 3-4 really good tracks, a few okay songs and, like, 0 DJ Premier beats

I’m sure you have guessed by now that Nas recently released the first single from his new album, an album currently, but not permanently, titled Life is Good. The single in question is called Nasty, itself a reference back to Nas’ younger days as a consistently-stunning rapper, and the song is fucking BANANAS. The hook-free track is produced by frequent Nas collaborator Salaam Remi, and Nas absolutely demolishes the beat, perhaps even better than he did on previous first singles like Thief’s Theme or Made You Look or Hip-Hop is Dead (but not better than Nas is Like), promising singles from albums that turned out to be mostly less than stellar. As would be expected, Nas fans like myself are once again completely ignoring history and getting uncomfortably excited even though we’re trusting extremely untrustworthy information. I’ll believe in a new Nas & Primo track when I read it in some liner notes, just like I’ll believe a consistent Nas album when I hear it with my own ears… but I swear, this one is going to be that album. DJ Premier tracks! Consistent song topics! Nas flowing like he did when he was 19! We are all believers, until we aren’t. Here is what is going to happen over the next couple of months, or years, depending on how many times Nas’ album is delayed.

  1. Nas’ second single will come out, Nas fans will kind of like it despite it only being okay, but they’re still being blinded by the promise of Nas “bringing that ’94 shit back!”
  2. Nas’ album comes out to reviews that say it’s kind of good, but mostly mediocre
  3. Nas fans get really, really angry

Nas fans get pissed off for the same reason sports writers have been irrationally angry at LeBron James for the past year, or why Weezer fans hate Rivers Cuomo: Nas doesn’t do things the way we want him to. What Nas did in 1994 is almost unparalleled; if you are in a discussion with a group of hip-hop fans and bring up the topic ‘Best Hip-Hop Album Ever,’ the conversation will always touch on Illmatic at some point. Always. There might be an argument as to whether or not it truly is the best, but there will never be a time in the next fifty years when that exact conversation completely ignores Illmatic. And what Illmatic represents to its fans is not only debatably the best era of hip-hop, but what long-time hip-hop fans like about the genre itself*. Illmatic has little in the way of sung hooks or synthesizer beats; Nas just raps over looping samples about his own life. And he kills it.

*1994 & 1996 are probably the best hip-hop years of all time, during which an incredible number of classics were released. Hip-hop was just old enough to be out of its Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five infancy, its Run-DMC, Big Daddy Kane teenage years, and into the prime of its life. Like real life, those childhood and teen years are often romanticized, but it isn’t until its adulthood that hip-hop gets truly comfortable with itself. While the late 80s and early 90s hold some of my favourite albums, 1994 and 1996 are untouchable, and Illmatic represents everything that was good about hip-hop to that point.

Since Illmatic, we have seen a number of Nas albums come and go, but with no real successor to Illmatic. Revisionist historians argue that Nas’ follow-up record, It Was Written, is just as good or better than Illmatic, but that argument barely matters simply because this was clearly not the consensus when it was released in 1996. Every Nas album post-Illmatic has been compared to Illmatic, and that is the way things will be until Nas stops putting out records. And because DJ Premier was on Illmatic, we will get excited when we hear that Primo will be on Nas’ new album. We’ll get excited if we hear the same thing about Pete Rock doing a track, or AZ doing a guest verse, or if the intro samples Wild Style. Perhaps that’s all that was missing, we think. Maybe the only flaws in those previous albums were just something that minute, we hope. We’re just a minor change away from locking everything in place and fulfilling the promise Illmatic made, or perhaps the promise we make ourselves every time we get excited about this album, whatever album that happens to be. But what we want is truly impossible. We want an album that can be in the discussion for best album ever released in a certain genre, and Nas already has his entry into that discussion. We can’t get back to 1994, so we should stop expecting Nas to.

For a subversive crowd, hip-hop fans are a reactionary, conservative bunch. We all want what we heard before, but newer. I want to hear another album that sounds like Illmatic, just like I want to hear an album that makes me feel like I’m listening to a classic mid-90s RZA beat for the first time, or another sixteen bars like Jay-Z’s second verse on D’Evils. But those things can’t happen with our older hip-hoppers anymore; those artists can’t go back to the situations that produced these classic works, just like we can’t go back to a time when we didn’t compare everything they do to these classics. Nas might surprise us with a truly great new album, but if he does, it won’t be because he wanted to make his fans happy. It will be because that was what Nas wanted to make, and he wanted to make it again in 2011. We want our favourite rappers and celebrities to be what we want them to be, but these people are at their best when they’re being themselves. And Nas might do that better than anybody else, just not necessarily in a way that makes us happy.

 

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