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Kings of New York

Jay-Z, unthugged
photo: Jonathan Mannion

By all rights they should not be so confident. Not now. Just one week after the tragic events of September 11, in this city where uncertainty has been the daily manna of a shaken citizenry. But in the skyscraper home of Roc-A-Fella records, cocky assuredness still holds prime position on the menu. And there's little wrong with a friendly wager on a number of import to all within the carpeted office of Roc-A-Fella honcho Damon Dash.

"So what you think, how many?" the query rings out.

Lean, steel-haired Lyor Cohen—head of Def Jam/Island, Roc's corporate parent—offers a number. So does Biggs, the low-key member of the Roc-A-Fella triumvirate. Then Dash. And finally, from a comfortably slouched position in Dash's leather swivel chair, a grinning, remarkably relaxed Jay-Z adds his two cents. Their numbers fall within a similar range, somewhere between 400 and 500 thousand. Most might label that hopelessly optimistic. Surely not this week. Not those numbers.

But the span of 24 hours will prove this confident foursome prescient and the rest of us disgustingly faithless. After all, Jay-Z's done everything possible over six summers to certify his chokehold on hip-hop, if not pop music at large. Why shouldn't we believe he could drop an album, The Blueprint, on the very day America found itself rocked back on its heels, and then proceed to sell some 465,000 copies over the course of a week dominated by national fear, anger, and growls of war? And in the wake of such a performance, who could doubt or challenge his hold on the elusive hip-hop throne? Well, at least one person, as it turns out—Nasir Jones, formerly known as Nasty Nas, then Nas, then Escobar, and now, thankfully, Nas once again.


The roots of the tussle are murky, obscured somewhere between urban lore and rapper ego—darts thrown on record and mix tapes by surrogates, accusations of jealousy and envy, the never absent baby-mama drama, mutual perception of fake thug posturing, although who in hip-hop isn't guilty of that one, and the natural competitiveness endemic to any who would rock the mic for dolo. On paper the matchup seemed uneven. To one side rested Nas, onetime lyrical prodigy, revered for his classic 1994 debut, Illmatic, and excoriated for almost every effort since by fans waiting for a worthy follow-up. On the other stood Jay-Z, owner of the most impressive résumé in recent hip-hop history, a paragon of consistency and success since his own classic debut, 1995's Reasonable Doubt, through four subsequently sterling albums. Add to that the aforementioned Blueprint, perhaps his strongest work since Reasonable Doubt. Looked like no contest.

Jay-Z brought things roaring into the open at Hot 97's annual Summer Jam concert, where, after eviscerating Prodigy of Mobb Deep, he tossed off a scornful warning—"Y'all don't want it with Hov/Ask Nas, he don't want it with Hov!" Invitations to wrestle seldom come clearer. Little surprise Nas came a-knocking, tossing back a little number called "Stillmatic," one multi-bar verse over Rakim's "Paid in Full" rhythm that contained a few choice lines for Mr. Shawn Carter—"H to the Izzo, M to the Izzo?/For shizzle you phony, the rapping version of Sisqó."

In truth, most of "Stillmatic" served to herald the return of Nas the eagle-eyed street poet commenting pointedly on the everyday, only devoting a few bars at the end for Roc-A-Fella. Nevertheless, Nas's strong return of Jay-Z's Summer Jam lob left him open for the backhand down the line, which Jay-Z thumped with an eager flourish on "Takeover," one of the best battle records in recent memory. Whether by strategic design or fortuitous circumstance, "Takeover" not only skewered Nas, it emphatically slammed the door on street mutterings and the slew of impatient young rappers bucking to cart King Carter off to the Black Tower. The song's combination of a creeping, bass-heavy, teeth-clenching interpolation of the Doors' "Five to One," courtesy of producer Kanye West, with Jay-Z's battle hymns—alternately condescending and coldly menacing—provided the perfect gutter compliment to "IZZO," the more commercial initial salvo from Blueprint. In actuality, only one of the four "Takeover" verses addressed Nas, the others being directed at Prodigy. But that verse spoke a searing truth, crystallizing all the frustration and fury the fickle hip-hop faithful have felt about Nas since the glory days of Illmatic. Jay-Z lanced every boil, from Nas's unfathomable slip from hip-hop's apex—"Went from top 10 to not mentioned at all"—to the maddening inability of his subsequent records to come near Illmatic's genius: "Four albums in 10 years, nigga?/I can divide/That's one every, let's say two, two of them shits was doo/ One was, hummmnn, the other was Illmatic/ That's a one hot album every 10 year average."

Fortuitous indeed—few albums have been set up better. Regarded as one of the year's best hip-hop releases, Blueprint achieved a striking cohesion, unfolding in organic fashion, allowing each nuance its proper stage: that commanding vocal flow and delivery, matched by few in hip-hop; the narrative breadth that can bounce between the obligatory party and club anthems, street talk, and surprisingly introspective musings; and neck-snapping beats. All Jay-Z albums have had those elements. But on Blueprint they work in better tandem, none rudely shouldering another out of the way. A focused harmony achieved by eschewing a parade of guest stars—save for Eminem's commanding if unsurprising performance on "Renegade"—and by using producers, particularly Just Blaze and the aforementioned Kanye West, to construct a warm, soulful sonic bed, replete with a host of lush background vocals and melodic progressions, that makes the album glide like a single thought.

 

Blueprint offers the full range of Jay-Z. Lighthearted fare like the distaff anthem "Girls, Girls, Girls" and the enthusiastic, boastful "Hola Hovito" might seem trite pouring from the mouth of another. But Jay-Z retains the remarkable ability to dance along cliché's edge without being cut, and on Blueprint he's a veritable Sammy Davis Jr. So a notion as old as rap itself—how many girls I got—gets a welcome fresh spin. And on "Hola Hovito," an even more well-worn rap concept—how fly I am—gets a shot in the arm from Jay's ever inventive flow: "If you haven't heard, I'm Michael, Magic, and Bird/All rolled in one/ 'Cause none got more flows than Young/Plus got more flows to come/And if I ain't better than Big, I'm the closest one."

For those who prefer their hip-hop with a tad more gutter edge, Jay obliges, delivering compositions like "Takeover" and the defiant "You Don't Know," where, in case it had slipped the mind, Jay drops pointed reminders of his business acumen and street-dealing past. But it's his personal and introspective musings on tunes like the autobiographical "Blueprint (Momma Loves Me)" and the love lament "Song Cry" that bring real poignancy to Blueprint. In the midst of the champagne wishes and caviar dreams, it's easy to overlook Jay's skills as a songwriter, and he's penned few better than "Song Cry," a moving, honest letter from a hustler to his long-standing, long-faithful girl who, finally, has had enough. Hustler or no, it's a sentiment with which any man who has taken the woman by his side for granted, and paid a price, can relate: "I know the way a nigga livin' was wack/But you don't get a nigga back like that/Shit, I'm a man with pride, you don't do shit like that/You don't just pick up and leave and leave me sick like that/You don't throw away what we had, just like that . . . "

An even more moving version of that tune resides on MTV Unplugged, the album version of Jay's recent live performance on MTV's Unplugged. "I got lost for a minute there," a sheepish Jay admits near the end of the song after falling silent for a spell, mesmerized by the soulful, aching riffs of Jaguar, the female vocalist providing backup. Most of the record, released on December 18, provides similarly powerful stuff. With the Roots serving as backing band—a pairing that may have once seemed strange—the album delivers rousing renditions of material from Blueprint and past albums, all of it cleverly arranged. Hip-hop with live instrumentation has seldom sounded this good.

And what of Nas? His prospects looked shaky, for history did not stand by his side. He had to deal with three albums judged inferior to Illmatic—It Was Written and I Am, both inspired in spots, the former more so than the latter, and the even more pedestrian Nastradamus, his last full-length—as well as the rampaging juggernaut of Jay-Z's success and public worship.

"That might be it for Nas," folk muttered just weeks ago. "No way he can answer that Jay-Z joint; all he can do now is put out a good album." Well, to the consternation of some and the delight of others, Nasir Jones has done both.

The quick verdict: Stillmatic is exceptional. Some may wonder if that assessment is an exercise in yearning, a desire to reward hip-hop's once favorite son for time lost now that he's again produced strong material. The answer is a resounding no. Even if Nas the lyricist hadn't gone missing for much of a decade, cloaked in the awkward-fitting exoskeletons of cocaine lords and street playas, Stillmatic would still be a remarkable achievement. Ten years ago, Nas coined himself on the Main Source classic "Live at the Barbecue"—Streets' Disciple. That persona returns in full force on Stillmatic, painting over the yawning hole long sitting in the ozone layer of a hip-hop world largely devoid of meaningful observation.

Take the DJ Premier-assisted composition "2nd Childhood." Over Premier's meld of melodic texture, subtly complex drum programming, and signature scratching, Nas weaves a narrative of dashed dreams and unfulfilled adulthood with the kind of languid cadence and beautifully sweeping poetry that once made folk anoint him the Second Coming: "Junior high school dropout/teachers never cared/They was paid to just to show up and leave, no one succeeds/So he moves with his peers/Different blocks, different years, sitting on/Different ventures like it's musical chairs/All his peoples moved on in life/He on the corner at night/With young dudes it's them he wanna be like/It's sad but it's fun to him right/He never grew up/Thirty-one and can't give his youth up/He's in his second childhood."

 

Or consider the return of Large Professor-like Primo, a key Illmatic collaborator, who serves up the bass-heavy, effect-laden sonic bed for "Rewind," a song on which Nas takes one commanding verse to paint the picture of a murder plot—backwards. Call it a Memento for the hip-hop set. Producer L.E.S and AZ complete old home week on "The Flyest," a superslick number. AZ hasn't sounded this good in years, particularly by the third verse where he and Nas trade lines like the hungry, young MCs they were on Illmatic's "Life's a Bitch."

But Stillmatic isn't merely a reunion or rehash of Illmatic themes. The Nas on this record has grown, with the emotional expansion such maturation suggests. For one, he has never before drawn upon his anger, with a burning focus and controlled intensity that underscores nearly every song. Some of it can surely be ascribed to the Jay-Z battle, but more seems due to the deeper, internal struggle Nas has waged against the fallout from his early, precocious success. Without that history, it's hard to imagine him making a record like "One Mic," an almost seductive number whose verses climb from whispering, measured tones to furious verbal assaults where Nas, shockingly, comes as close as he ever has to screaming, then abruptly drops back down for the whispered chorus. The song bleeds strains of Tupac, but the dynamic variance in the vocal and structural arrangement is all Nas.

Stillmatic does have two giant missteps that trod all over it like dirty Yeti feet. First, the party cut "Braveheart Party." As if forgetting the lessons relearned, Nas enlists producer Swizz Beats, his Braveheart crew Jungle and Horse, and Mary J. Blige for a song that sits among its siblings like a cockeyed stepchild looking to stab the first-born. And the sentimental "Rule" provides a lesson in the way obvious. Nas's humanistic rhymes capably explore the national and world stage post-September 11, but they're left utterly flat by the track's overtly pop leanings, courtesy of a sample from Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World."

Thankfully, the greater part of Stillmatic avoids the above mistakes, drawing real strength as Nas fires off on varied targets. He pulls a Kaiser Sose move—if I would do this to those close to me imagine what I'd do to you—with the hilarious but dead serious "Destroy and Rebuild." Masterfully employing Slick Rick's accent-inflected vocal technique from "Children's Story," he rips into former Queensbridge fam Cormega, Nature, and surprisingly, Prodigy of Mobb Deep. The cynical "My Country" scoffs at the war on terror, given the continued systemic terror crawling in inner-city streets. And "What Goes Around" whips out a laundry list of societal ills—"It's poison/Ecstasy, coke, you say it's love, it is poison/ Schools where I learned they should be burned it is poison/Physicians prescripting us medicine which is poison"—for summary execution. But Nas lobs his heaviest bombs Jay-Z's way on the venomous "Ether," the comeback to "Takeover." The song takes a moment to pick up, but by the third verse Nas enthusiastically slices into Jay with lines both patronizing—"What's sad is you're my brother/You've traded your soul to riches"—and personally insulting—"How much of Biggie's rhymes is gon come out your fat lips?"

Didn't take a genius to realize that Jay-Z would strike back.


Hip-hop New York lurched to a stop on Wednesday, December 12, 2001. Early that afternoon Hot 97 received an exclusive freestyle from Jay-Z, a response to Nas's "Ether." They played that song, "Super Ugly," all day, along with the Nas tune. The excitement is understandable. Even hip-hop's infamous appetite for battle has never yielded such a heavyweight confrontation, a reckoning between men who need not worry about their place in Valhalla when the Valkyries ride down to cart them off. For older heads, this is what it might have been like back in the late '80s had the ultimate battle transpired—the street prophet Rakim versus Big Daddy Kane, the smooth Brooklyn cat.

But Hot 97 managed just fine with the spiritual progeny of those legendary rappers. And after many hours, thousands of phone calls, faxes, and e-mails, and some hilarious shucking and jiving by some of the politically minded radio personnel, the verdict rolled in. "Super Ugly," admittedly a freestyle done for mix tape not a studio record, lost traction, largely because of a third verse in which Jay went into explicit detail about his dalliance with Nas's baby mama. Although Jay-Z popped on the station the next day to apologize to women for the verse and defend it as a response to Nas's own perceived transgressions on "Ether," i.e., directing homosexual references Jay's way, "Super Ugly" still rang as a strategic error.

 

Still, trampled feelings aside, the dustup has been good in more ways than one. Nas's strong showing endeared him, once again, to the hip-hop audience and helped propel Stillmatic to the top of the Billboard R&B/Hip-hop charts in its first week of release. Jay didn't fare badly either. His Unplugged album hit stores alongside Stillmatic and landed at No. 8 on that same chart. The bruising competition served him well, too. Life at the top breeds complacency. Nothing like a struggle to sharpen one's game.

But the hip-hop faithful won most of all. With still sharp memories of Tupac and Biggie dancing in mental corners, most watched the play-by-play with a tinge of trepidation beneath the intrigue. And despite Hot 97's late-in-the-day, ratings-driven, WWF theatrics, things settled down with little more than bruised egos, rueful admissions, and testaments to keep things on wax. Ultimately, both Nas and Jay-Z have too much at stake for foolishness, and together they crafted a piece of hip-hop myth that will live for years yet.


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