It figured to be an anointment. Last week’s Hot 97 Summer Jam was Nasir Jones’s forum. The previous year, he’d been skewered by Jay-Z; this time, he was headlining, a symbolic acknowledgment that in the battle of titans that engulfed hip-hop last winter, the illmatic seer had come out on top. His battle stripes, at long last, were earned.
But the anointment wasn’t to be. Nas apparently wanted to perform his incendiary “Ether” while hanging Jay-Z in effigy. Hot 97 officials, perhaps pressured by Jay’s camp (“Who do you think was the one that stopped him from going onstage?” bragged Roc-a-Fella CEO Damon Dash), demurred. “We told Nas he could say anything on mic, but no videos or props,” Hot 97 program director Tracy Cloherty told the Daily News. “Then, two hours before the show, they brought a 12-foot gallows on the stage. We have a lot of love for Nas, but there wasn’t going to be a lynching.”
Hours later, Nas sought therapy on the airwaves of Power 105, the Clear Channel-owned urban-come-lately in New York’s radio wars: “I been bamboozled, hoodwinked, and the whole nine.” In his 15-minute diatribe, Nas portrayed himself as a lone warrior for hip-hop good, lambasting pay-for-play and its rapper slaves, dubbing Def Jam an “evil empire,” and recommending that most artists in rotation—Noreaga, Cam’ron, Nelly—go back to scribbling in their rhyme notebooks. The next day, on shock jock Wendy Williams’s WBLS show, Nas suggested that anyone who spotted Hot 97 hitmaker Funkmaster Flex wandering about should relieve him of his platinum-and-diamond chain.
Once was a time when Nas could call the streets to arms, but ever since he fandangoed with Lauryn Hill on a car roof sliding through Times Square, Nas has let his legend eclipse him. Believing the hype led him to crucify himself (and Puff too!) in 1999’s “Hate Me Now” video and re-enact the murders of Pac and Biggie, with himself on the receiving end of the bullets, in last year’s “Got Ur Self a . . . ” In that song, from Nas’s 2001 Stillmatic, the persecuted one taunts, “You Judas thought I was gone, so in light of my death/Y’all been all happy-go-lucky/Bunch of Sambos/Call me God’s son . . . I don’t die slow.” On “Destroy & Rebuild,” also from Stillmatic, Nas gets undead in a 90-second harangue calling out damn near every Queensbridge MC who’d ever had his back—namely Nature, for needing someone to hold his hand, and Cormega, ironically, for not being gangster enough. It had been less than a year since Nas shared wax with his former Firm-mates (on the QB Finest compilation released on his Columbia imprint, Ill Will), but in that time, Nas became rap’s whipping boy and, in turn, its weakling-turned-bully.
But while Nas fired missives, his targets laughed and brushed them aside. Ever since Nas cut Cormega, and then Nature, loose from the Firm (the “supergroup” of Nas, Foxy Brown, and AZ), he’s been the fulcrum on which credibility teeters and partnerships split. And since he’s been back on top, the dirty laundry has been flying. On “A Slick Response,” Cormega intimates that Nas “moved from Queens ’cause he was getting extorted.” Adopting a mock Slick Rick accent, Cormega sounds almost bored with the easy parry. That track, rapped over Biggie’s “Juicy,” didn’t make his strong new album, The True Meaning (Legal Hustle), but “Love in Love Out” did, and it’s an even better jab: somber, detailed, sharp.
Nature, like Cormega, is an efficient, clinical MC—the everyhood model for Queensbridge thugs, it seems. His new Wild Gremlinz (Casino/Sequence) featured a pair of Nas swipes—”Look Who’s Talking” and “Nas Is Not”—that didn’t make the final album (although countless trite songs about chickenheads and street drama did). “Here’s the truth about Nas/In the window so long, chipped his tooth on the bars,” he quips on “Nas Is Not.” Worst of all is his grim observation, delivered in a deadpan baritone that carries the promise of impending violence: “Everybody call you out ’cause you running alone.”
It’s mostly true. Nas doesn’t have a Roc-a-Fella or Ruff Ryders behind him, no strategic alliances in this game of survivor (although it was rumored last week that Irv Gotti was seeking to sign him up with Murder Inc., home to Ja Rule and Ashanti). It’s the curse of the outcast visionary. His own evil empire, Columbia, isn’t even that evil in rap terms. The one set he could theoretically claim, Queensbridge, is a hip-hop Kashmir. “Only come through [the hood] for video shoots,” Nature taunts. The only rappers still on Nas’s team aren’t even from the Bridge. Southside Queens’ 50 Cent, recently signed to Eminem’s Shady imprint, is no stranger to tussles, having earned the ire of most rappers with his 1999 mix-show breakthrough, “How to Rob,” a semi-parodic cataloging of clever ways to separate artists from their bling. Nas must be grateful to have him in his corner; 50 Cent pops up twice on Guess Who’s Back? (Full Clip), his recent indie release, once alongside Nature, presumably exhumed from the archives, and once with his Braveheart crew (which includes his brother Jungle and his “bodyguard” Horse) on a track where 50 instills his QB brethren with firebrand cred.
But there’s nothing like the comfort of old friends. Brooklyn rapper AZ first appeared with Nas on Illmatic‘s “Life’s a Bitch,” a weedhead homily nonpareil, and reappeared four albums later swapping line for line on Stillmatic, adding a touch of humility to Nas’s bombast. They repeat the trick on “The Essence,” from AZ’s Aziatic (Motown). Over a Mary Jane Girls sample, the pair get wistful over libertine celebrities, flash outfits, a Deniece Williams concert, and Allah. No bad shit on their minds. Can it be that it was all so simple then?