In American poetics today hiphop still has the intersection of the boulevard and the native tongue on lockdown. What’s made Nas’s use of that tongue so powerful is his intellect and his armor-plated gravitas. Not that he can’t say some silly sheet like all the rest, but his cerebral temperament saturates his vocal tone with the sound of a man who’s thinking even when he’d rather not be. This was once true of his whole generation of New York MCs, but somewhere or another they got lost to the streets or the streets lost interest in them or they couldn’t hang on when hiphop went supadupapop, and other than Jay-Z no one from NY hiphop’s golden age, DOA w/Big, has proved so adept at juggling credibility, careerism, industry bullsheet, and the kind of hiphop where the words are the hooks, the thing that keeps singing on in our head after the music’s stopped. His new double-CD Street’s Disciple ain’t hardly no Nas’s-best-ever. But it might point commercial NY hiphop’s way out of its cul-de-sac.
Hubris has made Street’s Disciple twice as long as necessary. But the half that sticks to your grill is—surprise, surprise—about sex, love and marriage, and fatherhood, his own and his dad’s (as well as his artistic forefather Rakim, who’s treated to an “unauthorized biography” that tracks the 18th letter’s history from Wyandanch, Long Island, to the aborted album with Dre). The half about sticking it to the man will prove less enduring. Not that one shouldn’t be chirpy chipmunk happy to hear any commercially viable MC produce angry, alert, unabashedly political tracks like “Message to the Feds,” “Sincerely We the People,” and “American Way” in these acquiescent, acquisitive times. Only that the absence of such strong sentiments in current Black political life makes the studio version seem flat and manufactured. Even the simulacrum of the real needs a home in the world.
My good buddy Danny Hamilton believes graffiti stopped being interesting when it stopped being about vandalism—the crime feeding the art as the art mocked the crimes of the state. Likewise New York hiphop stopped being interesting when it stopped being about crack—not just dealing, but the world crack made spatially and racially in the ’80s. There are no great Black American novels about the crack epoch yet, only grand hiphop operas—Big’s Ready to Die, Raekwon’s Cuban Linx, Jay’s Streets Is Watching, and the grandest of them all, Nas’s Illmatic. That album made explicit for all time the difference between the MC who thinks in dithyrambic parables and the one who thinks in lucid paragraphs and lurid photographs. Illmatic owns the crack moment as surely as Hendrix owns Vietnam. Nas is truly hiphop’s Scorsese, a gifted storyteller who didn’t so much seek out crime and mortality as those subjects found him, cornered him, said, You, Negro, You, have been chosen by the ancestors to essay this tale like Homer did Ulysses’s. So if Street’s Disciple disappoints on the social relevance tip, maybe the fault is less Nas’s than the city’s—how subdued the mean streets (and gangs) of New York are post Giuliani, post 9/11, and post the gentrification that spawned those AK-flashing Defend Brooklyn T-shirts. We can’t blame Nas if his riffs on the po-po’s and presidential politicos fall flat. When, as in Gil Scott-Heron’s “Winter in America,” nobody’s fighting because nobody knows what to save, even Nas is left gasping for lines.
Leave it to the Black woman to save the day—Kelis, the muse behind Street’s Disciple‘s most indelible cuts. Disc two’s tracks five through nine form an encroaching-domesticity song cycle that trumps anything else in hardcore hiphop on the topic. They also allow Nas to not so subtly intimate that if sex is hiphop’s new crack, he’s got your sex raps right here, buddy. The one they’ll be talking about is “Remember the Times,” set up by a Kelis skit where she offers him a pass to hit it with one woman from his past, which he wisely declines before reminiscing about Brenda the Bender who used to eat his excrement and Fatima who sucked juice out his urethra while Marvin Gaye blew on the speakers. After which holmes turns ghetto Frankenstein for “The Makings of a Perfect Bitch,” the objective being the creation of an obedient and loyal woman who’s a genius, a slut, and a chef, dark nipples on her D-cup breasts that Nas can titty-fuck while she does his taxes. But who knew Nas would one day portray a wedding day as graphically as he once did gunfights. Or that on “No One Else in the Room” he’d come hard-rhyming about stone love over some deep faux house (and come with Maxwell crooning like Marvin at that). The album could’ve ended there, but we would’ve missed “Bridging the Gap” with Papa Olu and “Me and My Destiny” dedicated to his daughter, just to seal the family circle deal.
Nas can’t overcome NY hiphop’s fears of decreasing significance by his lonesome. And with hiphop’s capacity for profound lyrical utterance devolving as Lil Jon gets crunk, Nas’s last-stand mentality could soon render him a figure of nostalgia rather than revolution. But his cocksure display of loving father-husband-and-son emotions answers a long-standing question—namely, what will come out of the cipher when stone love becomes as intoxicating as the grimy, the gully, and the gutter?