It’s been a rumor for months, even before the I Declare War show, but it’s official now: Def Jam has signed Nas, and the greatest rap beef of four years ago has become the greatest rap joint-venture prospect of right now. It’s funny; the Times article makes much of the aesthetic border between personas in the Jay/Nas beef: “…they appeared to represent two versions of hip-hop, with Jay-Z cast as the savvy hustler and Nas as the brooding street poet.” That might be true, but I’m not sure we really felt that way at the time, since the Nas that was fresh in our minds then was the Nas of “Hate Me Now” and “You Owe Me” and (especially) “Oochie Wally,” the guy whose boneheaded pop moves had tarnished his respectability and simultaneously fucked up his sales. If I’m remembering right, they were both hustlers; it’s just that Jay-Z was doing it better. Since then, Nas has cultivated the reticent-poet archetype thing, dropping most of the bigtime trappings over the last three albums and disappearing further into his own head. It’s been a good look; even if his sales haven’t gone up much, he’s got goodwill for days, and his integrity, once in question, is pretty much no longer an issue. And now he’s set to capitalize on all that goodwill, moving to a company run by a guy who knows how to market uncompromisingly classicist New York rap.
At the same time, Jay’s been working to bring his own public image closer to the street-poet thing for years, starting with the album on which he dissed Nas in the first place. The Blueprint might’ve had a Trackmasters beat, but it’s still the moment when Jay decided to give up the late-90s keyboard-beep production style and move toward swelling strings and dusty samples and gentle introspection and “I’d probably be Talib Kweli.” Jay always had a bit of closet backpacker in him; even at his coldest, he was more humane than, say, Big Pun. In retirement, his gentleman-about-town steez has reached new heights of regal sophistication; especially when compared to 50 Cent, he’s a model of cosmopolitan elegance. The Cam’ron dis is telling; even though Cam is probably Jay’s equal as an artist/craftsman/wordsmith, his sneering fight-dirty bluster feels crass next to Jay’s aristocratic grace.
Jay has quietly spent the past year or so making over Def Jam in his own image, signing and retaining guys who sit well with the different crannies of his gentleman-gangsta-aesthete thing. In their own ways, Kanye and Jeezy and the Roots and Ghostface all fit comfortably into Jay’s world. DMX doesn’t, and that’s why Jay quietly let him go last week. Murder Inc. doesn’t, and that’s why Irv Gotti will probably be taking it elsewhere soon. Unless LL Cool J’s new album finds him abandoning the dated oiled-up loverman schtick for a gravelly veteran snarl, he’ll probably be gone soon, and so will Method Man and Redman and maybe Joe Budden and possibly Ludacris, whose five-album contract is coming to an end after his next album drops. Def Jam’s hegemonic late-90s roster is a thing of the past, and so this Nas signing is a major coup in almost every conceivable way. But the real test won’t be whether or not the next Nas album sells. The real test will be whether it’s great.
The album will go platinum easily, especially with the Jay collaboration that everyone expects now; Street’s Disciple did 600,000, and that was before all the Def Jam hype. It doesn’t really need to do more than platinum for it to be remembered as a success. But Nas needs to focus and dig deep and deliver a classic. He’ll need to do away with all the Bravehearts collaborations and dubious concept-songs like “Remember the Times.” He’ll need to make use of the cavalcade of expert soul-rap producers he’ll suddenly have at his disposal. He’s got expectations to fulfill.
Nas announced a while back that his next album would be a full-length collaboration with DJ Premier. That might be a good look; they’ve historically had great chemistry, it would keep the album from sounding piecemeal, and Primo’s boom-bap would place the album as part of a purist NY continuum. But I’ll believe it when I see it, especially with Premier giving interviews about how he’s ready to do this thing anytime Nas is; dude’s never really been one for fulfilling promises. And what was the last great Premier track, anyway? “Doobie Ashtray”? That one from the Cee-Lo album? There must be a good reason he was left off The Black Album. More likely, Nas will use Kanye and Just Blaze and Bink and guys like that, expansive velvety strings-and-horns guys, and he’ll use them to build an East-Coast traditionalist monument. That’s what I’m hoping for, anyway. Fuck. I’m excited.