Hip Hop Culture for Grown-Ups
For the better part of my career as a crusader for rap music, I’ve been a fan of Nasir Jones. There was a time in particular – in the ninth grade – that I was bumping Wu Tang & NaS before either act’s music/influence had even reached California. When cats began mumbling about some dude who rapped about going to hell for killing Jesus, I know the kids name. & I had more of his music. By the time dudes were talking about how tight of an album illmatic was, I had most of the album memorized. I can say with 90% certainty that I’ve never heard a truly wack verse from NaS, but that’s not to say that he’s never made a wack song. Because he has. & this is coming from an admitted & documented fan of his music, since back in the day when some of y’all were still in elementary school.
NaS, regardless of lyrical prowess, seems to have a knack for deflecting certain types of tracks while prominently featuring others. This is a well known fact to anyone following his career. Since the late-90’s, “Nas picks wack beats” has been his unofficial motto – at least to his fans & foes – & I can’t imagine that after all these years he hasn’t heard this “rumor” about himself. Assuming that’s true, & he’s indeed aware of the criticism of his co-production, it’s safe to say that he doesn’t give a damn what people think. & that’s understandable.
Put yourself in Nas’ position, MC-wise. It’s apparent that he has something to say, whereas a lot of rappers just rap about the same 3 topics in a variety of ways. Now, if you have all these messages & ideas & bursts of brilliance, would you want to take the chance of getting “outshined” by the beat? By no means am I defending or condoning such behavior if it’s the case, but I understand. Let’s assume that – at some point – NaS decided to roll with the hottest producers money could buy. How long before the rap listening public would cry “Sellout!” or outrightly shun him for blatantly chasing mainstream success? If he’s trying to drop science & what not, the last thing he needs is an argument over the “hottest” production or debates over his strip club value. Keep in mind; Nas began making a name for himself when “rapping” was more about social responsibility than it was about social status.
& granted, NaS did release a fistful of radio-friendly songs throughout his storied run, but for the most part, NaS picks “wack” beats, & I believe it’s intentional.
In my experience, most rappers that make noticeable music are decent lyricists that purposefully surround themselves with good music. (& before you think “Duh!”, plenty so-called rappers have no idea how to play the game.) Of course there are exceptions to this generalization, but it’s pretty formulaic. Rarely does the superrapper become a mainstream success simply by outrhyming the competition. This staunch reality can easily create a fork in the proverbial road, & a rapper could either become discouraged, or more focused on becoming the best per-bar rapper of all time. Being the pessimistic optimist that I am, I choose to believe that NaS decided – back in the day – that he would end the rap rat race as the best lyricist the game has ever seen. & if that means broadcasting from a modified platform, so be it.
For what’s it’s worth, this is just a theory (& NaS is one of the best to ever do it, in my opinion), but it definitely speaks to a lot of questions that Nas probably won’t ever be asked.