Thursday, July 24, 2008

Music Theory: Defending the Title

-As my esteemed colleague so boldly pointed out a few days back, 80% of today's hip hop is in the beats. Everyone is taking their shot at "A Milli", and most of them are upstaging the supposed "best rapper alive" and calling his self-anointed title into question. In reality, the title was never really Wayne's. According to Kanye West (and, more importantly, us), Nas is not only the best alive, but the "best rapper of all time".
-While Kanye himself is famous for bailing on college, Nas dropped out of 8th grade, seemingly heeding Mark Twain's advice to "never let schooling interfere with your education". His independent study of historical and religious texts earned him a spot as the one of the foremost street critics of all time. In the same manner that Jay-Z became the CEO, Nas has become the hip-hop equivalent of a tenured history professor. Untitled is both a lecture on U.S. race relations and a retrospective look at his illustrious career. He quotes James Baldwin, "throws molotovs" for Emmett Till, and continually examines the history of the album's original title, Nigger. The title was eventually changed, but the controversy was discussed by everyone from the corner to Congress. The record is saturated with political and cultural criticism, and even the discussion of Nas' favorite pastime brings out the claim, "I burn so much trees I keep environmentalists angry". According to Nas, "the people will always know what the real title of this album is."
-The first track on Untitled, "Queens Get The Money", is essentially the Anti-"Milli"-- a raw, stripped piano riff over which Nas unleashes some of his best flow since Illmatic. "One Mic" was our generation's introduction to Nas, so we've never doubted his ability to rip up a low-key beat. This simplicity was the basis for East Coast rap, whether in RZA's production of 36 Chambers or DJ Premier's work on Nas' own "NY State of Mind".
-As Untitled progresses, we begin to see more of the radio-ready pop production that has defined the later stage of Nas' career and brought on some harsh criticism. "Make The World Go Round" with Chris Brown and The Game (and production by the latter) is truly the album's guilty pleasure. It's reminiscent of Kanye's "The Good Life", and just as catchy. It's also fuel for the critics' fire.
-Nas made the best rap record of all time when he was 19 years old, and since then he has been hounded for not living up to the high standard set by Illmatic. This has been an unfair demand from the beginning. Nas isn't a teenager anymore, and while Jay-Z is working with Chris Martin and Mobb Deep has been demoted to 50 Cent's entourage, Nas is continually plagued by allegations that he alone "fell off". Realistically, along with Ghostface Killah, he is one of the only original east-coasters to remain relevant. While his approach has changed a bit, the self-taught Street's Disciple is in no danger of losing his title.

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