Get Familiar is happy to introduce our newest series The Nas Syndrome, written by Jonathan Tanners.
The Nas Syndrome examines a phenomenon in rap whereby superior rappers choose beats of dubious quality compared to their rapping ability. Some, like the column’s namesake, speak of the challenge of writing to “difficult” or “interesting” beats. Some don’t offer listeners the solace of an explanation. All create disappointing albums and annoy me. I’ll break down the album, pick out the worthwhile tracks, state my beef with the beats, and give a prescription to cure the album of its affliction. Welcome to The Nas Syndrome, try not to catch the bug…
Oh Nas. Nas, Nas, Nas. Your first two albums were so well produced. You’ve regularly worked with some of Hip Hop’s most revered–DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Dr. Dre, Timbaland, Large Professor, L.E.S., Salaam Remi. Yet, without fail since It Was Written, you have managed to choose beats that make listening to your albums a chore. Though most rappers make spotty albums with two premium singles and a bunch of songs produced by their cousin’s brother, you are Nas. Nasty Nas. The would be King of New York! What gives?
Now, to set the record straight, Nas is one of my favorite rappers and he has no shortage of classic tracks to his credit. His post It Was Written catalog, however, is filled with spottily produced albums. The most egregious offender in his lengthy career is his most recent LP, Untitled. The deep, multilayered disappointment of this album could–and someday might–fill another post, we’re sticking to the beats.
My diagnosis after the break…
Number of Afflicted: 12. On a 16 track album by a seasoned music veteran that’s inexcusable. “You Can’t Stop Us Now” makes uninspired use of a sample (“Message From a Black Man,” off the top of my head MF Doom, RZA, and Mos Def have all rocked over versions of this sample) that has been used ad nauseum. “Breathe,” “America,” “Testify,” “Project Roach,” “We’re Not Alone,” and “Black President” all represent the sort of post-Dilla, 90s R n’ B nostalgia that makes for boring, monotonous lite-jazz beats which, in turn, make Nas sound really boring.
The Cool and Dre produced “Make the World Go Round” is the sort of beat you expect to find buried on a Fat Joe album or on the mixtape of some coke-rapping clone from Miami, not on a Nas album (particularly when Polow da Don upstages his southern brethren on the very next song, the glorious “Hero”). “Sly Fox” is a perfect representative of the misguided rap-rock blends that make producers shy away from mixing the two. Please, producers, I know you’ve listened to more rock than “Rock You Like a Hurricane” by the Scorpions. At least I hope you have. Make rock inspired beats that sound like it.
“Untitled” sounds like an aborted electronic experiment from the desktop of Pharell Williams. Except less catchy. Bonus track “Like Me” is pretty nondescript. The drums are nice I guess, but it’s really nothing special. Nothing you’ll remember.
Number Healed by the Ghost of Young Nas: 4. “Queens Get the Money,” “Hero,” “N.I.G.G.E.R. (The Slave and the Master),” and “Fried Chicken.” That’s it, that’s the list. “Queens Get the Money” is fascinating for eschewing drums in favor of a pulse-pounding series of piano loops strung together by Jay Electronica. “Hero”–my favorite song on the album–is the sort of triumphant, inescapable single Nas has never once come near in his career. The beat is insistent and glistening, designed to be pumped into arenas for years to come. And Nas actually sounds engaged!
“N.I.G.G.E.R.” is classic soul, with producer DJ Toomp (one of the most consistently underrated producers in Hip Hop) providing sweeping, evocative strings, and a bumping drum track. “Fried Chicken” brings some of Mark Ronson’s revivalist funk to the table, and that’s always welcome in my home.
Prescription: Pick up the damn phone and give DJ Premier a call. Seriously. Some of Nas’s best performances have come over Premo beats and Premo never gives Nas bad productions. Also, it wouldn’t hurt to call up a producer like Black Milk who would give Nas far better versions of the Dilla knock offs that populated this album. Take two more Polow da Don beats and go record another album.