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…
It’s been a little over a month, so I figured we’re due for another case study on the Nas Syndrome.
When I heard Dr. Dre was producing the entirety of Eminem’s Relapse, I got excited. Then I remembered: Dr. Dre hasn’t made a beat (unassisted) at least since 2001. On top of that, his more recent production–whether due to his proclivity for sonic perfection that leads to soulless beats or his lack of hands on involvement–has been consistently underwhelming.
But I hoped against hope and was still excited when Relapse dropped.
And it sucked. Eminem gets his fair share of blame for that. Marshall was, for a time, one of the best rappers alive. There are certainly flashes of that on this album but, as I’ve detailed before, his accent kills many songs with potential. The production doesn’t do him any favors either.
Diagnosis after the break…
Number of Afflicted: 14. Not including skits, there are 16 songs on Relapse. For only 2 of them to actually be well produced is astounding. Now, take note that this has nothing to do with the sound quality of these beats. They’re pristine, impeccably mixed and crisp. And almost entirely lifeless. Most are stale retreads of past classics. “My Mom” recasts “What’s the Difference” without any of the organic bounce of the original. “Beautiful” takes the driving guitar that pushed songs like “Lose Yourself” and “Sing for the Moment” to anthemic heights, and slows it to a sludgy, uninteresting crawl.
“Old Time Sake” could be easily be an outtake from 2001. It probably would have been hot then, but now it sounds tired. Most of the other beats–“Bagpipes From Bagdhad,” “Crack a Bottle,” “Insane,” “Medicine Ball” for example–are melodically and structurally uninteresting, recycling Dre’s stock drum sounds and repeating the same melodic portions ad nauseum.
Tedium sets in about half through the album, when all the beats begin to blend into a stew of undercooked ideas dragged through overwrought post-production. It’s all lifeless and boring.
Number Healed by the Ghost of Young Nas: 2. And these two are relative. “We Made You” and “Underground” are the best songs in Em’s catalogue, but they sound pretty next to the ugly ducklings lined up beside them. By now, you’ve almost certainly heard “We Made You.” While the lyrics and delivery are debatable, the production definitely bangs. It’s far better than his previous lead-off single (“Just Lose It”). While it can’t match the string of lead-off singles that accompanied his first three albums (“My Name Is,” “The Real Slim Shady,” and “Without Me”), it certainly stands up on its own. “Underground” brings Dre’s usual bombast and orchestral touches but keeps the mix interesting with a strangely off kilter rhythm and memorable melody. It doesn’t hurt that the beat inspires Eminem’s most vicious, entertaining performance either.
Prescription: It’s hard to say who actually produced this album–I’ve heard from friends, associates, and various sources that many cooks were in the kitchen throughout the recording process. I’m inclined to believe that only producers with sufficiently weird tastes and a propensity for bangers could have saved this album (though I’m sure peak era Dre would have made it sound quite lovely). The Neptunes in Hell Hath No Fury mode and Black Milk on his synthy days would make for a nice remedy.