A case for Nas, hip-hop’s finest MC

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ROOTS PICNIC–Nas, who blazed the scene in 1994 with his debut album Illmatic, rocked out alongside the Roots for their nearly two-hour closing set to end the day’s festivities, June 4, 2011, marking the 4th annual ROOTS PICNIC at Philadelphia’s Festival Pier at Penn’s Landing. One of the most coveted events of summer, the Picnic uses the spirit of The Roots to create a unique, genre-bending day-long festival. Performances included: The Roots, Wiz Khalifa, Nas (backed by The Roots), Esperanza Spalding (backed by The Roots), Ariel Pink, Man Man, The Dismemberment Plan, Mac Miller, Yelawolf, Little Dragon, J. Period, Nicos Gun & Donn T. (CNN Photo/Sarah Hoye)

 

by Eliott C. McLaughlin

(CNN) — Let’s begin with a disclaimer: Nas doesn’t endorse the following sentence.

But he’s the greatest lyricist of all time.

Those words were carefully chosen: “lyricist” over “rapper” or “hip-hop artist;” “greatest” instead of “most successful;” “all time” rather than “today.”

Those distinctions are important. Still, Nas isn’t buying it.

“It’s wayyyyyy, way, way too early in our lives,” he said when asked where he fits among history’s best MCs. “It’s great to put a list together, but don’t take it too seriously because your list won’t matter 10 years from now or 15 years from now. It’ll be a different list.”

OK, no lists then; just a strong case for Nas being the best rhymesmith ever, the GOAT, numero uno, and a humble concession that this is but one man’s opinion and yours are enthusiastically welcomed below.

With “Life is Good,” Nas dropped his ninth No. 1 hip-hop album since 1994. Seven of those have gone platinum, which places him second among rappers only to Jay-Z with 11. (We’re not counting compilations or collaborations here, only original solo efforts, and yes, Tupac Shakur had nine, but five were posthumous releases.)

It also ties Nas with Snoop Dogg or Snoop Lion or whatever his name is, and it puts the Queens native one plaque ahead of Eminem, Too Short, OutKast and LL Cool J, all of whom belong in the greatest-ever discussion, as well.

Hold on, you say? OutKast is not a solo act? And if they’re included, why not the Beastie Boys, who also have six platinum records?

Agreed, but dissect OutKast into the individual components of Big Boi and André 3000, and you have two of the most technically deft rhymers to bless the mic. (Another disclaimer: This article’s author is an ATLien.)

From 1994’s “Southernplayalisticcadillacmuzik” to 2003’s “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below,” OutKast owned most hip-hop rivals, but since then — barring the “Idlewild” soundtrack — they’ve fallen off considerably: Big Boi has put out a pair of tepidly received solo efforts, André a few razor commercials.

While commercial success is important to the equation — and the sole reason the brilliant Talib Kweli and Pharoahe Monch aren’t included in the debate — it’s only one variable.

This debate, if you will, isn’t so much about who can move the most rump in a club, but rather, if we were delivered back to 1800, who could hold their own with Coleridge and Wordsworth. It’s why we’re arguing lyricists and not artists.

The big 4-0

In a genre not known for the longevity of its luminaries, making it 10, 15, 20 years means you’re a survivor — and you survive only if people keep buying your music.

Unlike his aforementioned brethren in the Multiplatinum Club, Nas has done that without a platinum single. Not “Street Dreams.” Not “Nas is Like.” Not “Made You Look.” Not one.

It means his fans want the entire package, the album as a complete work of art — an endangered concept in the days of iTunes and Spotify.

Given the occasional knocks on Nas’ production, it’s got to be the lyrical wizardry that keep folks coming back, right? As he turns 40 this year — sorry if that makes “Illmatic” fans feel old — he’s adapted to every sea change in rap and weathered every label, right or wrong, affixed to him.

“I’ve been called everything. Gangsta rap. I’ve been called conscious rap. You know, everything. Whoever feels like calling it whatever they want to call it, that’s on them,” he said.

Asked how he could be called socially responsible in one breath and a glorifier of violence in the next, Nas said he’s not responsible for such tags.

“Don’t blame me; blame our wonderful country, America. And you can’t even blame America. It’s life. Blame life. I talk about life, and I make universal music with an American style — and that’s what I do,” he said. “I know one thing: People put too many labels on music.”

Strange thing is, Nas didn’t know he wanted to be a rapper when he was young, he said.

“There wasn’t a lot of things that I wanted to do where African-Americans were achieving what we achieve today because it just wasn’t allowed, funny enough to say,” said the son of jazz cornet player Olu Dara. “I was trying to figure out, should I become a screenplay writer? Should I be a movie director? Should I make music for theater? I was thinking in the arts, anything that had to do with the arts. Of course, I never had a job in my life, and so I was just this dude that was hanging out — a vagabond, if you will, in New York.”

That’s when Large Professor noticed his lyrical skills. A member of Main Source, Xtra P put him on the track “Live at the Barbeque.” The song, funky in its own right, is considered a classic today because it introduced the nation to a phenom from Queensbridge Houses named Nasir Jones.

‘A street dude with morals’

QB’s Finest remembers well when he first heard himself spit, “Street’s disciple, my raps are trifle/I shoot slugs from my brain just like a rifle.”

He was in his old neighborhood late at night, and he heard the radio playing from a car on the corner. Some older guys were standing around, “doing their thing, talking and kicking it,” Nas recalled.

“As I’m walking by, ‘Live at the Barbeque’ comes on, and I’m like ‘Ohhh!’ And I stopped, and I was like, ‘Wow, this can’t be real. This can’t be real. This is me,'” he said. “I’m trying to let them know that’s me. And they’re kind of like, ‘Cool,’ and go back to their conversation. But it didn’t matter. I was so caught up to hear myself on the radio for the first time; I was in heaven.”

That was the summer of 1991. Nas was 17. By contrast, Kendrick Lamar, one of hip-hop’s hottest new artists, had just turned 4.

There may be 21 years between his first 26 bars on wax and his latest LP, but that doesn’t mean “Life is Good” is geriatric rap, even if Spin magazine prescribed it “for the 40-and-over crowd.” Nas said he was “humbled” by the review, though his shows seem to be packed with 20-somethings.

“It’s important for me to give an honest opinion on the way the world has changed. I feel like it’s just who I am today,” he said. “To answer your earlier question, why I’m still around, it’s because honesty is the best policy. ‘The truth shall set you free,’ in the words of the great Aunt Esther from ‘Sanford and Son.’ … And I think that’s where Spin is wrong. It’s not for 40-year-olds. It’s just for people who know what’s up” (One more disclaimer: The author didn’t ask, “Why are you still around?” in a snarky way.)

Which brings us back to the debate. Nas’ 40th birthday in September will put him in the company of elite survivors, though only a few of hip-hop’s quadragenarians can legitimately challenge him for title of best lyricist.

You’ve got DJ Quik, Sean Price, Tech N9ne and Doom — all talented rhymers, but no Nases. There’s also Common, E-40, Ice Cube, Busta Rhymes, Scarface, Slick Rick and Q-Tip — again, a poetic bunch who’ve been in the game for more than a minute — but none is Nas.

Big Daddy Kane, Rakim and Kool G Rap, all 44, were game changers, trailblazers even, but their catalogs get thinner the deeper you move into the ’90s. Ghostface Killah and Raekwon made their marks on hip-hop and still do today, but they enjoyed more successes as members of the Wu-Tang Clan.

In fact, despite the well-warranted accolades heaped upon these five, there’s only one platinum plaque among them: Ghost’s “Ironman.” (The forever-dope “Paid in Full” doesn’t count. Sorry, solo efforts only.)

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