Dr. Dre, 47, and Snoop Dogg, 41, have long enjoyed broad appeal, from college campuses to Compton corners, but neither is known for the complexity of his content or rhyme schemes. Their production is always extraordinary, and they know how to make heads nod, but lyrically? It’s more fun than prophetic.
‘Exercise till the microphone dies’
Which brings us to the top five, the professors emeritus. Out of respect for Nas’ aversion to lists, let’s handle them in no particular order.
Eminem is a beast. As Nas points out, the list will be different in 10 years, and Slim Shady may be atop it, but in 2013 you can’t challenge Nas if you dropped your first LP in 1999.
Then there’s Pac and Biggie — and the point where the debate might venture into hurting someone’s feelings.
Makaveli dropped six albums, four of them platinum, between 1991 and 1996 before he was gunned down in Las Vegas. The Notorious B.I.G. put out his first record in 1994 and was slain in Los Angeles weeks before his second release, “Life After Death,” in 1997.
Both have successful releases after their killings, but their life spans, tragically, were too brief, and for that reason — and that reason only — it’s unfair to put them up against a man with two decades in the game.
Nas still believes Pac and Biggie are “two of the greatest who’ve ever done it,” and it’s not because they died. Big L died. Guru died. Big Pun, Eazy-E and Ol’ Dirty Bastard died, but they didn’t leave the same legacy.
“I just think Biggie was something else. He was the Hitchcock of this thing, man. He told you a story. There was a seriousness that came with it that can’t compare with nothing,” Nas said.
He wishes the pair hadn’t been taken in their mid-20s, he said, because they “would be at the top of the game” today, and they would’ve pushed him.
“I’d probably be better if they were still around,” he said. “I think I’d be a lot better.”
“To leave us with that kind of music at that young age is exceptional. There’s no other word to say,” he said. “They were bigger than all of us, even today — their music, their sound, their topics. The way the world listened to them was a lot bigger than I would even say myself and the rest of us … I don’t think today we’ve made an official impact that those guys were just starting to make.”
Watch the throne
… And then there was one: Jay-Z, a man who spent the the late 1990s and early 2000s also pushing Nas, and his buttons, during their quest to rock Biggie Smalls’ “King of New York” crown.
Let’s not bother with the details of their long-snuffed beef or who said what about whom on what album (though, let’s face it, Nas’ Ginsu verses on “Ether” made Jay’s “Takeover” and “Super Ugly” sound a little nanny-nanny-boo-boo. Jigga himself called “Ether” an inescapable “figure-four leg lock”).
But it’s interesting to note what happened once their ugly rivalry was quashed.
Jay-Z had been named president of Def Jam Records, one of the most powerful posts in hip-hop. Jay-Z could have gone Mortal Kombat and finished Nas. He could’ve at least used his clout to make life unpleasant for the man who once called him gay, arguably the worst accusation you can levy in the macho world of hip-hop.
What did he do instead? He signed Nas and made a guest appearance on his first Def Jam album.
Or as Hova put it in a 2006 interview with MTV, “I didn’t sign Nas; I partnered with Nas. You can’t sign an artist of Nas’ stature. You can only partner with him. … Like I said, it’s always been a level of respect there. I, for not one second, ever said I don’t believe that he’s one of the best lyricists ever.”
Here is where that “lyricist” v. “hip-hop artist” distinction becomes important.
Jay-Z said it best himself: He’s not a businessman; he’s a business, man. When you consider 11 of his albums have sold at least a million copies — seven of those 2 million or more — as have his four collaborations, two with R. Kelly and one each with Linkin Park and Kanye West, it’s as if Hova is King Midas, but with platinum.
He’s a hit maker extraordinaire, maybe the world’s best, but that doesn’t translate to best lyricist. Jay-Z acknowledged as much on “Moment of Clarity” when he rhymed, “If skills sold, truth be told/I’d probably be, lyrically, Talib Kweli.”
Even in dissing Nas on “Takeover,” he explained why he had sampled Nas’ lyrics on “Dead Presidents”: “So yeah, I sampled your voice; you was using it wrong/you made it a hot line; I made it a hot song.”
And that, friends, is the crux of the debate: hot lines vs. hot songs. No one would deny Hova his dap, but it seems he has said, in both word and action, that it’s tough to top Nas.
‘Nasty, Nas the Esco to Escobar’
So, who’s up next? A&Rs have sought the next great MC since Afrika Bambaataa dropped “Planet Rock.
Nas was once dubbed the next Rakim. Rick Ross has been called the next Biggie (Last disclaimer: not by this author). Kendrick Lamar has been called the next Pac. Everyone from 50 Cent to Lupe Fiasco to J. Cole has been labeled the next Nas.
Who does Nastradamus foresee filling his shoes? He doesn’t like that question any more than he likes lists.
“There was never a next Rakim. There’s only one Rakim, and you can compare people to me, which is a great honor to me, but those guys are really on their path to becoming great Kendricks and greater Lupes,” he said. “I think it took years after ‘Illmatic,’ after my first record, before people started to get used to me and started to get into what I was all about and what the Nas story was.”
Nas’ brilliance may lie in his ability to keep adapting that story through the years, whether it’s from the days when he “dropped out of Cooley High/gassed up by a cokehead cutie pie” or lessons learned as father to his teen daughter, Destiny: “She heard stories of her daddy thuggin’/so if her husband is a gangster, can’t be mad, I love him.”
He’s been the hustling street kid known as Nasty Nas and the jeweled-up don named Escobar after the world’s most famous druglord.
He’s been the thug, the Black righteous militant, the philosopher, so it’s not really weird that he has such broad appeal when he’s just as likely to allude to Tony Montana as he is Huey P. Newton or Ivan Van Sertima in his rhymes.
Nas declined to say whether he’d still be rapping in 20 years, though he did offer an assessment on what hip-hop might look like two decades from now.
“It’s always going to be youthful expression. It’s always going to be a good time. It’s always going to be poetry, in the vein of Langston Hughes. At the same time, it’s entertaining and party and fun like Luther Campbell,” he said, “but it’s always going to just be the youth expressing themselves over the sounds that move people in the best way.”
Kind of fitting he referenced a Harlem Renaissance poet and 2 Live Crew in that answer.