License to Ill--Revoked

Nas's 'Stillmatic' carries on a feud with commercial success

Destiny begins in the home. Growing up the son of a much-respected, little-paid, low-profile jazz pathfinder would tend to temper any up-and-comer's artistic aspirations with some economic reality. Take Nasir Jones, son of always-the-sideman-never-the-star trumpeter Olu Dara. Nas followed his own 1994 hip-hop benchmark Illmatic with three increasingly plastic duds lobbed toward the mainstream. Probably no lyricist has

dropped off so quickly from a groundbreaking debut since Wordsworth. Nas was incapable of ignoring the platinum ballers who cruised past him up the charts and tending his own craft, so he got jiggy wit it instead. In the process, he ripened into the moldiest of avant-garde clichés: the artist whose contempt for a popular taste--which pays his bills--stagnates into a dour suspicion of all pleasure.

Which brings us to Stillmatic (Columbia). Taken literally, the title of Nas's fourth album is meaningless if not self-defeating. No one has denied that Nas's rhymes have been plenty 'matic for the past decade. Problem is that they weren't very ill. But Nas's riff on the title of his debut Illmatic, along with his reclaimed lyrical sobriety, has encouraged loose talk of the MC's rebirth. The perfect score of five mics awarded to Stillmatic in the Source may have been that mag's spineless declaration of neutrality in NYC's biggest beef: Nas's current rival Jay-Z earned the same perfect score with The Blueprint the month prior, so anything less for Nas would look like choosing sides. But if you'll forgive my long memory, this recent Nas acclaim--overpraising a past legend's present competence--reminds me of Rolling Stone in the late Eighties: At that time, dull facsimiles of past glories (Dylan's Oh Mercy comes to mind) were routinely lauded by aging tastemakers who didn't want their idols to crumble just yet.

Filter what is easily the most not-awful Nas album since his first through the open ears of a desperate fan and you'll hear some nice musical touches. That Sopranos theme sample on "Got Ur Self a..." is an overdue lift, and the faux Wu-Tang harpsichord tinkle underneath is just as ace a cop. But while the lyrical flow rarely stoops to the tritely enunciated "We are coa-stin'/Keepin' our po-ckets bul-gin'" of "Smokin'," nobody pretends that Nas has returned to the intricate rhyme schemes and conceits of early singles like "New York State of Mind." Even the much-touted "Rewind"--an unremarkable crime drama supposedly enlivened by Nas's technique of telling the story backward--falls flat, too dull even to be a gimmick. Gimmicks are fun; this is dusty formalism. Arty and schematic, "Rewind" resembles not Memento, like boosters say, but the fusty puzzles of Robbe-Grillet at his most enervating.

The one small unqualified triumph on Stillmatic says more about Nas's limitations than all his failures. "One Mic" is urban claustrophobia distilled and digitized, with Nas's reportorial eye zooming in on a detail, then pulling back to a panoramic overview. As sirens and screams swirl behind him, Nas's voice builds to full hysteria, then drops to a pathologically even-voiced, "All I need is one mic," as if the only way he could save himself would be by withdrawing from the world.

Though hip hop thrives on paranoia, its biggest stars rarely express it with such unmediated simplicity, preferring to flavor the mood with their trademark sensibilities. Think of Tupac's self-pity or Biggie's fed-up disdain or Wu-Tang's mystagogical puzzling. Or Jigga's snide invulnerability. While Nas flossed his way into artistic decline in the Nineties, Jay-Z may have perfected the aesthetics of smug. What sets Jigga apart from lesser Willies, and what maintains his cred, is his utter refusal to sound as though the clothes and hos and riches and bitches he brags about mean a damn thing to him. Jay-Z revels in others' envy, assuming that success is inevitable, and denying that he worries about it. All of which results in the MC emanating the pleasure of unassailable power.

Following an Annie swipe with an Oliver! rip isn't cool because it's stylistically daring; it's cool because Jay is on the mic. But listen to Nas rhyme over a synthy lift from "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" and you'll hear an artiste who can't convince himself that this sort of compromise isn't wack.

Maybe the future of Nasir Jones was a sociological inevitability, a tragedy in the classical sense--the unhappy ending encoded within the protagonist's very character. Too austere to credibly go pop, too ambitious to simmer in the underground, he settled for the worst of both worlds.

"Whose world is this?" Nas asked on his debut. The answer: "The world is yours." He believed it and grabbed for it with both hands, accepting the consequences. But it didn't have to be that way. After all, Olu Dara wound up making a couple bucks this past decade with well-received bluesy albums that simplified his style without sanitizing it. As Nas's dad could tell him, whether you're rhyming or blowing improvisation, the chords don't preordain the melody.

 
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