Medium-Sized Pimpin'

When trying to glue on that fake goatee, beware that your fingers don't get stuck to your lips: Nas
Courtesy of Sony Music
Street's Disciple
Sony Urban Music/Columbia
MTV Ultimate Mash-Ups Presents: Collision Course
Warner Brothers

America makes one small demand of its prodigies: Should mature genius elude your grasp, please have the decency to degenerate into a colossal embarrassment. For much of the '90s, no rap wunderkind seemed more willing to meet this expectation than Nas, who squandered the cred accrued from his debut masterpiece, 1994's Illmatic, with the joyless compulsion of a busload of seniors at the nickel slots. Though unlikely to balloon to Wellesian or Elvisish, let alone Brandoriffic, proportions, Nas did crucify himself alongside Puffy in a Hype Williams video and reincarnate himself as the holy seer "Nastradamus"--a promising start.

Or perhaps not. The self-referential title and self-imposed austerity of 1999's Stillmatic suggested that Nas was plying the sole artistic gambit available to the floundering genius: the Return to Form. That illusion, however, soon gave way to a sadder, less satisfying truth: Nas had slid into a groove of competent mediocrity. Refer back to paragraph one: This was not part of the deal. Here he was, coming up on a full decade after his Citizen Kane--by hip hop's accelerated career pace, he should have moved on to Paul Masson commercials. Instead, he improved incrementally but incompletely; despite flashes of brilliance, 2002's God's Son was largely the solid work of a skilled journeyman. And the two discs of the new Street's Disciple prove yet again that you can't trust Nas to do anything consistently--even piss away his talent.

But the big surprise of Street's Disciple is the strength Nas derives from this inconsistency. On the first disc he surveys the state of the world, backing up his confused voting-is-for-suckers tirade on "American Way" with some ambivalent truth-to-power talk ("Condoleezza Rice/I don't really get this chick") and a call for self-sufficiency ("Need somebody from the 'hood as my councilman"). Then on "Coon Picnic (These Are Our Heroes)" he disses Cuba Gooding Jr., Tiger Woods, and pretty much every black sitcom actor after Isabelle Sanford over a Q-Tip-generated P-Funk bass thump. But these often boneheaded critiques are given broader context by disc two, a farewell to a thuggish past and envoy to adulthood; his criticisms are free-floating argument starters, grumbled snatches overheard on the subway. As Nas indicates on "Bridging the Gap," a duet with his father, jazzman Olu Dara, he not only hopes to become an elder in the community, but to offer up hip hop as conversation--between sexes, between generations, between African Americans. It's somehow fitting that this familial duet, so eager to link blues and rap, is kind of a muddle.

The clean, linear ascent of Jay-Z's career has always made Nas's alleys seem that much blinder. Like all good Americans, rap fans like their plots pulp-simple: The most-celebrated career arc, as Biggie and Pac established while still alive, is tragic. Lacking the necessary pathos for such a myth (and just maybe being not quite ready to die), the rapper born Shaun Carter adopted a more straightforwardly antiheroic role: Superfly, the hustler who retires after one last big score, at the top of his game, a legend. In the year since his announced retirement from hip hop, Jay-Z has released a concert-film soundtrack, an album with R. Kelly, and, most recently, a Linkin Park mash-up project. But that's not backsliding--these are victory laps, that's all.

While Nas seems to hold his nose when making a swipe at the pop market, Jay-Z's always suggested that it's only shameful to do something for the money if you need the money. Otherwise, it's an obligation, since a hustler's first duty is to bilk the unwary. As with all Jigga's commercial connivances, his Linkin Park cash-in, MTV Ultimate Mash-Ups Presents: Collision Course has its moments. But if the best mash-ups create a conversation between tracks, these parallel monologues allow the stars to bring out the worst in each other. The Park-ers' typically free-floating dissatisfaction sounds committedly sexist here; in turn, Jay's usual chorus of "Don't you wish you had Jigga's problems" sounds like rote self-pity.

Not that it will matter in terms of Jay's mystique. Hip hop wanted martyrs, and it got them; hip hop wanted a success story, and it got Jay-Z. Nas, in contrast, has always jabbered an unsatisfying life story, dropping false clues to frustrate and disorient. So of course he balances off "Getting Married"--which consecrates his devotion to wifey Kelis with an emotional openness all the more striking because it requires such an effort--with fond reminisces of the sweetie who blew bubbles with his cum and another who noshed on his "excrement," not to mention his mad-scientist fantasy "The Makings of a Perfect Bitch." But Nas has spent a decade recovering from the cold perfection of Illmatic; for the first time in his misguided career, his mistakes are as exciting as his achievements.

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