Stillmatic Turns 15. Here’s A Look At Nas’ Return To His NY State Of Mind (Video)
Fifteen years ago today (December 18), Nas released his fifth album, Stillmatic. At a time before popular Rap stars were making albums into series and franchises, Nasir Jones flashed back to his 1994 debut. In the seven years since, the MC had two #1 albums, and gone platinum many times over. The Queens, New Yorker had also formed The Firm with Foxy Brown, AZ, and Nature (achieving a #1 and platinum status with it) four years prior. He followed with an acting role in Belly. Nas had seemingly evolved from a crowned lyricist to a Rap star. The gun-tucking teen in the army jacket had now fancied tailored suits, swapped Stretch & Bobbito for Grammy recognition, and traded gated project windows for floor-to-ceiling penthouse views. In that course of time, he had a verbal target of Tupac Shakur and engaged in a subliminal diss war with The Notorious B.I.G. Approaching the last two weeks of 2001, Heads were awaiting the smooth talking lyricist to properly reply to Jay Z’s “The Takeover” (released on The Blueprint on September 11).
Oddly enough, despite those accolades of the 1990s, Nas had assumed an underdog’s position in 2001. Late 1999’s Nastradamus was (and remains) one of the biggest panned works from the MC’s career. His once perennial #1’s had slipped a few spots on the charts, a slap on the wrist for chasing trends, and dumbing down his once rich lyricism. 2000’s QB’s Finest project launched to tepid response, despite a seemingly unified Queens front. While Jay, Puff Daddy, RZA, and Eminem had built label power-houses, Ill Will Records was not (and never would be) that. Around this time, Nas was flirting with joining Irv Gotti’s Murder Inc., a move that appeared beneath a 10-year veteran’s pay-grade. In the midst of this all, Nas took a long look in the mirror in 2001. With the exception of Pete Rock and Q-Tip, Nas surrounded himself with the producers there for Illmatic. Again, he tapped AZ as the primary guest Rap feature. The master of concept used his imagination instead of fanfare. Heads who basked in the detailed rhyme correspondence of “One Love” surely could appreciate the reverse linear presentation of “Rewind.” “One Mic,” with its fervent climax went to a level of confidence and vocal production that Illmatic could not have.
In 2001, Nas owned his greatness. Rather than just rapping to those who could relate to foreign cars, VIP access, and snifters of cognac, Nas spoke to the people—in a way he had not in a while. “2nd Childhood” was symbolic for the whole album. Nas traveled back to the people, places, and wells of inspiration from nearly a decade earlier. He also found his love and spirit in rhymes. The MC who had watched two rivals die tragically and violently, the rapper who watched Rap’s sound move away from its birthplace suddenly had a battery in his back. Nas rapped with a purpose beyond fame or fortune. Stillmatic was about legacy, at a time when Nas’ career was at a crossroads of great ’90s MC or one of the greatest of all-time.
Controversy surely helped. “Ether” was the upper-cut back into Jay Z’s jaw. The song acknowledged Nas’ fall in the public perception. He clearly blamed his opponents for overlooking his personal and musical contributions, but reminded everybody that he was the first out of the legendary class. Nas called out Jay on his sexism, his loyalty, and Roc-A-Fella’s success only being possible because of Biggie’s death. Without losing his cool, Nas heated up the battle. Jay had made a hot record at Nas (and Prodigy’s expense). Nas surgically responded with a hard record that people would come to know by heart. Other places in the album (“You’re Da Man,” “Got Urself A Gun”) elaborated on Nas’ feelings about his rival. Like Tupac had done five years prior, Nas strung conflict throughout the album. But when he wasn’t getting at his foes, he was simply trying to best them.
At this time, Nas was the center of an episode of MTV Diary. Filmed in late 2001 and early 2002, 29 year-old Nas let cameras follow him gearing up for the reminder. In the Cribs era, where artists were showing off their lavish lifestyles, Nas positioned himself differently. He went back to the 41st side of Vernon, to the Queensbridge Houses. There, Nas led cameras to the very public housing apartment where he grew up. The MC points to the very bathroom floor where he chipped his teeth (a feature Jay Z had famously poked fun at). He shows the project windows where he observed one of the roughest parts of New York City. Nas details how his tiny room went from having posters of Rap greats (presumably guys like Run-D.M.C., MC Shan, Eric B. & Rakim) to graffiti throw-ups to bullet holes. Nas’ discography traces that evolution of Hip-Hop Head, artist, and thug poet all in one.
The 2002 episode also follows Nas to Carson Daly’s TRL. There, Heads can watch Nas work with a producer on how comfortable he feels in discussing the Jay battle. Nas asserts that Stillmatic and his career are bigger than beef. He still is greeted with a question from Daly, right on the issue. As Nas is surrounded by bubble-gum teenyboppers (the majority being women), this question and segment is a clear reminder that Nas vs. Jay Z was unlike any other in Hip-Hop history. While ‘Pac and Biggie detracted from the culture, as it was used to evilly portray “Gangster Rap,” Nas vs. Jay Z was music’s main event. Yes, the MCs were mentioning violent acts upon one another, but kept it in the music, despite close proximity. This was the bridge wars on cable, and Nas was the antihero. He was the sex symbol rapper that Heads had known for years, even if they plausibly could not name as many of his songs. Unlike ‘Pac, or would-be stars such as 50 Cent, T.I., and The Game, Nas refused to put his conflict ahead of his art.
Elsewhere in the Diary episode, Nas crosses the country with the Bravehearts. As Hip-Hop was basking in its private jet glory, there are Nas, Jungle, Nashawn, and others on a Provost bus with a case of Dutch Masters, Stylistics albums, and cheese grits. This man-of-the-people aesthetic is true of Nas patiently catching flicks with fans in a leather jacket boutique, and signing autographs in his old stomping grounds. He refuses an offer for a major brewery endorsement, fearing that it encouraged the youth to indulge. In 2006, Jay would work with Big Beer, while Nas ultimately would become the face of Hennessy. Still, at a time when rappers were held closer to branding, the MC maintained the tougher road. It is interesting to watch what has since become one of Rap’s most diverse investors pass on strong, quick money with purpose. The artist was not only calculated, he was highly principled.
Fifteen years later, Stillmatic is a keystone in the career of Nas. It may not be his best album, or his most beloved, but it jet-fueled him through the 2000s. Heads still debate who won the battle and why. Moreover, this album showed that a Hip-Hop artist can evolve while being deeply cognizant of what made him great in the first place. Nas brought his essence back with him. He did this again on Hip Hop Is Dead, and Life Is Good. Many think, based on what was released this year that Nas is preparing to do it in 2017. Fame, investments, and trying new artistic mediums does not change who a person is at his core, and what he fights for in his craft. Stillmatic was that statement. From Raekwon to Jay, Snoop Dogg to Eminem, other MCs applied this formula to their discographies and personal craft. “Name a rapper that I [haven’t] influenced,” Nas touted. In time, that list continues to grow.
In his own words, Nas mapped out where he was, and where he was taking it to on Stillmatic. These bars, deep within “One Mic” perhaps capture the essence: “Diamonds are blinding, I never make the same mistakes / Moving with a change of pace / Lighter load, see now the king is straight / Swelling my melon, ‘cause none of these niggas real / Heard they were telling police, how can a kingpin squeal? / This is crazy, I’m on the right track, I’m finally found / You need some soul-searching, the time is now.”
What a great time in Hip-Hop it was.