By Dean Van Nguyen
We begin this soliloquy by recounting a tale destined to be etched into rap’s official history books; a fabled drama never to be forgotten by the New York b-boys who bore witness.
The narrative is already deeply embedded into the conscious of any hip-hop head worth their salt so this recap will be brief. Back in 1994, Nasir Jones, 20-years-old, releases one of the greatest albums of all time, Illmatic, only to suffer a period of creative inertia, lame commercial compromises andteam-up singles with Jermaine Dupri. It takes Jay-Z’s brutal provocation “Takeover” to clear Nas’s head and awaken his true self. Refusing to succumb to the wounds inflicted by his power-hungry rival’s poisoned blade, 2001 sees Nas drop Stillmatic – a creative rejuvenation that earns the Queensbridge hero his second five-mic honour from theThe Source, and features “Ether”, a brutal retort to Jay’s attacks.
Nas claims he titled the song “Ether” because he wants his words to burn deep into his enemy’s essential being. “I was told a long time ago, ghosts and spirits don’t like the fumes from ether,” says Escobar, “and I just wanted to affect him with my weapon and get to his soul.” Nas is The Undertaker, springing from a creative crypt, locking eyes not just on Jay, but all the doubters ready to bury him forever.
Less mythologised in the saga is Chapter 2. Released almost exactly a year after Stillmatic, Nas’s sixth album God’s Son maintained his resurgence. It’s a record born out of incredible sadness. In the wake of the great success of his previous record, Nas was forced to retreat from the drama to care for his ailing mother, who died of breast cancer between the release dates of the two LPs. And so whileStillmatic felt fueled by the raw adrenaline and feelings that he needed to show and prove, the highly personalGod’s Son found Nas thoughtful, mournful and ready to confess.
It’s all there in the title: Nas sees himself as God’s son. But he was also Anne Jones’ son, Olu Dara’s son. “Your mother’s the closest thing to God that you ever have, kid,” he raps on “Warrior’s Song”, connecting family bonds to spiritual belief. The cover shows a shirtless Nas, symbolising the flesh, bone and spirituality that make up one of rap’s great ones.
ButGod’s Sonis also one of his strangest odysseys, full of interesting experimentation and, I would suggest, an odd running order. The album is all over the place tonally, as though Nas scanned his harddrive for songs to flesh out his newly recorded personal benedictions before quickly scrawling a tracklisting down on a yellow legal pad in the back of a studio.
The first few seconds of opening track “Get Down” is a jarring experience as producer Salaam Remi audaciously hijacks the immediately recognisable sounds of James Brown’s “The Boss”. A staple of every decent rap producer’s vinyl box, everybody from Ice-T to Poor Righteous Teachers to Lord Finesse has been bedazzled by JB’s cool cut. Nas treats it with respect, using a jam associated with killer struts to set the scene: “New York streets where killers’ll walk like Pistol Pete,” referencing Peter Rollack, one-time leader of the Bronx-based Sex Money Murda gang currently serving life in Colorado for the murder of six people and drug trafficking in three states. Ostensibly deducing that “The Boss” is already perfect, Nas opts to rap over the original orchestration with very little musical changes. That is, until working a wailing keyboard arpeggios of The Blackbyrds’ “Rock Creek Park” on the line, “I rolled with some Crips down to a Crenshaw funeral”. It’s a West Coast-style musical flutter from a rapper eternally associated with East Coast inventiveness.
The purpose ofGod’s Son’s, though, was to give Nas space to unburden himself. It’s the home of some of his most personal writing ever. Take “Last Real N***a Alive”, an in-depth retelling of the beef with Jay that goes all the way back to its origins. Nas thoroughly charts his career, from pre-fame drives around the block with Sean “Puffy” Combs, through to stepping back from recording to care for his mother – who he pays tribute to towards the end of the album on the emotional “Dance” – while detailing the beef. Helping lay out this tale in rich detail is the laser precision that Nas raps with. He’s a lover of language, jamming his lines with clever patterns, leaning on gangster movie imagery (“I was Scarface, Jay was Manolo”) without letting these devices detract from the punch of the overall narrative.
God’s Son is padded out with quirky sketches. Take “Book of Rhymes”, which is built around the concept of Nas reading from an old notebook of long-forgotten raps. Some of the bars are weak (“My people be projects or jail, never Harvard or Yale/Pardon me type in my two-way while I'm chargin’ my cell”). Some are kinda stoned and inspired (“Gandhi was a fool, nigga, fight to the death/The US Army is a school that teach you plights of conquest”). But either way, it’s fun to think about whether these are legitimate old Nas lyrics or him trying to write in the headspace of his younger self.
Elsewhere, the Bravehearts collaboration “Zone Out” feels like an unlikely sequel to “Oochie Wallie”. The prominent soul sample on “Revolutionary Warfare” encapsulated the fashionable production style that would be fully examined on records like Kanye West’sThe College Dropoutand Ghostface Killah’sThe Pretty Toney Album. “Hey Nas” is a sexy little potboiler that sees the star describe his ideal sweetheart, aided by Kelis – Nas’s future wife, of course – and a sultry performance from Claudette Ortiz from City High which just affirms why the group’s best song is not the one you’re thinking of, it’s “Caramel”.
Not everything here works. Production on “The Cross” defined Eminem’s beat-making style – the symmetric keys and programmed horns are lifeless. Em was selling beats to stars, presumably on the strength of his name. “Thug Mansion” is a seance that summons the spirit of 2pac years before Kendrick Lamar did it, but rapping over an acoustic guitar and nothing else, the song is overly mawkish and, like a lot of posthumous Pac songs, the tactic of slapping an old verse on a new piece of orchestration means it lacks chemistry.
One thingGod’s Son doesn’t have, though, is a Nas-Murder Inc collaboration. Shadowing the album’s rollout at the time were rumours that Nas was ready to defect to Irv Gotti’s heavyweight crew. By the time Nas jumped on stage alongside Ja Rule and Ashanti at the MTV Video Music Awards in August 2002, it looked like a done deal. And then nothing happened. It wouldn’t be long before war with Eminem and 50 Cent would cripple Murder Inc forever. Maybe Nas saw the cracks in the label and didn’t want to get pulled down with the ship.
Time has healed Murder Inc’s image and they are rightly remembered as a single-making machine that melded hip-hop, R&B and pop into urban chart music hymns. But back in 2002, I balked at the idea that Nas would soon be contorting his artistic philosophy to produce pillow-soft songs like “Mesmorized”. Yet a remix of Ja Rule and Ashanti’s “The Pledge” hinted at what this alliance might have sounded like. Over a smooth reimagining of 2pac’s “So Many Tears” courtesy of Murder Inc’s best in-house producer, 7 Aurelius, Nas sounds fluid and confident. Inclusion of the song would certainly have improvedGod’s Son.
In the internet dial-up days, and without the portal of New York hip-hop radio to deliver messages, you hoped to catch an update on the Nas-Murder Inc connection via MTV Base. I remember scanning the back of theGod’s SonCD for the Murder Inc logo and listening out for songs that sounded like the label’s distinct production style.
Really though, as soon as the video for “Made You Look” dropped in September, I should have known Irv wasn’t drafting Nas. A shotgun blast of a hip-hop single, the mean-as-hell breaks, relentless forward motion and chants of “Braaaaveheaaarts” felt both throwback and contemporary. It was an instant East Coast classic that confirmed whatStillmatichad told us: Nas was back.
He would go on to drop the two-discStreet Disciple in 2004, which, likeGod’s Son, doesn’t always get all due respect. When Jay turned up on the song “Black Republican” in 2006, officially ending their beef, it also signalled the end of Nas’s fruitful middle period. Rarely since has he made music that has spoken as personally or profoundly asGod’s Son. It’s a record that manages to be alternately whacky and mournful, optimistic and honest.