Friday, November 17, 2006

Review of Five Recent Leaked Songs from Nas

What a November it has been for leaked hip-hop tracks and albums. I can't remember anything like this. AZ's The Format, Snoop Dogg's Tha Blue Carpet Treatment, the Game's Doctor's Advocate, Jay-Z's Kingdom Come, and the Clipse's Hell Hath No Fury have all leaked this month, creating a ton of activity on XXL's "Bangers" page and minor pandemonium on the world wide web. Why is this happening? We know that the Game leaked his own album, but what about Snoop, Jay-Z, and the Clipse? Are the labels responsible? Rogue reviewers with their advanced copies? The artists themselves?

Theories abound about rationales and strategies, but whatever the reason for this epidemic, it makes for some fun trolling on the Internet. The plan is to get full reviews of the Jay-Z and Clipse albums up over the weekend and maybe even Snoop if there is time (although I'm already ruling out a track-by-track format considering that Tha Blue Carpet Treatment is a whopping 22 cuts). For now, it seems like a good time to weigh in on Nas' upcoming Hip-Hop is Dead, based on the handful of leaked tracks that are floating around in cyberspace.

Note that this is not a prediction of the finished album's quality, as I was kind of hard on Jay-Z's first three songs, but ultimately really liked Kingdom Come (which puts me in the minority it seems, but we'll save that for the album review). Not only that, but I'm not even sure which tracks are going to wind up on Hip-Hop is Dead.

Hip-Hop is Dead. The title track is the latest almost-great rap song that has managed to mangle just enough to legitimately depress me. I honestly don't know how he has managed to infiltrate the upper echelon of hip-hop, but he needs to be stopped. If he wants to make millions by peddling "Fergalicious" and "Beep" to the masses, then more power to him. But please, stay off my favorite artists' albums.

The Black Eyed Peas producer already screwed up, "Compton," a potentially great cut from the Game's Doctor's Advocate ("gangsta boogie!") and now he has done some damage to the title track from Nas' new album by inserting a ridiculous electric guitar riff into the chorus. My brother once noted that electric guitars rarely work in hip-hop and usually only when Kanye is involved. For every "Takeover," there are a dozen Diddy songs like "All About the Benjamins" or that hideous Robert Plant remake from Godzilla. Add "Hip-Hop is Dead" to that list. Which is a real shame, because the rest of the beat is pretty solid. The drums kicking in before each verse, followed by a very nice progressive bass line gives Nas' bars a solid framework, and most of's clever little tricks (the piano twinkle, the burst of congas, the crowd chanting) work out okay. But can a song be really good with a cringe-worthy chorus?

For Nas' part, he does his best to save the track from itself. He sounds energized and after years of trying to sound passionate about important topics, he finally stumbled upon something that truly matters to him - rap itself. Calling hip-hop his first wife, he goes on a tirade about the state of the industry and the dilution of the art. Musicians making music about music is not usually where we find great art, but in this case, Nas is following a popular axiom, which is "write what you know." It's not an attempt to inspire cultural change like "I Can" or even a social critique like that "Imagine" track he did with Pitbull, but he attacks the topic with energy and vigor and the result is some of his best rapping in years.

Too bad was around to taint it. Oh well, at least he didn't lace us with one of those awful sing-song choruses like he did on Busta's Big Bang.

The Score: 8/10.

Black Presidents. This is one of those songs that just feels important. After all, Jay-Z guests on it, which seemed like an impossible scenario a few years ago, at the height of the Takeover/Ether/Super Ugly/Got Yourself a Gun era. The hatchet was buried between Jay-Z and Nas last year at a big concert spectacle, but somehow, the two of them appearing on an official track seems to mean more. The former feels like a publicity stunt done for the benefit of the audience (see: 50 and the Game) while the latter is an actual artistic collaboration with far-reaching implications. So this is kind of a big deal.

As for the song itself, I think it holds the weight of those lofty expectations. Nas lets Jay-Z rap first over a scorching L.E.S. beat and Hova delivers 16 bars that rival anything he dropped on Kingdom Come, or really anything he's done since "Diamonds From Sierra Leone." With lines like "peddling over the oven/we was like brothers then/though you was nothing other than the son of my mother's friend" Jay launches into a nostalgic "what went wrong?" reflection that is 10 times more effective than his similar efforts on "Lost Ones."

As for Nas, I think he actually gets the better of Jay here, in spite of the fact that the beginning of his verse is interrupted by that stupid "play it back" gimmick (exhausted in 50 Cent's "I'm an Animal"). He is razor sharp here, layering hood critiques with bravado and mixing it with the same autobiographical flavor that Jay-Z lends to his verse. When Nas spits out the lines "I'm standing on the roof of my building/a feeling/a whirlwind of beef I'm inhaling/just like an acrobat ready to hurl myself through the hoops and fires/sippin' 80 proof, bulletproof under my attire" you have to resist the urge to hit rewind before the song is even over.

The Score: 10/10.

Where Y'all At. For years rappers have been sampling lyrics from other rap songs and using them as choruses in new tracks, but you don't often find a rapper borrowing from his own material. And you almost never find a rapper building a new chorus by sampling from one of his old choruses. Nas and producer Salaam Remi do so here and the net effect is extremely positive. Borrowing the "Where them gangstas at, where them dimes at" from there God's Son collaboration "Made You Look," Nas and Remi create a very layered effect with this one.

The sampled chorus introduces the song and is played at low levels, as if to alert the listener that this is old Nas, not new Nas. It is not unlike a film in which a flashback scene is done in a different color scheme, thus providing a visual clue without bludgeoning the viewer over the head with text. The combination of the chorus-sampled-for-the-chorus intricacy and the lower decibel level creates a very subtle chorus that works perfectly as a bridge from one understated-but-deadly verse to another.

I'm not sure if Nas has ever been better lyrically than he is on this song. He is packing so much imagery into such small spaces that it honestly takes multiple listens to absorb what is going on. Not only that, but his dexterity is highly advanced here, chopping up syllables and creating multiple rhyming schemes within the same lines in a way that harkens back to an up-and-coming Eminem. It's hard to find rhyming that comes better than "Fought through with Diesel jeans/lethal green/Oliver People shades when I creep through Queens/with no AK's/I'm the ambassador/Robin Hood in the Aston Mar/lotta blood gonna splash in War."

The track isn't big and explosive, but this is as hard as it gets. In the "who is the best rapper alive" debates, I've always taken Jay-Z, but this one made me look at Nas in a new light. (Pun totally intended.)

The Score: 10/10.

The following songs have been leaked in recent weeks but don't show up on the track listings floating around for Hip-Hop is Dead. So I'm not sure what to make of them, but I'll review them anyway.

Blood Diamonds. In case you missed it, conflict diamonds have become a pretty hot topic these days and hip-hop has been at the forefront of the issue. Given the importance of jewelry in hip-hop culture, it is natural that the controversy surrounding the illicit diamond trades of Western Africa would reach rap music. Lupe Fiasco kicked the whole thing off with his song "Conflict Diamonds," which spun the beat from Kanye West's celebration of all things diamonds into a scathing social commentary. Kanye ran with the idea and the result was the aforementioned "Diamonds From Sierra Leone." Now Nas is in the mix in a huge way. He's rumored to be finishing up the score for Blood Diamonds, the new Leo DiCaprio Oscar vehicle dealing with conflict diamonds. The soundtrack/score for that film may be where we ultimately find this song, as most of the track listings I've seen for Hip-Hop is Dead do not include "Blood Diamonds."

Entertainment Weekly ran an interesting article about conflict diamonds and whether a large enough American audience exists that even cares about this issue enough to support a major feature film. I have no idea whether such an audience exists or not, but there seems to be no debating the relevance of the topic in hip-hop circles and I applaud Nas for getting involved on multiple levels. That said, this song isn't that great. Like "Black Presidents," this track is making its first appearance on the seminal mixtape East Coast Slang: The Sun Still Rises in the East, but unlike the former cut, this one doesn't stand out among the host of tracks from Jay-Z, the Clipse, and various New York artists.

The beat has the racing, cinematic feel of movie music and I have no doubt that we will find a breathtaking chase scene in the film, accompanied by this track. In that way, it feels more like a movie score than part of a highly anticipated rap album. More importantly, the music doesn't fit Nas' style very well. He feels a step behind the rapid fire drums and rocketing violins and while the message is a good one (although taking more of a preachy tone than Lupe's version), it is a strain to take it all in. And the chorus is just a disaster - so simplistic it comes off as lazy. I like the thought here, but unlike birthday gifts, it's not just the thought that counts. Fortunately, I think this will be wind up on the Blood Diamonds soundtrack and not on Nas' new album.

The Score: 7/10.

The N. This is your classic "I'm here now" brag track. From lines like "Dior, Christian pimpin'" right down to the generic horns-and-synths "monster" beat, everything about this song feels like everything we've heard a million times already, including from Nas.

That said, it is still Nas and when he's on, he does almost any kind of rap song better than almost anyone else. So when he brags about his vintage Gucci frames or threatens to come with "a hundred guns" or to "grab your only son," it still sounds fresh and intense.

My only real problem with this song is that he claims to have an "offensive" chain as part of his treasure trove of material goods, which is all well and good, except that he just chastised the general population for making jewelry stores crowded during Christmas season. Now, I realize that hip-hop is filled with such contradictions and it seems possible that that this song won't ever wind up on an album with "Blood Diamonds," but when I only have five new Nas tracks to listen to, I could go without the 180 degree about-face rhymes.

In the end, Nas blazes this, but the combination of hypocrisy and redundancy (the more I think about it this is just another "Hate Me Now") is too much to overcome. The only question is whether this will be on Hip-Hop is Dead. XXL's listed this as a single from the album, but none of the recent track listings make any mention of it. Ah, the mystery.

The Score: 7/10

Overall, these five tracks have gravitated toward both ends of the spectrum for me. "Where Y'All At" and "Black Presidents" are two of my favorite hip-hop songs from the entire year, while "Blood Diamonds" and "The N" just didn't really do it for me. Only "Hip-Hop is Dead" landed in the middle. At that rate, the worst case scenario is that I'm going love about six songs from Hip-Hop is Dead, hate five of them, and be on the fence for the other three. I can absolutely live with that.

Even better is the possibility that the three best tracks are the only ones that will be on the actual album and that we are headed toward a work of true genius. Stay tuned.

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