The new decade began inauspiciously for Nas. A born aesthete, Olu Dara’s seed still dreamed stubbornly that his fame and fortune might someday equal his legendary reputation, even as his foes used that rep to fix him as a timeworn relic of the pre-platinum era. Nas flossed in bad faith and sounded like he knew it. The dogged intricacy of his style simply could not meet the commercial demands for rhythmically agile nonchalance to which Jay-Z adjusted so easily. Fortunately, the grandstanding slow burn of “One Mic” indicated Nas’ possible acknowledgment of this limitation, and the goofy school assembly pep-talk “I Can” suggested a way of sidestepping the issue.
But you don’t have to prefer “Apache,” as looped by the underrated Salaam Remi on “Made You Look,” to “Für Elise” (though of course you do, right?) to prefer a meta-narrative slap in the face to dumb thugs to a promise that hard-working children will someday host talk shows. The real hook of “Made You Look” is a gunshot that sounds more like a starter pistol than a drive-by, and that figures: it’s a deliberately cheap attention-grabbing device meant to insult anyone who grows distracted when an MC waxes lyrical. Rather than arguing with suckers who claim he’s not authentically street enough, Nas flips the standard boast of keeping it real on its head–his rhymes are so pictorially intense they convince you they are reality.
By decade’s end, Nas was one of the few successful MCs whose engagement with the wider culture (i.e, anything outside of chart rap) energized his music. Too ethically confused to act as the conscience of hip-hop, he did make a reasonably sharp dutch uncle. His decade’s singles stack up well enough against Jigga’s, and his contradictions make for a more interesting artistic perspective than Jay’s view from on high. Sorry that things didn’t work out with Kelis, though, and I hope his overdue ChiSup is in the mail.