In light of Nas’ “Behind the Music” special and his recent string of stellar singles, Zilla Rocca breaks down the brilliance and maddening contradictions of the street’s disciple. You can check out Zilla’s own impeccably executed raps here.
If you’re reading this, your relationship with Nas has probably been bumpy over the years. You’ve made fun of him on Twitter. You’ve spent hours lamenting with your friends about what he is and isn’t doing. You’ve worn out 9th Wonder’s God’s Stepson and MF Doom’s Nastradoomus before you ever THOUGHT of digging up God’s Son and Nastradamus. You winced when you saw the $2.99 DVD copy of Ticker, starring Nas, Steven Segal, Tom Sizemore, and Dennis Hopper in the bargain bin at 7-11. You blogged like a madman when Nas signed to Hov’s Def Jam.
This is not how it was supposed to be.
Nas has failed. Alot. He doesn’t do what we want him to do. We get upset. He doesn’t care. That’s the definition of an artist — doing what you like and caring nothing of the outside world. No Twitter rants. No award show meltdowns. No plasma screens ripped off walls in meetings with Iovine. If it works for him, it might work for you. If not, he’ll see you in five years with another album. He doesn’t care.
“When you shoot your arrow-either it will hit the target or it will miss. Trust is knowing that there will be a message.” – Chogyam Trungpa, Shambala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior
When “Takeover” dropped eleven years ago, we conceded the crown to Jay. Hov was right — there was a spark when he started, but after Nastradamus….garbage. “Takeover” was the voice of the scorned Nas diehard. Along with being an industry peer, Jay was a Nas diehard. He was still bitter because Nas didn’t show up for a session for Reasonable Doubt way back when. Nas didn’t do what Jay wanted him to do.
Months slid off the calendar. Dirt was poured on Nas’ grave. And then he made the king bleed. “Ether” officially opened up hunting season on Jay-Z. Now, everyone, from elite rappers to mixtape vagabonds could get in on the action. The Hov Baiting Business was a-boomin’. It was quite a career accomplishment for Nas. He won because he was comfortable with his flaws, his inconsistencies, his failures. He acknowledged them, and then he dug into Shawn Carter’s insecurities. “You no mustache-having, with whiskers like a rat, compared to Beans you wack.” Before “Ether,” Jay was a kevlar bank and Nas cracked the safe. Going into the battle, Nas was the underdog. But we were mistaken. Nas is the strongest rapper of all time.
“The warrior of meek has abandoned gain, victory, and fame, leaving them far behind. You are not dependent on feedback from others, because you have no doubt about yourself. You do not rely on encouragement or discouragement; therefore, you also have no need to display your valor to others. Because you respect yourself, you do not have to depend on gain and victory. And because you trust yourself, it is unnecessary to be fearful of others. So the warrior of meek does not need to deviously trick others; therefore, his dignity is never diminished” – Chogyam Trungpa, “Shambala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior”
Nas has been a public figure for close to two decades and nothing sticks to him. There’s never been a more successful rapper who is so fearless. I want to be that fearless. I want that courage to do what is unpopular, and then come back razor sharp years later like nothing happened. Think about the kind of inner strength you need to pull that off. Think about how many times rap has changed just in the past 5 years, then look at how well Nas has found his footing in the arena right now. Yeah, he once rapped over a Chris Webbber beat. Yeah, he did a collabo album with Damien Marley before he banged out a full LP with DJ Premier or Large Pro or AZ. He doesn’t care. You can buy a million copies of Nastradamus or fifteen copies of Life is Good, and he will still do what he loves. That is strength. When you can embrace your worries, your conflicted views, your teachings, your instincts, your pride, your marital problems, your label situation, etc and not go crazy, you are a warrior.
“A warrior isn’t afraid to feel humility, pain, suffering, aggression, or gentleness. He doesn’t shy away from unpleasant experiences. He is comfortable with himself. He is comfortable with silence. The warrior’s journey is based on resting in the state of warriorship, rather than struggling to take the next step. The warrior experiences a sense of relaxing in his achievement, which is not based on ego-centered concerns but on resting in unconditional confidence, free from aggression. So the journey becomes like a flower unfolding — it is a natural process of expansion.” – Chogyam Trungpa, “Shambala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior”
This is Nas’ process. He is aging beautifully in rap. He’s not trying to be a kid or an old man clinging to an era that has ended. He isn’t associating himself with winning formulas or trends. A song like “Daughters” is a natural expansion of songs like “Bridging the Gap”, “Dance”, and even “One Love.” “Daughters” is full of so much humanity from the greatest writer in hip hop history. Humanity never gets old. It might not be “hot”, but “hot” fades. Ask the stockholders of G-Unit Clothing.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Nas recently and how it’s safe to say that since I’m closing in on 30, he’s hands down my favorite emcee. He’s the most relatable great rapper. I gain nothing from Corporate Rap — it’s fun to listen to. But Nas, like myself, is bad with money. He just told that to Complex in a cover story. I try to be responsible. I’ve worked every day since I was 14. I don’t have as much to show for it as other people I know. I’ve been lonely. I’ve been girl crazy. I’ve made some wack projects. I’ve had people take shots at me. I’ve been with girls who ripped out my heart. I’ve outgrown people. I’ve lost touch with close friends. I’ve gone stretches without making music or being face-heavy in the scene. I’ve had a lot of musical ideas and whims I don’t follow through with. Hell, I’m a Virgo too.
The point is, regardless of how Life is Good turns out, Nas is my guy. He’s not trying to protect a brand, or sponsors, or a corporate idea. He’s not making songs for the radio, and they’ll play “Daughters” anyway. His humanity is his greatest asset, and the older he gets, the more he has embraced it. Bumping Watch the Throne or any Maybach Music Compilation is fun as hell. But I’m not a mogul. I’m not a larger than life kingpin. I’m a guy who likes great writing. I’m a guy who wants to be comfortable with my successes and failures. I want to be like Nas.