By Noah Callahan-Bever
It’s an unfortunate truth, but greatness haunts the great. It has certainly haunted Nas, leaving him limp with performance anxiety in the late ’90s, only to resurrect him in the new millennium. It even haunted cool-ass Jay-Z on The Blueprint 2. (Pardon the comparison, but these two are linked for life, love it or hate it.) Jay had hot beats and predictably top-choice raps, but he didn’t have an overall purpose to the recordings, and his LP’s extended format served only to highlight this absence. And that confident but slightly complacent zone is exactly where Queensbridge’s greatest MC finds himself on his own double LP, Street’s Disciple. Unlike God’s Son—which was fueled by Nas’s need to prove a definitive victory over Jay and his desire to push the envelope musically—here Nas is on autopilot, churning out uniformly solid but unexceptional material.
In many ways, it’s a pleasure to hear the hot-and-cold MC find his sound, leading rather than following. Working almost exclusively with Salaam Remi and Chucky Thompson for production, Nas fleshes out the slick, suped-up breakbeats or formula that propelled “Made You Look” and “Get Down.” Tracks like “Something” exemplify this unity of vision as Nas examines the stresses shared by rich and poor, saying that his business managers scare the hell out of him every month when he sees the expenditures. With his beats in order, the burden falls squarely on Nas, an intelligent and thoughtful MC who can’t rely on shortcuts like Jay-Z’s understated charisma, the Notorious B.I.G.’s undeniable charm, or ’Pac’s raw passion. On “Serious,” his aptly titled collaboration with AZ, the two weave in and out of syncopated congas to present some of their most intricate wordplay to date. Over the sobering piano and simple stomp of “Not Going Back,” Nas reflects: “In reality, I learned my salary / The way I flaunted it then would now embarrass me / I hate bling, it’s a race thing….” Building on his recently successful experimentation with songs like “One Mic” and “Warrior Song,” Nas again takes one step to the left. He teams up with his father, jazzman Olu Dara, on “Bridging the Gap.” Here, Nas adds drum machine boom-bap to a traditional blues harmonica.
Meanwhile, the smooth George Bensoned–out “War” is perfectly suited for Nas’s astute observations of his rather pedestrian life. Unfortunately, the assembly line consistency of Street’s Disciple leaves no room for heart-to-heart exploration. God’s Son captured Nas grappling with his mother’s death on “Heaven” and “Dance”; The Lost Tapes found him contemplating the fate of black Americans on “Doo Rags” and “Black Zombie”. Street’s Disciple’s most personal tracks, however, are “Getting Married” and “Remember the Time.” The former is a narrative of a fictional memory of a marriage to fiancé Kelis, which has yet to take place. On the latter, he runs down his sexual exploits in graphic detail to his fiancé’s amusement. Neither song is a doozy, and neither gives the LP the weight needed to anchor its 20-plus tracks. Street’s Disciple proves that Nas has a clear vision for his music. But there’s an overwhelming routineness to the material, indicating the god body MC needs new challenges, enlightening experiences, and careful insights to inspire him. For better or for worse, greatness will always be Nas’s gift—and his curse.