Ill At Ease

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Following up such an impressive disc wasn't easy, but Nas did a more than credible job with 1996's It Was Written, a strong collection that even spawned a hit single, "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)," featuring the dulcet tones of future Grammy darling Lauryn Hill. Flush with success, Nas next jumped into The Firm, a hip-hop supergroup supervised by production mastermind Dr. Dre that sported contributions from AZ, Foxy Brown and plenty of other name talents. Those involved were apparently unaware that there had been another Firm during the mid-'80s--an all-star rock conglomeration led by Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and Bad Company's Paul Rodgers that brought shame upon all involved. And as it turned out, 1997's The Firm: The Album had the same effect on its participants--particularly Nas, who reimagined himself as Nas Escobar, a smooth felon from the Godfather school of organized crime who wasn't nearly as interesting as the man himself.

Contrary to the view of rap revisionists, neither I Am... nor Nastradamus is a disaster; each has its share of worthy songs. But the albums suffer from being too messianic and from a certain failure of imagination epitomized by "Hate Me Now." The tune got oodles of press when its co-star, the ubiquitous Sean "Puff Daddy"/"P. Diddy" Combs, demonstrated how upset he was at being shown nailed to a cross in the "Hate Me Now" video by assaulting a record-company exec. But despite its notoriety, the number was crass and stupid, bringing out the worst in Nas.

The title of Stillmatic can be read as defensive; it may be Nas' way of insisting that he's still as good as he was during his Illmatic days. But the cover photo, which pictures him as an old-school B-boy, suggests a return to his roots, and so does the presence of two Large Professor-helmed offerings, "You're Da Man" and "Rewind." The lyrics of the latter are also a good sign, in that they're structured in an ambitious manner: The action takes place in reverse chronological order ("The bullet goes back in the gun/The bullet hole's closin' this chest of a nigga/Now he's back to square one"). The method can't help but recall the movie Memento, but Nas hasn't seen the flick. "I came up with that on my own," he says.

The most intricate effort, though, is the album-closing "What Goes Around," which finds Nas turning his verbal guns on elements of society that he sees as exterminating his people, including "radio and TV poison" and "white Jesus poison."

"There's a lot of lies capping into the media and through the TV," he says. "There's a lot of lies even in religion if you really go back to what's happened through years and years and years. Now it's more of a mind game. I don't think there's a lot of pure people who really love God. I don't think Jesus was a Christian, and I don't think Jesus was white.

"I won't say that they're lying intentionally," he goes on. "They're just representing for who they see Him as. But it's still poison. You don't know certain things aren't good for you until you wind up dead--you know what I'm saying? And some people don't know that you need to look at things from more than one angle."

He advises U.S. citizens to take this same approach to their president, whom he name-checks near the conclusion of "What Goes Around": "George Bush killer 'til George Bush kills me." In a post-9/11 world, such comments probably make suits at major labels nervous, but Nas says no one at Columbia tried to muzzle him.

"They didn't do that, because it was just me having my freedom of speech," he says, "and really, me voicing my opinions about him being a murderer. If I feel like he's a murderer, he's a murderer, and he needs to talk to the common people and give us some understanding on why there's so much murder and death--with him frying people in Texas up to slaughtering people in Third World or foreign countries over things that aren't clear to us over here."

This comment implies that Nas isn't convinced that terrorists directed from Afghanistan were responsible for the destruction of the World Trade Center. But when invited to elaborate, he takes a half-step backward. "In a nutshell, I just think that there's a whole lot going on that the American public doesn't even understand, isn't ready to understand and has no idea about." He adds, "I think people want to know the truth, but everybody's scared of total reality. If we really had an idea of what's going on in this world, well, phew--you know?"

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Michael Roberts
Contact: Michael Roberts