Nas has finally come full circle, from Way-Out Untouchable to Man of the People. Look at his cover shot: He’s the hopeful Jesus in the trenches — the savior before sacrifice — and the cockiness shows. Some songs on Street’s Disciple, like the stunning “Nazareth Savage” and the title track, don’t even need a hook — just a break-beat or a vocal sample. Others wouldn’t fit on any other Nas record: The chorus of “Disciple” is just as hardcore as the soon-to-be single’s, “Suicide Bounce.” There are old-school breaks like “U.B.R.” and “You Know My Style,” Tupac-era joints like “Remember the Times,” and new-school blips like “The Makings of a Perfect Bitch.” Street-level hip-hop from 1985 to 2005 is represented, and Nas does it well. A soon-to-be classic, this is the closest Nas will ever get to his unattainable Illmatic.
So, ten years after his legendary debut, where did all this come from? Nas has been clawing his way back to the top for three albums now, and the artistic evolution is obvious, even as the emcee has split into countless different alter-egos. The narrative Nas of “Rewind” and “Get Down” is here. “Sekou Story,” supplying two stellar beats, is better than either of its predecessors from earlier records. The personal Nas, who dominated The Lost Tapes, made God’s Son a near-classic with tracks like “Last Real Nigga Alive” and “Dance,” and gave us the dazzling single “One Mic,” is back, too. He shows up on the father-and-son, blues-tinged “Bridging the Gap” and the marriage fantasy “Getting Married.”
But in other areas, the areas Nas seems to care about the most, he’s stepped up his game markedly. The politics are stronger on Street’s Disciple than anywhere else, including the ferociously anti-American “My Country,” released on Stillmatic only a few months after Sept. 11, 2001, and the acceptable children’s anthem “I Can” from God’s Son.
“Coon Picnic (These are Our Heroes)” is the stand-out over the two-disc album. Nas calls out the supposed role models for black youth, including Kobe Bryant in an entire, wickedly on-point verse. At the end of the track, he calls out himself for turning his back on the streets while pretending he cares in songs: “I got a plane to catch, and I love ya back,” he tells his audience who calls for help. It’s a brilliantly complex song that underscores Nas’s understanding of the difficult position in which talented young black men find themselves in today’s America, something he’s struggled with his whole career. But the politics are just as complex on “American Way” and the down-tempo “Reason.” “Live Now” is moving and dark, and “Just a Moment” is a great thug-life song.
Out of twenty-five tracks and only two skits, maybe four don’t work the way they’re meant to. The above-mentioned “Getting Married” is one of the album’s remarkably few throwaway tracks, and “The Makings of the Perfect Bitch” (which can draw a direct line to that other album-ruining track “Hey Nas”) is the only track worth skipping. Which is to say, Nas has created that rare long hip-hop album that leaves you wanting more.
As two discs, Nas has essentially created two short albums instead of one long one, the best argument against the contention that double albums are never justified. It’s clear Nas didn’t do this simply because he could, and each song has its place whether you are fond of it or not. Oddly enough, the three singles — “You Know My Style,” “Bridging the Gap” and “Thief’s Theme” — have all been stuck at the back of the discs, despite their high quality. It makes me wonder if Nas was so cocky that he wanted to prove they were afterthoughts, totally independent of the brilliance of the album. (“Oh, you liked those three? Here are twenty more where they came from.”) Then again, he’s got every reason to be cocky: The best studio emcee alive has just released the best commercial hip-hop record of the year.