Thursday, August 15, 2013

Nas Is Essentially Like...

I haven't blogged enough about Nas, so this upcoming release is perfect. Not just for that reason, but because, well, look. Like every hip-hop head on the planet, I'm a big fan of Illmatic. And then I got It Was Written, and it was disappointing in points, but... Hey, you don't need me to explain to you the up and down history of Nas's post-Illmatic career. And honestly, one of the reasons I don't write so much about Nas is that I have the most common, least controversial opinions of his output. I mostly stopped getting his albums in favor of just getting the hotter 12" singles, cherry-picking individual songs I liked online, or at least waiting until I could get stuff like the 2LP of I Am for 99 cents.

So when I saw this album: The Essential Nas from Legacy Recordings (it comes out next week), my first thought was the obvious. "So, it's Illmatic with a couple bonus tracks?" Nyuck, nyuck. But honestly, Nas is an artist who'd benefit from a "Greatest Hits" compilation like no other. Distilling his later albums to just the few best tracks each and putting them all together actually adds up to a pretty great reminder of why he's hung in there all these years and  why we should really appreciate that.

Now, he's had a couple greatest hits albums already: Not including mixCDs, bootlegs and little vinyl EPs, he's had The Best of Nas in 2002 and Greatest Hits in 2007. But this is the best and most definitive. It certainly helps that this is a 2 disc set, so it has the room to dig a little deeper than those more superficial outings.

It's got some pretty extensive liner notes by Gabriel Alvarez, which is refreshingly honest at points, with lines like, "that murky period between his second album and Nastradamus," which you wouldn't expect to see a major label admit to on their own product. Of course, they then goes on to defend it and blame an excessive amount of blame for the lack of critical and commercial success on bootleggers. But still, it's a good, intelligent read and shows that some effort was put into making this an all around quality release.

But of course, a compilation like this all eventually boils down to: what songs did they pick? Well, I'm happy to report that it doesn't feel Illmatic top-heavy, nor does it feel neglected. The selections are pretty smart, and well-coordinated with the liner notes (Alvarez mentions "Black Zombies" and "Doo Rags" as personal highlights from Lost Tapes, and they're both on here). Remember how Nas leaked the awesome comeback track "Nasty" for Life Is Good, with an official video and everything, and then left it off the final album? Of course you do, we all do. Well, this album opens with "Nasty."  And the only other Life Is Good selection is the Large Professor No ID-produced banger, "Loco-Motive." So obviously this track-listing was put together by a real head, instead of a panel of studio executives.

Don't get it twisted, though. "Oochie Wally" is still on here. It's not some kind of "strictly the real" themed project. And some of the songs, like the aforementioned "Black Zombies" are compellingly written songs on Nas's art, but come up short in the production end, and wind up being not the greatest songs overall. Sure, we all like "Nastradamus," but mostly just because it's an EPMD beat jack; I'm not sure it deserves to have been lifted out of its original album to be preserved here. And it's crazy that his beloved Lauryn Hill duet "If I Ruled the World" isn't on here, in favor of... "Just a Moment" featuring Quan? Really? But okay; I realize it's impossible to make an album like this that won't have listeners questioning the choices.

A greater weakness is that, except for "Nasty," this album seems limited to just the album cuts off his LPs. Side projects like Distant Relatives or The Firm aren't represented at all (on second thought, maybe that's for the best), and there's no 12" remixes or B-sides included. Most harmful is that it means no guest spots.  No "Live At the Barbecue," no "Fast Life" with G Rap, and once again, another opportunity has been missed to include the original "On the Real." I realize it probably would've meant spending a little money to license those cuts, but that's what ends up hurting this comp the most... some of his guest spots are unquestionably among his greatest hits, and this double disc set definitely has some soft tracks on here I'd love to trade for his nest work on other rappers' projects. Admittedly, I do kinda like "Hate Me Now" with Puffy, but compared to his Main Source debut? Come on.

So, no, it's not perfect. And no, there's no vinyl version. ...Though there is a clean CD version, for the unlucky offspring of strict parents.  hehe  But it's still a great way to deal with his catalog of albums overstuffed with filler and sometimes corny production. And what's more, it effectively shows how Nas is still a killer MC to reckon with and always has been... even during that murky period.