Allow this critic to be unprofessional for a brief moment and sway towards a more personal approach to Stillmatic. This is the sixth time I have tried to write this review. The first draft I wrote was lost as a blackout hit Toronto and, unfortunately, Windows notepad does not have any backup features (surprise surprise). The second, third, and fourth times were basically the same: write a simple track-by-track breakdown. The fifth time was a half-assed attempt caused by a week of staying up every damn night just to listen to this album. (I would sleep at 3:00 in the morning listening to this shit.) I realized, however, that this was not good enough for an artist of Nas' caliber. How could I put Nas into a proper context for any new listeners while not being a long-winded asshole to his core audience? Hell, to even attempt to breakdown Nas' career in one or two paragraphs is impossible since glaring omissions would be made. Combine that with talking about how this is Nas' make-or-break record and I ended up writing an introduction that was eight damn paragraphs—and when Hugo assigned this to me A WEEK AND A HALF AGO, I told him that it would be longer than usual; yet, he had no problem with it since even he acknowledged that I was the only man capable of analyzing the album properly. From my early '97 days spent at various websites, I (and I don't want to sound like an ass here) was considered the number one source for information pertaining to Nasir Bin Olu Dara Jones—in other words, I am Nas' bitch named Stan.
I am way past my deadline, by the way, but do you know why? Because Stillmatic is simply stunning. Every time I tried to sit down and write I would end up hypnotized listening to the whole album from track 1-15 (well, 11 I'd skip, but we'll get to that). I remember Thursday morning I woke up early to finish the review, but as soon as I played the Intro I was in a sonic stupor. I remember when I first heard Common's "I Used To Love H.E.R" or the fabled Illmatic something told me that these pieces of art were just that, art. I remember sending mass e-mails / messages to everybody in my address book, telling them to BUY (not download) Stillmatic or I would kick their asses. I remember hearing this album for the first time just one day before I turned 19 and from that point on to today, the number of mental notes I made regarding this aspect or that aspect or whatever aspect were lost. There. Is. No. Way. To. Review. Stillmatic. In. Less. Than. Two. Pages.
So, with that out of my system, here goes the sixth attempt: obviously, you have all figured out by now that I approve of this album. Of course, I am a die-hard Nas fan, so the initial public reaction may be that I am simply biased. No. This is in fact his most accessible (and don't confuse that with commercial) album ever made. If you liked [insert any Nas album here], you'll like this. 'Stillmatic' combines the best elements from each of his past records to do so. The heartfelt soul of 'Illmatic' that has been lacking from his other material makes it here. Nas' flawless delivery from 'It Was Written' & 'The Firm' makes it here. The autobiographical remnants of 'I Am'(promo) make it here. The diversity of 'I Am' makes it here. The articulate thug manner of 'Nastradamus' (or as I usually call it, Nastradumbass) makes it here. The introspective regrets of 'QB Finest' make it here. The ferocity of his guest-appearances makes it here. And even the quality of his unreleased mixtape cuts make it here. So, with that out of my system, let me break down every track:
1. Stillmatic Intro
What can be said about this? A multitude of positive adjectives could be listed here and they would all be correct. Nas tells us in the beginning what he now stands for as he has the "blood of a slave" and "heart of a king." He follows with a long-ass verse and a Y2K+1 delivery/flow that he does not regularly display. There are too many quotables. As for the beat? It fits the lyrics perfectly as it properly opens the album. Honestly, I know this breakdown is not too deep, but it is one of those few rare cases when a track simply speaks for itself and anyone in their right mind (regardless of region) would give this a perfect 10. Anything less would be uncivilized.
For the first time in his career, Nas has shown that he can battle. Yea, he always had a subliminal line or two whether directed at Cormega or Jigga, but this is the first time Nas has went all out (H to the Izzo, M to the Izzo is pale compared to this jawn) on a foe. From pulling Jigga's card about dickriding B.I.G to his resemblance to Joe Camel, Nas gets pretty personal. He imitates Beanie Sigel's flow ("feel this hot rock fellas / put you in a dry spot fellas, etc..."), flips Jayhova's chorus from Takeover, and even samples the venom-filled rantings of 2pac going "FUCK JAY-Z." The beat on this does not compare to the Intro, but it is not horrible; instead, it allows Nas to shine and tear Jigga a second asshole. Probably the most discussed about track on the album, Ether is an overall 9/10 as even Beanie Sigel admitted to bumping this shit in his ride.
3. Got Yourself A...
Nas has been wising up lately, making this the perfect choice for a single. Taking advantage of the recent popularity of The Sopranos, Nas borrows the theme for the hook as it is a banger. This single serves two purposes: a) of course, to feed his hungry loyal fans, but b) to also introduce new listeners to his music. He puts himself into a proper historical context for any teeny bopping females when he starts off with "My first album had no famous guest appearances / the outcome? I'm crowned the best lyricist," which dismisses any valley girl notions that Nas is a new player in the game. The beat is Dre-like (but not produced by Dre), which will of course draw in the west coast fans; also, the beat is oddly Alchemist-like, which will also beckon fans of the underground. For the first time since "Nas Is Like," Nas has decided not to dumb-down his lyrics for a single to appeal to the masses. Lyrically this has everything Nas represents: autobiographical bravado combined with pro-African poetics. In the context of a single, this is a 9/10.
Although this song does not live up to the rest of the album, it is 'Stillmatic.' This can be compared to the best tracks that the streetwise 'Nastradamus' made, but with an 'It Was Written' flow. Laid-back, Nas is autobiographical as well as he reminisces on when the world believed that he "Walked on water, talked to the heavens, spit on judges, stepped on peasants, but in reality [he] just entered the galaxy September '73." With a catchy hook, Nas represents every urban dweller who takes the pledge of allegiance: "I shall stay real, stay true, stay holding figures / Never put a bitch over my niggas / I shall never co-operate with the law / Never snake me, I'll always hold you down in war / If they take one of ours, we'll take one of theirs / I'll never break this oath, to the death, I swear." This would be an excellent choice for a second single, but in a remixed form. This track would be a 9/10 if it weren't for Nas singing at the end. So, an 8/10.
5. You're The Man
A fan favourite, this leaked track was originally thought to be produced by DJ Premier. In reality, it is Large Professor who supplies the calm violins and vocal sample. This is like the Intro in the sense that it speaks for itself. The only complaint that people have made is that the 2nd verse is shorter than the version on the mixtape circuit. Regardless, the lyrics and beat are straight fire as Nas and an Illmatic producer reunite. An undeniable 10/10.
In what is perhaps one of the most innovative tracks of '01, Nas tells a story backwards. Although the plot itself is basic, the way that Nas handles it makes it more complex—just enough so that the general public can understand it. The beat is not as insane as the other tracks on this album (which is surprising, since it is provided by Large Professor) but it is interesting the way LP mixes it. When Nas is narrating from the present to past, the beat goes backwards. In addition, humorous lines like "I told her 'no hell,' she's talking about 'me kiss' / bobbed her head then spit a nut back in my dick" make this track a welcome change of pace to the album. A solid 8/10.
7. One Mic
A perfect song. That is all....
Just kidding, yeah, it's perfect. But, let me explain: the emotion displayed on this track will dead any comments from Cormega about Nas having a one-dimensional flow. Nas basically adjusts his voice to his emotions as he painfully begs, "Hoodrats, don't abortion your womb / we need more warriors soon / Sent from the stars, sun, and the moon," while quietly praying to God to "Forgive [him] for one sin; matter of fact, maybe more than one." Finally, in the end, Nas confirms for us what he makes apparent with the rest of the album: "I'm on the right-track, I'm finally found." (note from fen #1: when I first heard this I almost literally blacked out since I did not breath at all from listening to the whole song the first time. There also have been reports of this song almost causing car accidents, so skip this if you're driving. And no, I'm not kidding. 10/10.
8. 2nd Childhood
Nas with DJ Premier... need I say more? I won't have to comment on anything beatwise since it's a given. Lyrically, Nas revisits his past in the first verse as he remembers times when his "thoughts were drunken from quarts of beer" and seeing "Geronimo police jumping out of Chryslers." This also reminds me of the third verse of 'Represent' when he alludes to chilling with his boys on the corners. What I have always found remarkable about Nas was his ability to make social commentaries through stories, instead of simply laying it out on the table (although he will flawlessly do this on "Poison"). Case-in-point is the second verse which documents the life of an ex-convict who refuses to grow up and thus fails in this society, which ironically failed him since "Teachers never cared; they was paid just to show up and leave, no one succeeds." The third verse is linked to the second as Nas describes the life of a black girl who pops e pills instead of taking care of her son, who will end up just like the ex-convict: "Her kid suffers, he don't get the love he deserves / he's the son(sun), she's the earth / single mom, even worse." What also is impressive is that this is not your regular run-of-the-mill Chris Martin track, like 'Nas Is Like' or Royce's 'Boom.' An undeniable 10/10
9. Destroy & Rebuild
A remake of 'The Bridge Is Over.' Yeah, that's right, 'The Bridge Is Over.' Who would have thought? Nas, major representative of Queens, dissing his own turf... But, this track works on so many complex levels that it is made subtle. First, Nas manages to pay homage to Slick Rick by using the same childlike schizophrenic-punch-in flow that made The Ruler famous. Next, borrowing the hook of 'The Bridge Is Over,' Nas flips it in an original manner that manages to get his point across: "The Bridge is over, the Bridge is over; nah, this is the time we destroy and rebuild it." In addition, the playful charisma Nas exhibits just mocks Cormega, Prodigy, and Nature that it forces the listener to laugh along with the brother; anybody who can make something like getting shot in the thigh (referring to Cormega) comedic is a genius. Another angle that powers this song is Nas' self-realization that his best strength is in story-telling so he chooses to use 'Mega, P, and Nature as characters in this devastating attack as "Nas saves his 'hood from the most cowardest rappers." The simple shock value of Nas dissing his former boy P (well, who isn't shitting on him nowadays anyway?), finally getting back at Cormega for all the years of dissing, and addressing Nature's unwillingness to enter the game without Nas' help was completely unexpected. The last nail in the coffin is Nas' vicious ranting towards the three at the end of the song. Definitely a 10/10.
10. The Flyest (featuring AZ)
Ah, 'Life's A Bitch' pt. 2? Yes and no. It indeed serves as a sequel in the sense that it reunites L.E.S, Nas, and AZ, but all three are now 'Stillmatic.' 'Life's A Bitch' featured two MCs and a producer struggling on their knees who got high because they never knew when they were going to go. Fortunately, things have made a positive turn as Nas & AZ are successful and instead flow about what they've accomplished. The beat here is surprisingly excellent (and don't front, Life's A Bitch was one of the mediocre beats of Illmatic) for L.E.S and although AZ doesn't drop anything deep, his chemistry with Nas is apparent. AZ drops the first verse, Nas drops the second, and the third sees them flowing line for line. If only Nas were more focused lyrically on this track (relatively to the rest of the album) the rating would be higher. 8/10.
11. Braveheart Party (featuring The Bravehearts)
I'm not going to deny it—this track should not be here. Nas, why you using Swizz? Dude, you would have been better off using the money for another Primo or LP track. No doubt your verse is dope, but why you gotta put The Bravehearts on here also? You've put them on enough times in the past. I wouldn't be this critical if you hit us off with another banger like 'Oochie Wally,' but you didn't. Even Mary J. Blige can't save this track. Honestly, you're hurting yourself more by including this. It's alright though, you've minimized your mistakes so I can't be mad. 4/10.
I have mixed feelings about this track. First of all, it's produced by The Trackmasters—and that's not a bad thing, considering that the best tracks on 'It Was Written' were contributed by them. But, this is a blatant attempt to recreate the magic of "If I Ruled The World" with a sub-par beat. On the other hand, it's a wise business move in light of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. But... the beat was not flipped properly and is on the edge of corny with some we-are-the-world-so-everybody-hold-hands shit. Nas is known for his complex analysis of world issues, so one just wonders what he was thinking when he was writing this. The flow is phenomenal, however, and some lines do stand out like "Confronted with racism, I started to feel foreign / like the darker you are the more realer your problems." 7/10.
13. My Country (featuring Nashawn)
One of my personal favourites, the concept behind 'My Country' is just insane. In this track, Nas plays the role of a prison inmate thinking to himself on a bus to Riker's Island (that's a prison if you don't know); Nashawn raps from the perspective of a soldier fighting a war for the U.S. Both pull it off brilliantly (although, of course, Nashawn can't hold a candle to Nas) as they are disenfranchised by the place that America has for African Americans. Nas begins, "It's packed on this Riker's bus / the tightest 'cuffs / is holding me shackled: / the life of a thug / caught in a devil's lasso." He continues to reminisce on his life in the streets and how the white world left his parents to die and thus forced him to a life of crime so he could support his family. Nas' second verse continues the theme as he is behind prison walls with a pen and a pad writing a letter to the warden. I felt the chorus and Nas' singing, but I do know the popular vote is that Nas should not have sung this chorus... so, although I personally would give it a 10/10, I would have to give it a 9.
14. What Goes Around
I don't think anyone can deny the greatness of Poison. Here, Nas captures the socially-responsible lamentations of Chuck D and lists everything he considers poison. No one is safe as he targets Tiger Woods, the healthcare system, the emergence of ecstasy, the school system, religion (in general) that "misoverstood," radio, white Jesus, television, fast food, etc. He revisits the plight of "Black Girl Lost," as he describes an ultimatum that many African American females are faced with: "Sisters up in my hood / try to do good, / given choices, / were pregnant, drop out of school or have abortions?" Not to mention his painful acknowledgement that caucasian attributes are the institutionalized standard for beauty. And that's only the first verse. The second verse details how "the Chinamen built the railroad, the Indians saved the Pilgrim / and in return the Pilgrim killed them" and how today's new breed of MCs are only concerned with misleading the youth so they can earn a pretty penny. The final verse has Nas in his flawless story-telling fashion as he shows how karma fucks with a nigga named Ike who infects women with herpes until he himself contracts AIDS. Finally, Nas informs us of how his music serves to criticize the white establishment: "WHAT IS DESTINED WILL BE / GEORGE BUSH KILLER UNTIL GEORGE BUSH KILL ME." A perfect way to end the album and thus a 10/10.
This begs the question, then, "is this a classic?" I would say so, but it is not a masterpiece. With tracks like "Braveheart Party," "Rule," and the minor flaws, this album is not perfect. In addition, this album lacks a cohesive vision; there are a total of 13 (and that is not including the bonus tracks) producers on this album, plus the reported tracks with Alchemist, Pete Rock, and Dr. Dre. What made 'It Was Written' a masterpiece was its ongoing theme and vision of the producers. 'Stillmatic' comes of as a compilation of Nas songs, instead of a real album. It is classic, however, in the sense of Ras Kass' 'Soul On Ice,' meaning, that it is a landmark in hip-hop history; it proved that Nas is a top 5 artist to the doubting Thomases; its lyrical content is off the meter; its replay value is high as well; the execution of certain concepts on "My Country," and "Poison," is excellent; the diversity, etc. Basically, THIS IS NAS. What made 'Illmatic' special was that it captured 18-20 years of life in Queensbridge and allowed us to see the world through Nas' eyes. This time, Nas managed to capture his adolescence and see through his perspective. 'It Was Written' saw Nas at his finest lyrically, yet it was devoid of any soul or sincerity. With 'I Am,' Nas was too concerned about living up to our expectations and remaking 'Illmatic.' 'Nastradamus' was a rushed effort even Nas admits. 'Stillmatic,' however, has the same starving artist we grew up to love return and create an album that represents every facet of his passions. Yes, at times Nas is a hypocrite here ("Poison" and "Braveheart Party" on the same album? ugh), but it is inevitable since we all have the ying/yang forces within us, and for the first time in Nas' career, he chose to simply hang himself on the wall for us to witness his imperfections. This is the new Nas, the one who has found himself as an artist; maybe that accounts for the change in album covers? Perhaps Nas chose to discard his past with 'Illmatic' and begin anew; ironically, his attempt to separate himself from Illmatic has brought him closer to it. And anyone who denies that is living in their '2nd Childhood.'