Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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  • Illmatic [Columbia, 1994] A-
  • It Was Written [Columbia, 1996] Neither
  • I Am . . . [Columbia, 1999] B-
  • Nastrademus [Columbia, 1999] Neither
  • Stillmatic [Columbia, 2001] Dud
  • The Lost Tapes [Columbia, 2002] B+
  • God's Son [Columbia, 2002] ***
  • Street's Disciple [Columbia, 2004] A-
  • Hip Hop Is Dead [Def Jam, 2006] A-
  • Untitled [Def Jam, 2008] A-
  • Life Is Good [Def Jam, 2012] ***
  • Nasir [G.O.O.D. Music EP, 2018] *
  • King's Disease [Mass Appeal, 2020] *
  • King's Disease II [Mass Appeal, 2021] B+

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Illmatic [Columbia, 1994]
In Mo' Meta Blues, Questlove describes "hip hop's funeral": the battle of the debuts at the Source Awards, when Biggie's Ready to Die buried Nas's Illmatic, already a critical and in-crowd legend, and he watched Nas "wilt in defeat" in the Tommy Hilfiger shirt his manager had just financed. Sez Quest to Black Thought: "He's never going to be the same. You just watch." And he was right. Nas immediately transformed himself into a hit-seeking faux gangsta of depressing conventionality and didn't make another good record for eight years. That still begs the question, however, of exactly how good this spartan effort was and is. Better than I thought at the time for sure--as happens with aesthetes sometimes, the purists heard subtleties principled vulgarians like me were disinclined to enjoy, especially beatmaking where Large Professor along with such fellow New York smoothies as Pete Rock, Q-Tip, and the great Premier convert samples into haunting looped groove elements. Also enjoyable is Nas's ability to transform simple lines like "I never sleep because sleep is the cousin of death," "I'm out for presidents to represent me," "The world is yours," and even "One love, one love" into de facto hooks. And my mind tells me that I have to admire how cagily he walks the line between doing the crime and hanging with homies for whom nothing else is "real" even if my heart isn't in it. All that said, however, Ready to Die still gets my vote. A-

It Was Written [Columbia, 1996] Neither

I Am . . . [Columbia, 1999]
Nas covers his ahzz. If in one song he's "wetting" (lovely word) "any nigga" (another) his fellow playa Scarface doesn't like, in another he's fomenting revolution: "Combine all the cliques and make one gang." Yeah sure. The question is how convincing he is, and only two themes ring true: the bad ones, revenge and money. His idea of narrative detail is to drop brand names like Bret Easton Ellis; his idea of morality is everybody dies. Ghostface Killah's "Wildflower" is far more brutal than the she-cheated-while-I-was-playin "Undying Love," and far less bloody; Biggie's "Playa Hater" is far more brutal than the Wu-Puff cameo "Hate Me Now," and far more humorous. Blame his confusion and bad faith on a conscience that's bothered him ever since he bought into the Suge Knight ethos. I've never met a ho in my life. This kind of sellout starts with a "W." B-

Nastrademus [Columbia, 1999] Neither

Stillmatic [Columbia, 2001] Dud

The Lost Tapes [Columbia, 2002]
Remember that posthumous outtakes CD Bad Boy attributed to Biggie? No? Good then--it was foul, not just ill shit but stupid ill shit. These finalized versions of tracks fans have long bootlegged is the opposite. Where the ex-dealer thought it wise to conceal his brutishness, the fake thug thought it wise to conceal his sensitivity. Surrounding outtakes that were just outtakes is back-in-the-day recommended to Tim and Missy (even has some pronunciation in it) and four autobiographical pieces. The two about his parents are juicier than the mother love gushing from God's Son. The Afrocentric pep song is so much deeper than the mawkish, misinformed new "I Can" that you believe he might yet get politics. And "Drunk by Myself" describes his alcoholism. Pass what Courvoisier? B+

God's Son [Columbia, 2002]
confessions of a mama's boy, tales of a hustler, lies of a mortal man ("Book of Rhymes," "Get Down") ***

Street's Disciple [Columbia, 2004]
Its double-CD sprawl is ambitious not hubristic, imposing not indigestible--squeezes onto a C-90. There's devil and Jesus-killer obscurity up front, electoral asininity later, but in general Nas finally seems comfortable with his (black) humanity. He's responsible, thoughtful, and compassionate, never mealymouthed, so that his political misprisions and retrospective sex boasts function like Eminem's latest sound effects--they keep him incorrect. If this means "Prescott Bush funded Hitler" is ignored on the op-ed page, Nas is barred from that realm anyway, and the information certainly does his faithful more good than, for instance, the distracting fantasy that Prescott's heir planned 9/11. The shout-outs to Bojangles Robinson, Stokely Carmichael, Redd Foxx, Fela, and Miriam Makeba are right on time. And when he and his pops get together on a blues, Muddy Waters is in the house. A-

Hip Hop Is Dead [Def Jam, 2006]
I wouldn't take him at his word--especially when he says he's not going back to a street life there's no evidence he ever had knocked in the first place--and I doubt he knows as much as claimed about the perks of his Escobar hustle: "watchin' fly bitches with grey eyes wrestle in a tub of KY," escaping a shoot-out with his milkshake wife, etc. The fun comes easier when he fools around with the title conceit, and even sometimes when he thinks about it. Rhyming "orange" with "showin'" and "pawn it," rapping in fake Bogie, playing the "black militant" to his former adversary and current sponsor's "black Republican," naming so many lost rappers I needed a hankie (Special Ed! Tim Dog! Fu-Schnickens! Shante!), he wants us to know he's an old-school MF who can afford efficiently state-of-the-art beats. Big worry: "Can't sound smart 'cause you'll run away." What to do, what to do? A-

Untitled [Def Jam, 2008]
Between warning Barack Obama not to say out loud what most black voters believe about fatherhood and warning Nasir Jones not to name his new album after the turned derogatory that was an African-American commonplace long before the gangsta rap Nas has been transfiguring since Illmatic, Jesse Jackson has clearly lost it. This album would have been so much more coherent if Nas could have entitled it something like, to cite a surviving song title, "N.I.*.*.E.R," and included a few of the related deletions available on the Green Lantern mixtape cited below. That's because, in the classic manner of turned derogatories, the "n.i.*.*.e.r" songs articulate the confusion and contradiction of a "revolutionary" whose historical analysis encompasses Orwell, Pushkin, Farrakhan, "The Matrix," the Masons, pale horseman William Cooper, Africans-discovered-America scholar Ivan van Sertima, a UFO he saw himself, "the ghetto where old black women talk about they sugar level," every luxury brand known to bling and "an elite group that runs everything"--the last of which, for the record, I half believe in myself. The beats beat Green Lantern's. And what the finale has to say about Obama is so sane I may just check out van Sertima myself. A-

Life Is Good [Def Jam, 2012]
Reflections of a bigshot who, as he mentions several times, is damn big ("Daughters," "Accident Murderers") ***

Nasir [G.O.O.D. Music EP, 2018]
Bringing the knowledge, mixing in the sophistry, and dropping a laugh line he knows the boss can't top: "Everybody's saying my humility's infectious," what a card ("Cops Shot the Kid," "Everything") *

King's Disease [Mass Appeal, 2020]
Showcasing the powers, pleasures, responsibilities, contradictions, and elephantiasis of *the ego that accrue to so many hip-hop tycoons ("Car #85," "10 Points") *

King's Disease II [Mass Appeal, 2021]
Many hip-hop fans of a certain age consider Nasir Jones's 1994 debut Illmatic hip-hop's greatest album, and for sure the Honorable Mention I gave it in 1994 was way low. There was a leanness to hisflow and timbre back then that the Pete Rock/Large Professor/Premier production honored and enhanced, and I admire how matter-of-factly unmoralistic lyrics from the Queensbridge Houses come to a proper climax with "Represent" and "It Ain't Hard to Tell." But that honest broker went what we'll call conscious gangsta with the thuggier I Am . . . and didn't regain his more humane voice until the mid 2000s trilogy Street's Disciple/Hip Hop Is Dead/Untitled--a voice that hasn't been approached again till this follow-up to its crasser namesake. I know I'm showing my age when I say EPMD, Lauryn Hill, and Eminem make it better and Lil Baby doesn't. But if you suspect I could be right let me remind you that backloading the humane stuff is an old hip-hop trick: "Composure," "My Bible," and "Nas Is Good" provide relief at the end. And oh yeah--the bottom falls out on the so-called Magic he released just four months later, summed up by this Insecure Verse: "You're top three, I'm number one, how could you say that?" B+